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This document – written by David McBrien of AusSAR – appeared in issues of the AOPA and AUF magazines during 1999 and is still topical. The page was last reviewed 30 November 2009.


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Aviation Search and Rescue [SAR]

Formation of AusSAR
A Ministerial decision was taken in early 1997 to amalgamate the two aviation and the one maritime Rescue Coordination Centres in Australia into a single agency. The report that the Minister acted upon offered a number of reasons for this approach including the fact that modern communications provided the capacity to coordinate aviation and maritime incidents from a single point bringing with it an improved national response capability. A factor influencing this decision was the increasing use of 121.5 MHz distress beacons where the environment of the unit or person in distress was unknown.

As a result, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority was given the responsibility and set up Australian Search and Rescue (AusSAR) as one of its divisions. AusSAR assumed the responsibility for aviation and maritime SAR on 1 July 1997 and maintains the national Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) in Canberra. The Federal Government, as part of its community service obligations, meets the majority of its operating costs.
Aviation SAR
In general terms, AusSAR coordinates the response to aviation SAR incidents across Australia except where the incident is covered by other specific arrangements such as an Airport Emergency Plan. AusSAR is reliant on a number of external organisations, the distress frequency monitoring satellite system (Cospas-Sarsat) and the public to provide the SAR alerting function.

For aircraft, Airservices Australia is the major SAR alerting agency and its staff notify AusSAR when an aircraft is overdue after communications checks on Air Traffic Service (ATS) frequencies fail to make contact. Airservices Australia also notify AusSAR when there is information concerning imminent or known aircraft crashes, missing aircraft, or distress beacon activations detected by aircraft or ATS.
Relationship with Airservices Australia
There has been some confusion within the aviation community between the roles of AusSAR and Airservices Australia in regard to the SAR function. Airservices Australia provides In-flight Emergency Response and SAR alerting while AusSAR is responsible for SAR response. In-flight Emergency Response includes air traffic staff providing reasonable advice to assist the pilot in-flight to (1) operate in safe airspace; (2) resume normal operations; and (3) land the aircraft safely. SAR alerting by Airservices Australia (or a flight note holder) occurs when a problem is reported with an airborne aircraft, when no contact can be established following a missed report (arrival, departure, position, operations normal, lost contact following frequency change, etc) or at the expiration of a nominated SARTIME.

SARWATCH is a generic term covering SAR alerting based on either full-position procedures, scheduled reporting times, or SARTIME. Full-position procedures and scheduled reporting times are only applicable to IFR flights in all airspace classes and most monitored VFR flights operating in controlled airspace. SARTIME is a time nominated by a pilot for the initiation of a SAR action if a report has not been received from the pilot by the nominated Airservices Australia unit.

A VFR pilot operating in Class G airspace may nominate a SARTIME to ATS but the progress of the flight is not monitored, though SAR action will be initiated if there is no communication from the pilot cancelling the SARTIME. Rather than nominating a SARTIME with ATS a flight note lodged with a responsible person, who will raise the alarm should the pilot not report in as scheduled, is preferred for VFR Class G operations.

The SARTIME database

As part of its responsibilities, Airservices Australia has introduced a centralised SARTIME database (CENSAR) where SARTIMEs are managed for aircraft arriving at or departing from all aerodromes or where a SARTIME has been submitted through a flight plan or by radio communication. CENSAR alerts the operator when a SARTIME has expired, at which time communications checks are commenced. If this process produces no results at the end of 15 minutes then the situation is passed to AusSAR as an Uncertainty Phase (INCERFA).

From an Airservices Australia perspective, a SARTIME can only be cancelled or varied at the request of the pilot. Incidental information that the aircraft has arrived safely at its destination cannot be used to cancel a SARTIME. However, this information is passed to AusSAR by the Airservices Australia CENSAR operator along with the declaration of the phase. AusSAR then takes whatever action is required to ensure the aircraft has arrived safely. Although not a required field in the flight plan, a destination telephone number (which may be a mobile phone number) can often bring a declared emergency phase to a quick conclusion.

A SARTIME held by CENSAR is cancelled by the pilot via radio to FLIGHTWATCH before changing to the CTAF or (the preferred method) after landing, via a telephone call to CENSAR (1800 814 931), see AIP ENR 1.1 paragraph 67. (Given the similarity between the names CENSAR and AusSAR, it is not surprising that AusSAR is frequently contacted by pilots wishing to amend or cancel their SARTIME.)
Other SAR Alerting and Intelligence Sources
Other major SAR alerting sources for AusSAR are the public, police, concerned relatives and friends, and people holding flight notes. The effectiveness of the SAR response is directly related to the timeliness, quality, and accuracy of the information that can be provided on missing aircraft to AusSAR. When other people agree to hold SARWATCH on behalf of a pilot, they should be aware of their responsibilities in the event of an incident and be made aware of the AusSAR aviation contact number (1800 815 257). The importance of early advice so that a search can be mounted before last light should not be missed.

