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AFRCC continues Fossett search

Air Force Rescue Coordination Center Patch

Air Force Rescue Coordination Center Patch

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla -- The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center here continues to provide critical search and rescue (SAR) support in the multi-state effort to find adventurer Steve Fossett.

The extensive coordination and support effort includes: coordination with the Western Air Defense Sector at McChord AFB, Wash.; Nevada, California, Utah and Colorado Civil Air Patrols; Nevada and California Offices of Emergency Services; Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada; the Nevada Army and Air National Guard; Civil Air Patrol Headquarters at Maxwell AFB, Ga.

"Its unity of effort; you have state, local and federal resources coordinating to help find Mr. Fossett in a timely manner," said Lt Col Jed Hudson, AFRCC commander.

According to Mr. Justin Hynes, AFRCC watch supervisor, the effort began with an alert notice from the Federal Aviation Administration's Reno Flight Service Station on Sept. 3 at 3:40 p.m. They informed AFRCC controllers that tail number 240NR (Fossett's aircraft) was reported overdue.

"Immediately, we started coordinating for federal search and rescue assets available in the area. We use radar data, source leads and terrain information to coordinate grid searches," said Hynes. "The extent and length of time we spend on any area is based on the probability of success. High density terrain (mountains, wooded areas) is usually a key factor in prolonged search operations."

"With this tough terrain, it's like trying to find a needle in a haystack," said Hynes.

One method used to aid in the search for Fossett is radar forensics, or "data reduction," which is the analysis of raw radar data from around the U.S. This process compares radar data to radar hits from known aircraft operating under visual flight rules (VFR). These aircraft "squawk" either a unique ATC assigned code or a generic VFR code of 1200 on their transponder, an avionics device that ATC radar controllers use to follow the flight of aircraft in their area.

Had Fossett requested flight following, he would have been assigned a unique transponder code that would have made his flight track much easier to trace.

Once all known flight paths are removed from the radar data, the remaining radar "hits" are correlated for possible flight paths of unknown aircraft. "Historically, when radar forensics lead us to the last known position (LKP), we usually find the objective within 3 NM of that position," said Lt Col Hudson.

Another method of detecting aircraft in distress is through an onboard emergency locator transmitter (ELT), which is essentially a specialized radio beacon. According to Lt Col Hudson, special SAR equipment mounted on some NOAA weather satellites can "hear" these distress signals and transmit an approximate location to SAR controllers in the AFRCC.

Fossett's aircraft was equipped with a 121.5 MHz ELT that should automatically activate upon impact with the ground, but can manually be activated as well. It is notorious for transmitting false alerts and takes 2 or more satellite passes to correlate a possible location of a distressed aircraft. No ELT signal was ever received by AFRCC controllers.

The 406 MHz ELT, a new digital beacon containing a unique ID number is now commercially available. According to Mr. Hynes, improvements include location of 1-3 NM (2-5 km) accuracy on average, global coverage, instantaneous alert time, and a Doppler location from a single satellite pass. To include accuracy of less than 100 yards with GPS-equipped 406 MHz beacons.

On 1 February 2009, both the 121.5 and 243.0 MHz frequency will no longer be processed by the International Cospas-Sarsat Satellite System which provides distress alert and location data for search and rescue operations around the world.
Lt Col Hudson stressed that SAR efforts will continue despite the deactivation of the 121.5 and 243.0 signal.

"The bottom-line is, we will continue to coordinate the rescue of any known personnel in distress," Lt. Col. Hudson said.

Technical Sergeant Roberto Gerald, an AFRCC SAR controller, said that the AFRCC will continue its investigative work in coordination with the incident commanders on location.

"The situation remains as an active search mission and we are still investigating many leads," said TSgt Gerald. "Fossett's probability of survival is increased because of his survival experiences as an adventurer."

On any given day the AFRCC operates with one watch supervisor and three to four SAR controllers working 12 hour shifts, 24 hours a day, all year. Each controller may be handling up to seven or eight incidents and or missions at a time.