Maj. Margot Myers
Public Information Officer
National Cell Phone Forensics Team
A 58-year-old man and his 13-year-old daughter, who survived a crash of their small, single-engine plane, were found in heavily wooded state game lands in northeastern Pennsylvania thanks to the combined efforts of Civil Air Patrol’s National Radar Analysis Team and National Cell Phone Forensics Team.
After departing from Pocono Mountains Municipal Airport on Nov. 14, the pilot performed a touch and go at Wilkes-Barre Scranton International Airport and crashed shortly afterward.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued an Alert Notice to public safety agencies just after 7:30 p.m. local time Sunday about the missing aircraft.
“When the FAA Alert Notice came out on a missing aircraft, (2nd Lt.) Joe Ashworth (of the radar analysis team) and I glanced at the data and both agreed the plane had crashed and asked the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center to immediately go to mission,” said Lt. Col. Mark Young, commander of the radar analysis team.
“We stressed to them that based on the data we had, this appeared to be a survivable crash and should be treated as an emergency. After hearing from the field that it was dark, freezing rain, muddy, and heavy woods, I knew we had to get more accurate data. I asked for the cell phone forensics team to be activated.”
One significant complication was that no one had cellphone contact information for the pilot.
“I called 911 about 10 p.m. because I knew my husband was in trouble,” said the pilot’s wife. “Two hours before I even realized he was in trouble, Lt. Col. Young was working with (local authorities) to get them searching for him.
“The sheriff’s office made the connection between the call they had gotten from Lt. Col. Young about a possible plane crash with my 911 call. He was the one who called me back. I gave Lt. Col. Young my husband’s cellular phone number and iPad information, and he took it from there.”
That was the information needed for the AFRCC to assign the cellphone team to the mission.
Maj. Jerad Hoff was the cellular forensics technical specialist who jumped in to fine-tune a likely search area using data from the phone and iPad. The data for the tablet turned out to be a key piece of information, providing local search and rescue teams with a location accurate within 10 meters.
“The sheriff told me they had about 100 searchers in the field,” Young said. “They found both the pilot and his daughter alive but with critical injuries and had to carry them about 3/8th of a mile out to ambulances. It was 32 degrees and raining still.
“This is like a big jigsaw puzzle to put together, and it takes every piece to work,” he said. “If any one of these pieces is missing, then these folks and many others would have perished.”
Hoff said, “We were able to combine the (cellphone) tower and distance information with the last known radar hit and GPS information from Apple regarding the iPad that was on board to put together a search area.”
Chief James Serafin of the Bear Creek Volunteer Hose Company said, “This was a miracle. Those two individuals are very lucky.”
The latitude/longitude relayed from CAP told searchers where to look, but it was a challenge to get to the crash site.
“You’re dealing with the woods, the swamps, the hills, rocks, boulders, you’re dealing with all kinds of terrain up here,” Serafin said.
The survivors were found just after 2 a.m. Dad was cuddling his daughter to give her warmth because they were both exposed to the elements and were suffering from hypothermia at the time,” Serafin said.
In his 28 years with the Pennsylvania State Police, Sgt. John G. Richards said he had never been to a plane crash scene with survivors. “I'm not going to lie, because of the temperatures and the conditions, not being able to locate them, I never expected to find them alive,” he told WFMZ-TV.
“We are so grateful that you went through the training to do this kind of work,” the pilot's wife said of the CAP cell and radar teams. “The expertise, the thoroughness in handling details, the level of compassion, the continuous communication with me were outstanding.”
Acting as a Total Force partner and as the U.S. Air Force auxiliary, Civil Air Patrol works with First Air Force (Air Forces Northern) and performs about 90% of continental U.S. inland search and rescue missions as tasked by the AFRCC.