While the flight note format at AIP ENR 1.10-23 is a good starting point for the type of information required, accurate intelligence is essential for the early location of an aircraft in distress. A detailed description of the aircraft, its occupants, its planned route, a list of safety equipment carried, whether an ELT and/or Personal Locator Beacon were being carried, whether the pilot and/or passengers usually carry a mobile phone, and so on are all valuable details to assist search planners. Personnel at the departure point such as refuellers and/or other aviators are often valuable sources of intelligence in this regard. Obviously, the most difficult SAR event is one where there is no SARTIME and no details.

AusSAR Aviation Activity Levels

During the previous month [March 1999] AusSAR conducted two major searches for missing aircraft. The first was a missing Bell 47 with two POB that was overdue on a flight from Coober Pedy to Kulgera. Following a wide search, the crash site was located on the third day but, unfortunately, there were no survivors. Twenty fixed wing and six rotary wing aircraft were involved at one stage during the search.

The second major search incident in March started with a concerned wife phoning AusSAR mid-afternoon saying that she had not heard from her husband. Except for crew details, the only information that she could provide was that it was a Jabiru with two POB expected to fly from Casino to Wangaratta that day. Following a rapid intelligence collection process, it was established that the aircraft had departed Casino at 1035 (local time) intending to track via Tenterfield, Moree and Narromine. Three aircraft conducted an initial search along the planned track before dark and a wide area search commenced the following day. Early into the wide area search a helicopter located the crash scene around 0800 (local) in rugged terrain 15 NM east of Tenterfield. Again, there were no survivors. On the second day, thirty fixed wing and fourteen rotary wing aircraft were involved in the search.

In addition to major searches, AusSAR was involved in numerous other activities relating to the aviation environment including a double fatality mid-air between a tug and a glider in the Waikerie area, the forced landing of an aircraft at Bungendore and responding to the ditching of a helicopter in the Cairns area with six of the seven people recovered safely. The aviation section of the statistical summary for the month of March shows that there were 741 aviation SAR phases acted upon and 37 incidents (which includes maritime incidents) where aviation assets were tasked. The aviation SAR phases included 128 IFR fail to report and 515 VFR fail to cancel SARTIME. However, the vast majority of the fail to report or fail to cancel SARTIME were 'technical' phases as the aircraft was safe but the appropriate procedures had not been followed to cancel it from the Airservices Australia system.

There is obviously a need for education in this area. Although these 'technical' phases are generally resolved quickly, they do impose a heavy workload and displace other staff efforts in improving the SAR system. The real difficulties are when a major SAR action is in progress and staff resources are being stretched to the limit. On these occasions, the number of 'technical' incidents can detract from marshalling the resources required to assist other aviators whom are believed to be in grave and imminent danger.


Informing the SAR System

The Requirement
It is fashionable to ponder on what the next decades will bring us. In the aviation sector ICAO has been very active in planning the introduction of technological systems that will enhance air traffic management especially on international routes. These types of systems will add a high degree of accuracy to the current aircraft position in the case of emergency and may take the search out of search and rescue (SAR). Some of these technologies may flow down to the regional and general aviation communities but, due to their initial cost, will be some time in coming.

In the meantime if you experience an emergency requiring a forced landing or ditching, how can you best ensure you have provided the SAR system with sufficient information for it to render assistance. This will largely depend upon the ability of the SAR system to respond and your actions in providing it with sufficient information to respond effectively.
Marshalling the Response
The coordination of a SAR response to an incident involving CASA or RA-Aus registered aircraft rests with Australian Search and Rescue (AusSAR) in Canberra. The word coordination is used as AusSAR has no allocated resources to respond to an incident and it seeks the assistance of response assets from the civil sector through standing or informal arrangements. When the civil sector cannot provide the resources or the available resources are unsuitable, AusSAR is then able to seek assistance from the Australian Defence Force.

A SAR incident is defined as a specific situation that causes the SAR system to be activated. In general terms, there are two parts to any SAR response with the first being the search and the second being the rescue. Initially, the degree of search planning is determined by the environment in the incident area, the accuracy of the reported location, the elapsed time since the incident occurred and the availability of suitable search assets. This process is informed by the amount and detail of intelligence that can be gained about the missing aircraft. The rescue plan is conducted in parallel and this is generally undertaken by fixed or rotary wing aircraft that have a standing arrangement with AusSAR or are a specialised emergency response unit located in the vicinity. For incidents on the water, marine craft may also be used.

With regard to search assets, aircraft are usually used due to their comparative speed that gives them the ability to cover large areas quickly. The number of aircraft involved will be determined by the size of the area to be searched, the capability and endurance of the aircraft being used and the characteristics of the area to be searched. AusSAR maintains an extensive database of general aviation, police, and specialised emergency service aircraft that are suitable for conducting searches.

