SAR After Action Report 2-26-20

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.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Contact cards- Having cards printed with our contact information, cell phone, email, names of personnel involved, explanation of capabilities, would have been very useful.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. A thorough search is difficult especially over challenging terrain. Don’t sacrifice safety for a better view.

First Team Meetup


We had our first real SAR team meetup last night at Everrett-Stewart airport. We have 5 pilots in the area now and this was the first time we all got to be in the same room together.

Our number one priority will be getting everyone on the same page for communications. 2m radios will be primary on that, with cell phone as back up and a few of us also carrying airband.

We talked through a little formation flying, which is going to take some practice. And covered comms with any ground team we would be working with, along with basic equipment we need.

Weather will inhibit flying right now, but we are getting on the same page as to how we need to work together in the air.

Everyone seems to mesh really well together and I think there is a lot of potential in this team.

Building A Search Dummy.

I’ve talked before about how valuable paramotors can be in Search and Rescue operations. The only way to bring that value to a scene is good training beforehand. To that end I’ve been working on different methods and tools to better myself in this area.

A few days ago while watching a Paramotor Nation interview with the founder of ASAR national (Airborne Search and Rescue) I hit on an idea. One of the surprising things for me becoming a pilot was how different everything looks from the air. You can see everything but you have to train your eye to understand the world from this new vantage point. In comes “Find me Freddo”

I built this guy as an inexpensive, easy to transport visual training aid. It’s just a few pieces of 1″ Poplar dowel rod and paracord at the joints.

I dressed up the joints with electrical tape just to avoid having to retie them later. Then grabbed some old clothes to dress him up.

It’s not fancy but it’s roughly people sized and should be useful helping to calibrate our eyes to spotting people in different terrain and clothing . He is also fits in a gym bag for easy storage and transport to a search area.

Total cost: Less than $30 and an hour of my time. It can be fitted with a life jacket for water searches and if you fold the arm and leg joints it becomes child sized. It should be a very versatile tool.

If your around West TN and would like to be a part of the team we’re building let me know. You don’t have to be a pilot. We are also looking for a good ground team to coordinate with local authorities and organize training events/direct search operations. Send me an email if you’re interested with “SAR” in the subject line.

Mock Search


To better understand searching with a paramotor I decided to do a training run on a nearby field. Here is the data I collected.

900 Acre search area

Search Area: Approx. 900 Acres Corn and Soybeans. Obion River along West edge.

Obstructions: Power lines running East/West 1/4 mile inside North edge of field.

Weather: Clear with winds 5-15 from the South

Time: Takeoff Approx. 18:30 Landing 19:30 local time

Search pattern: Spiral from outside to inside

Search results: Incomplete, area not cleared

I approached the area to be searched from the North West corner. First scanning for obstructions. Power lines found inside North edge of area.

I decided to start at the perimeter and spiral inward as there are ditches/creeks/river surrounding the field.

Wind was a large factor. I started the first pass at a higher altitude (100′) to get a feel for the mechanical rotor in the area. Moving North to South I averaged 15MPH. South to North I averaged 30-35 MPH.

I was able to conduct most of my search just below treetop height. I did find several deer to use as visual references. They were easy to pick out from above, even when they laid down in the beans. Finding recent deer trails through the beans was not easy but it was possible.

From 50′ I was able to see through the corn to the ground in most, not all, areas. I could do this in an area approx. 15-20 corn rows wide at that altitude.

I could see into culverts and under small bridges around the field but not well enough to call them cleared.

Searching the Ditch to the North, River to the West and creek to the South was done easily. Tree cover is limited in those areas.

There is a creek on the Eastern edge of the field I could not see into due to heavy tree cover.

The railroad tracks indicated on the topo map are actually a gravel road that offers access through the field.

I needed one more pass to cover the area, I chose to abort the search due to degrading weather conditions (Gusts becoming heavier and from less predictable directions).

End report

As a searcher I need practice keeping my paths separated. I wasted time recovering the same ground in a few spots. I also experimented with spotting small objects and then turning back for a closer look. I found it very difficult to pick back up on an object (soda can size) after losing sight of it.

I also think a down and back pattern moving from West to East might have been a better approach to this area. If the subject was trying to avoid the searcher they would be likely stopped at the river on the Eastern edge which could then be easily covered.

PPG Search And Rescue

I love flying for recreation, but I’m always looking for ways to make more practical use of this machine. Early on I thought it might be perfect for SAR operations. Turns out it is.

I recently found some guys in New Mexico and Arizona using PPGs for this with enormous success. They have given me a boatload of information as to how to get started here. After contacting our local Rescue Squad and Sheriff I’m even more convinced of its viability.

A paramotor has a few unique abilities that make it an excellent tool for this work.

  1. Portability– Most pilots have their rig set up to be portable already. This lets us make use of new flying areas easily. It also means we are always ready to travel directly to a search area and launch nearby.
  2. Short Takeoff and Landing- It’s hard to beat a footlaunch paramotor for working out of a small area. Even trikes and quads can operate safely out of places you can’t park an airplane.
  3. Cost- Helicopters are great tools for SAR. However they are expensive to operate. And availability can be a problem. Paramotors fly for about 5 bucks an hour. And pilots are always looking for an excuse to fly.
  4. View- You can’t match the view from a paramotor. Flying at low speed and altitudes as low as a few feet allows you to get close to your subject and maintain a visual long enough to figure out what you are looking at. One example of this from the New Mexico team was being called to find a handgun that had been dropped along a several mile stretch of highway. They found it in short order where it would have taken walkers many hours or days.
  5. Safety- Paramotors might be the safest form of aviation available. Losing an engine is not much more than an inconvenience in most situations. While obstacles such as power lines, trees, and towers are a problem, our slow speed and tight turning radius gives us an ability to avoid surprises that other aircraft don’t have.

Everyone I’ve contacted thus far has been 100% behind the idea of starting this in West TN. I’m sure there will be a lot of trial and error learning as far as coordination and communication, but we will work it out.

If you know of anyone interested in getting involved please get in touch.