Lessons learned at the end
Situation: 3 boaters missing in vicinity of Pickwick Dam.
Search Area: Approx. 1 mile wide, 12 miles long. Flooded timber. Flooded and recently flood row crop fields and river bank.
Personnel: 3- Pilots; Kurt, Alan. Ground team; Mike
Made contact with authorities the night before, but we were unable to get a firm answer on whether or not we were needed/wanted. Search area is approx. 2 1/2 hour drive so I made the call to go and be available in the area.
Official meet up time for volunteers was 0730, we arrived at 0700 and made contact with the command post. The large number of boats had priority so we waited until those were assigned search areas.
The EMA director showed us the area he wanted us to work in and briefed us that helicopter support was expected at 0830. We decided to look for a safe LZ to operate from and plan to launch when the helicopter exhausted its fuel. We were given approx. location of a sod farm on the opposite side of the river that was believed to be usable and set out to find it.
The command post had contacted the sod farm owner who luckily found us soon after we got to the area. The owner led us to a perfect location near our assigned search area. The field was recently flooded but accessible and had plenty of open area to operate safely.
We set out wind socks and started pre-flighting equipment by 0830.
The helicopter came on station approx. 0845 and began working the search area. We contacted the command post to get an idea of the helicopters fuel supply. Shortly after they learned an additional helicopter would be available for the search.
We were reassigned to an area down river near the Savannah bridge. The closest usable LZ was the Savannah airport approx. 3 miles from the search area. We collected our gear and headed there.
Making contact at the Savannah airport, we were given an area near the fuel farm to operate out of. We also made contact with one of the helicopter crews on the ground and were able to better de-conflict our search areas and get radio frequencies before they took off.
We launched at 1115 and started our search just above the bridge. We made the call to stay together on the East side of the river due to extensive flooding and no visible safe path to search the West side.
We were able to search approx. 5 miles of the river bank and flooded fields before turning back. It was difficult to drop below 200′ due to high winds and heavy turbulence. It was a rough flight but doable. While we were able to maintain safe emergency landing areas, some of them would have been very difficult extractions due to flooded roads/debris and very muddy terrain.
We landed at Savannah at 1230, reported our actions, and began planning our next run. Winds were increasing at this time and weather was expected to deteriorate. After talking to the helicopter crew again we decided we couldn’t safely continue so we checked in with the command post and advised them we were departing the area.
We were all very impressed with the professionalism shown by the search directors.
- Contact cards- Having cards printed with our contact information, cell phone, email, names of personnel involved, explanation of capabilities, would have been very useful.
- Have a plan, plan to change it regularly. Be patient. Search directors are working hard to herd volunteers we are just one small part. Look for every opportunity to not bother them.
- Ground support is critical. Having someone who can concentrate on navigating and communicating takes pressure off pilots and allows them to focus on safely conducting the flight.
- Don’t forget food and warm or cold drinks depending on the weather. Patience wears thin as people get tired, keeping their energy up will make everything run smoother.
- A thorough search is difficult especially over challenging terrain. Don’t sacrifice safety for a better view.