While twin engine aircraft with good visibility, an accurate navigation system, possessing good endurance and the capacity to carry observers are ideal; it depends on the circumstances as to which aircraft are considered suitable especially in rural and remote areas and search operations to seaward. Some of the more recent larger searches have seen a variety of aircraft types and configurations used including single engine aircraft. While there is a mechanism to pay civil owner/operators on a case-by-case basis for SAR operations, there are occasions when private operators volunteer their services at no charge as a service to the aviation community. There are also many trained police, SES and volunteer observers around the country and they become an important part of any large scale SAR operation.

The timeliness of a response to an incident depends not only on the accuracy of information regarding the missing aircraft's flight intentions but also on the accuracy of information held in the AusSAR Aviation Database. AusSAR is interested in obtaining all aircraft details from all aircraft owners/operators and readers are asked to submit their details; a proforma for this purpose can be gained by contacting AusSAR. Any information provided will be subject to the Privacy Act 1988 provisions and will only be used for SAR and emergency response purposes. Please call AusSAR on 1800 815 257 for further details. AusSAR is also interested in non-licensed airfields especially those on properties around Australia. Again, a proforma for this purpose can be gained by contacting AusSAR.

AusSAR
GPO Box 2181
Canberra City ACT 2601

Telephone: 1800 815 257
Fax: 1800 622 153

Pilot pre-flight preparations

Building an Intelligence Picture
Now that we have the response organised, it's time to take stock about what preparations you have made to assist the situation if you are the unfortunate soul waiting for the SAR system to perform. In addition to your normal pilot-in-command responsibilities, which include regularly reviewing the Emergency Procedures Section of ERSA, the following points would seem appropriate if AusSAR is to build a rapid intelligence picture:
  • How will your flight be reconstructed if you did you did not submit a flight plan to Airservices Australia, or another organisation, or leave a flight note with a responsible person?

  • In the case of the latter, is the responsible person aware of the AusSAR contact number and the importance of last light regarding the conduct of an initial search?

  • Did the flight plan or flight note include a destination or mobile telephone number, and the phone or mobile number of the pilot?

  • Was there a SARTIME submitted to Airservices Australia?

  • Is there a good description of your aircraft available (external appearance description with a recent colour photograph, equipment fit, emergency and survival equipment including whether an ELT is fitted or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is being carried)?

  • Is there someone aware of your experience, qualifications and aviation habits?

  • How will your passengers and their points of contact be identified? Do the passengers have mobile phone numbers that can be used as an alternative means of contact?
Other Points of SAR Significance
While many aviators carry a PLB, they leave it in their flight bag in a place that is not easily reached while in flight. The briefing of passengers of its location and purpose may be appropriate. BASI recommends that you and your passengers dress for the terrain and not the destination. It is a sign of good airmanship to monitor 121.5 MHz before engine start and after engine shutdown to ensure that your ELT or PLB or others in the area are not active. All distress beacon detections are treated as distress situations and if you or your passengers inadvertently activate your beacon for longer than ten seconds then turn it off and advise AusSAR of the circumstances via ATS frequencies or telephone. There are no punitive measures for inadvertent activations and early advice will assist in the early resolution of a potential incident.

Lastly, if you have activated a distress beacon because you are in grave and imminent danger, if you are able don't forget to take measures to be a cooperative target for search aircraft by using signalling devices such as flares, etc, if available. The imprecision of homing devices mean that the general position can often be quickly determined but the exact position, especially in rugged and covered terrain such as that found on the eastern seaboard, can present major difficulties.
Conclusion
The coordination of the response to aviation SAR incidents is handled by AusSAR from the Canberra RCC and the effectiveness of the response depends not only on the effectiveness of the search but also on the measures taken by the pilot of the missing aircraft to assist AusSAR by leaving an intelligence trail from which the flight can be reconstructed for search planning purposes.

SAR alerting is carried out by a number of means with Airservices Australia being the primary advisory agency for aviation incidents for which Airservices Australia has introduced the centralised SARTIME database (CENSAR). A flight plan or flight note with a destination contact number is most important should an aircraft go missing. Early advice, especially in relation to last light, and good intelligence are both vital to the search planners. AusSAR remains committed to providing an effective SAR response service and it seeks your assistance to ensure that its resources are not dissipated on non-SAR incident responses.

The next section of the Coping with Emergencies Guide is 'Comfort and survival in a remote environment'.

Groundschool – Coping with emergencies

| Guide contents | Knowing the aircraft | Deceleration forces | Forced landing procedures |

| Overcoming aircraft control failures | Procedure when lost | Safety and emergency communication procedures |

| Aviation distress beacons | Understanding SAR services |

| Comfort and survival in a remote environment | ERSA emergency and survival procedures |