radar patchCellPhoneForensics_Logo-1-1177The first mission assigned to Civil Air Patrol for 2022 came just as revelers were celebrating the arrival of the new year. The resulting search ended 2½ days later with the discovery of a crashed airplane and a deceased pilot – not the result anyone wanted, but a source of closure for family and friends.

The mission involved a missing plane reported overdue on its flight from Marana, Arizona, northwest of Tucson, to Riverside, California. An Alert Notice from the Federal Aviation Administration arrived in CAP National Radar Analysis Team members’ inboxes.

“The team looked at the preliminary radar data and it didn’t make sense. The time in the ALNOT didn’t match any aircraft leaving Marana,” said Lt. Col. Mark Young, radar team commander. “We did see a radar track for a plane leaving Marana about an hour later and flying into weather.”

 Maj. Jerad Hoff responded when the National Cell Phone Forensics Team subsequently received the mission alert as well.

 Based on the last known position from the radar team and data obtained from the cellular carrier and Google, a recommended search area was defined. An Arizona Department of Public Safety Bell Jet Ranger helicopter searched the area the first hours of New Year’s Day.

AZlogoAt 8 a.m. Col. Rob Pinckard, Arizona Wing commander, learned about the missing plane through a call from the U.S. Border Patrol. Coordination with the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs and the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office led to the wing’s joining the mission to conduct an emergency locator transmitter search.

 No beacon signal was heard, and the aircraft’s transponder wasn’t providing any information, which meant CAP would have had to search the entire 327-mile route lacking additional information on the aircraft’s last known position.

 That’s where the radar and cellphone teams contributed to the mission.

 Over three days, 42 Arizona Wing members and six planes supported 11 search flights and two transport flights totaling nearly 33 hours in the air. All support functions for the mission occurred virtually, including the incident management team and mission radio operators working from home using five repeaters around the state. 

 “The technology (radar and cellphone analysis) probably reduced the possible search area by 95%,” said Maj. Paul Combellick, Arizona Wing incident commander for the first two days of the mission. “Over the three days, we weren’t getting much new data, but the (radar) and cell team analysts kept looking at the data, correlating the radar track with the cell phone info, looking for new clues.

 “Information from (the radar team) on Sunday night informed where we started searching” the morning of Jan. 3, Combellick added.

 As four more search flights were assigned, cellphone team member Maj. John Schofield grew intrigued. 

“This wasn’t my mission initially,” Schofield said, “but I was curious and decided to take another look at the data.” He plotted the data manually, and based on additional analysis he developed some new search areas. He sent that information to Lt. Col. Wayne Lorgus, who took over as the wing’s incident commander the third day.

The new search areas were farther north and west of the areas searched the previous two days.

 The afternoon of Jan. 3, while searching one of the newly defined areas, an aircrew from the Deer Valley Composite Squadron in Phoenix spotted the crash site. The aircrew was asked to transmit photos immediately while still circling overhead, using the 4G hotspot included in the DAART (Domestic Operations Awareness and Assessment Response Tool) system on the plane.

 “They were able to send me a very clear photo showing the aircraft tail number,” Lorgus said. “With that positive ID, I was able to send that on to Pinal County, and they requested the Department of Public Safety’s Ranger helicopter to go into the crash site.”

 The crashed plane was on Tohono O’Odham tribal land, in a remote, inaccessible mountainous area.

“This was a great example of a full-on team effort involving several parts of CAP as well as state and local authorities,” Pinckard said. “This was a complex mission, and the reality of (search and rescue) is that it is a process, a continual testing of what we think we know and what that might mean.

 “The trick is to maintain the tenacity and keep moving forward. That’s what we did,” he said.

Maj. Margot Myers
Public Affairs Officer
Arizona Wing