Float Planes in SAR (Search-and-Rescue) Operations in Alaska
Have you ever thought about the unique place that float planes have in Search-and-Rescue operations? The Civil Air Patrol’s Alaska Wing has used them successfully for decades.
In December 1941, one week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, CAP was founded by aviation-minded citizens who were concerned about the nation’s home defense and fervently believed in the utility of civil aviation. Dark days were on the horizon for the United States and, especially, Alaska. The Alaska Wing received its charter in 1949.
The Civil Air Patrol is congressionally chartered and operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. It is celebrating its 75th Anniversary this year. Nationally, it performs services for the federal government as the civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force and uses our resources to support states and local communities. It consists of 56,000 volunteer youth and adult members nationwide with more than 8,800 aircrew and 30,000 emergency responders trained to FEMA standards. It contributed a value of $158 million in volunteer man-hours in 2014, operates one of the largest fleets of single-engine piston aircraft in the world (over 550 in operation), flies more than 91,000 hours annually and maintains more than 950 emergency service vehicles for training and mission support.
Within Alaska, the organization consists of some 532 senior (adult) members and 182 cadets in 14 squadrons (see map of squadron locations). For youth ages 12 and up, the CAP is a vital force that protects Americans in need by responding to disasters, develops young leaders, and ensures our country’s pre-eminence in aerospace, STEM and cyberspace education.
The Alaska Wing maintains 14 hangars throughout the state. Two are shared with the Alaska State Troopers and three with the U.S. Air Force. CAP keeps one C-185 and one DHC-2 permanently on amphibious floats. During summer operations, CAP installs straight floats on two to four Cessna 172s and 185s. Pilots must have a valid FAA certificate, medical, Single Engine Sea rating and appropriate time in type aircraft (such as high performance in the case of the 185 and Beaver) at a minimum to qualify to train in CAP float planes.
CAP does not conduct basic float plane training and, therefore, does not compete with private flight schools. More details about CAP Flight Regulations can be found in the CAP Regulation 60-1. Due to budget cuts, the Wing has made a decision to retire our DHC-2 Beavers. We are looking for replacement air-frames that would do a similar function but be easier to maintain. Beavers are the oldest aircraft in the CAP inventory, having flown more passengers, missions, and participated in more finds/rescues/saves than any other aircraft in CAP anywhere in the nation.
On Sept. 1 and 2, 2015, the Alaska Wing was tasked by the 11th Air Force Rescue Coordination Center to search for a missing kayaker. He had launched into Knik Arm, one of the two major branches of Cook Inlet, adjacent to Anchorage. Knik Arm is a remnant of a glacial fjord approximately 25 miles long and two to six miles wide. The waterway experiences extreme tides – nearly 30 feet – where it enters Cook Inlet, and it is fed by a frigid glacial river, the Knik. Search conditions were daunting with much of the search not within gliding distance to dry land.
CAP responded with two amphibious aircraft; the C-185 and the DHC-2. We could have sent the C-172 on straight floats, but it is limited to the pilot and one observer and the larger aircraft facilitates a second observer. Crews were primarily tasked to fly the tide line, looking for the kayak or kayaker. Our regulations limit the search altitude to 1,000 feet above ground, with occasional descents to 500 feet to verify an object. On the second day we also deployed a C-206 on wheels when all of the float-qualified pilots ran out of crew duty time. But with the extensive over-water searching, the aircraft on floats were a much safer option.
In addition to the difficult location, another impediment was a temporary flight restriction in place throughout the region. President Obama was visiting Alaska and his presence impacted all aircraft movements. This was certainly a challenging search, but it was safely conducted by our volunteer pilots and crews, under less than ideal conditions. Unfortunately, the body of the missing kayaker was found a few days later, washed up on the shore of Cook Inlet about 40 miles southwest of Anchorage.
This Guest Editorial was submitted by: Captain Bryan Emerson, Alaska Wing, Public Affairs Officer, 907 733 4303 Bryan.Emerson@akwg.cap.gov