Air search and rescue

by guest blogger Alice Fiman

Over the weekend, a plane went down near Mount Baker – near the 7,800 foot level. Our Aviation Search and Rescue Division got the call and headed up to Bellingham to coordinate the search. What – you may ask – does the state highway department have to do with search and rescue?

Great question. Our responsibility, as directed by the Legislature, is to manage all Air Search and Rescue operations within the state as well as coordinating the use of aviation assets for disaster relief efforts. So that means when the emergency beacon went off Saturday night, we got the call.

Satellites monitor for emergency beacons – through a system called SARSAT. The SARSAT office then notifies the state Emergency Operations Center (Washington Emergency Operations Center is located at Camp Murray). The EOC Duty Officer got the call, which then came to us.

Once we had the location, and contact information for the beacon’s owner (good thing he registered – hint, hint), we called the family to confirm. Yes, the Bellingham man had taken the plane out over Mount Baker to take photos, and yes, he hadn’t returned as scheduled.

Our Aviation Search and Rescue team (led by Tom Peterson), then started up to Bellingham. We have a trailer that serves as a mission control center. He also called the U.S. Navy and it was fortunate a team from Naval Air Station Whidbey was available to start searching. Weather was cooperating also so the team could fly during the night.

The pilot’s wife then called the local sheriff’s office – apparently she received a short phone call and he was okay. Cellular reception is spotty in that rural area, so she didn’t have much more info.
With that confirmation the plane was actually out there, a team from the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office took snowmobiles out, starting from what is known as Shrieber’s Meadow. They found the plane - damaged and upside down on the edge of the Deming Glacier at the 7,800-foot level of Mount Baker. (A bit of trivia – those beacons actually work – the plane was less than 150 feet from where it was supposed to be.)

No pilot or passenger inside. As luck would have it, a group of snowmobilers were also out, and they got stuck and were able to radio some friends. On the way out, their friends found the pilot and his passenger, so they brought them back.

The pilot called from his home, reporting he was okay.

Our role was to find the plane, coordinating all available resources. We also do this during natural disasters – coordinate all aviation resources to help rescue those stuck during floods, etc. This time, it was fortunate the U.S. Navy and local sheriff’s office were there to help. That isn’t always the case.
Once we found the plane, we turn the rescue operation over to the local law enforcement and the FAA and NTSB come in to investigate the crash. Mission complete.