Air Force units assist in search for adventurer Steve Fossett

Tech. Sgt. Anthony Church, 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron radar data analyst, analyzes raw radar data recorded over the Sierra Nevada to assist authorities in the rescue efforts for adventurer Steve Fossett Wednesday. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Clay Murray)

Tech. Sgt. Anthony Church, 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron radar data analyst, analyzes raw radar data recorded over the Sierra Nevada to assist authorities in the rescue efforts for adventurer Steve Fossett Wednesday. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Clay Murray)

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- Air Force members from around the United States scrambled early Tuesday to assist in locating billionaire adventurer Steve Fossett in the border area around Southwest Nevada and California.

The 1st Air Force Commander, Maj. Gen. Henry Morrow, the Inland Search and Rescue Coordinator is responsible for coordinating all federal inland commercial, military, and interstate aeronautical search and rescue in the contiguous U.S. using the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center located in the 601st Combined Air and Space Operations Center at Tyndall AFB, Fla.

"This search and rescue mission is a total team effort, as is every other SAR mission that goes on within the lower 48 states on a daily basis," said Lt. Col. Jed Hudson, the AFRCC commander. "Yesterday we had the Nevada Civil Air Patrol operating 12 light aircraft and California Civil Air Patrol flying 12 light aircraft under an AFRCC federal mission number."

On Tuesday, the California Reno-Stead Aviation Support Facility provided an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter and an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter to search teams while the California Air National Guard provided two C-130 Hercules aircraft operating under state mission numbers.

"Today we have Nevada Civil Air Patrol flying three light aircraft, California Civil Air Patrol flying approximately 12 light aircraft, Utah Civil Air Patrol flying one GA-8 Airvan light aircraft under federal mission numbers and the California Reno-Stead Aviation Support Facility providing one OH-58 Kiowa helicopter," said Colonel Hudson. "In addition the Nevada Air National Guard provided one C-130 Hercules and one HH-60 Pave Hawk operating under state mission numbers."

"Military assistance is ongoing," said Mr. John Henderson, the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron Operating Location chief at the Western Air Defense Sector at McChord Air Force Base, Wash. "Our unit is sifting through dozens of 'tracks of interest' to help rescue workers narrow down possible crash locations."

This morning, technicians at the 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron had narrowed the number of possible radar tracks likely belonging to Fossett's aircraft from the dozens of aircraft flying in the Sierra Nevada at the time to approximately 15.

The Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the Air Force which often assists in locating downed civilian aircraft, is working with other agencies to provide manpower, search aircraft and expertise in aircraft mishap rescues. Mr. Guy Loughridge, a Lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol and expert in analyzing radar data, also sorted through aircraft tracks with 84th RADES personnel.

"We could not have gotten such fidelity without the help of the Civil Air Patrol," said Mr. Henderson.

"The challenge for our techs is that aircraft operating under visual flight rules are not required to 'squawk' a discrete transponder code in the same way a civilian airliner would," explained Maj. Dean Williamson, operations officer at the 84th RADES. "Our technicians must then analyze raw radar data from numerous sites to deduce which pieces of data will be useful for rescuers."

Staffs at Western Air Defense Sector are continuing to refine the radar data provided to the AFRCC using specialized in-house developed software tools and even hand-sorting through tens of thousands of raw radar reports. These updated "tracks" are immediately sent across the country to the AFRCC to help narrow down where rescuers would likely locate a crash site.

"The remote location and mountainous terrain, where radar coverage is minimal, complicates the search efforts -- we're able to collect only intermittent radar data from this region -- it's an intensive effort to recreate possible flight paths for every aircraft operating in the vicinity," said Major Williamson.

The little-known Air Force unit, based here, has provided data to assist in more than 32 rescue efforts in 2007 and has been credited with helping to save the lives of two downed pilots so far this year. The primary mission of the 84th RADES is to evaluate and optimize military and government radar stations in the United States and in military operating locations around the world.

While performing their primary mission, radar data from monitored sites is continuously recorded by the 84th RADES in massive servers located at each of the three air defense sector facilities in Washington, New York, Alaska and at Hill AFB.

"It's an added benefit that the radar data collected by our team has other uses in addition to our optimization, upgrade and evaluation role," said Major Williamson. "The 84th RADES provides a unique service to our civilian partners such as the FAA and National Transportation Safety Board -- our unique ability to record, playback and analyze raw radar data enables us to provide rescue workers with the last known position of an aircraft so work can be focused on the most likely crash locations."

Through the National Track Analysis Program, civilian authorities provide 84th RADES personnel routes of flight information, times and other data for analysis during rescue operations. Staff members then comb through radar tracks gathered from across the country to narrow the search area as much as possible. Maps and coordinates are provided to rescue teams in easy-to-read formats such as common aircrew maps or in civilian programs such as Google Earth.

"It's a team of military active duty, Guard and Reserve members, Civil Air Patrol, FAA, local authorities and concerned citizens working together on this rescue ... collectively we're doing everything possible to locate Mr. Fossett quickly and safely," concluded Major Williamson.