Passenger aircraft – An eagle-eyed SAR asset?

Each week, Ben Drew, Head of Conference Programmes at Tangent Link, takes a look at the speakers and sessions from the International Search & Rescue Conference offering his personal viewpoint on current issues and potential solutions, on which we encourage the wider industry to comment. In this viewpoint, Ben takes a look at an unusual SAR asset:

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Under international Maritime Law a shipmaster has an obligation to render assistance to those in distress at sea without regard to their nationality, status or the circumstances in which they are found.

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This is a longstanding maritime tradition as well as an obligation enshrined in international law. Compliance with this obligation is essential to preserve the integrity of maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) services which is based on two essential texts – UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea).

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But how often do you hear about passenger airlines rendering assistance to those in distress at sea? It seems like airlines are building a proud tradition in SAR.

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On 6th January 1943 a Qantas Sunderland S-23C flying boat called “Coriolanus” rescued a downed USAF Boeing B-17 bomber crew off Urasi Island in Papua New Guinea. 

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Nothing unusual about this incident considering World War II was raging at the time.  Only that it seems that the Australia’s national airlines’ Search and Rescue (SAR) credentials continue even today.

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Fast forward nearly 70 years to 2010 and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) requested Qantas to redirect a scheduled commercial flight to an incident after a military Search and Rescue (SAR) aircraft spotted a liferaft drifting some 110 miles off the coast of Esperance, on the Southern Ocean coastline of Western Australia.

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AMSA had requested the diversion of the Qantas aircraft because there was going to be a gap between when the RAAF Hercules C-130 had to leave the scene and another C-130 was arriving on scene to take over…and they didn’t want to lose sight of the liferaft. It seems, on this occasion, that the Hercules ended up reaching the liferaft before the Qantas aircraft arrived, but it raises the notion that, when a SAR mission is activated, all ships and aircraft can be diverted to form part of an Air Sea Rescue mission.

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In a similar incident in 2010 a Qantas Airbus A-330 passenger plane was chartered by AMSA when it responded to a NASA-developed Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) which transmitted a distress signal to a Search and Rescue (SARSAT) satellite, 22,500 miles out in space. The signal had been manually activated by a missing teenage sailor, Abby Sunderland.  Her yacht had been dismasted but remained upright in a remote area of the Indian Ocean northeast of the Kerguelen Islands, roughly 2,000 miles (3,200 km) west of Australia.  The Airbus A-330 aircraft was quickly loaded with 11 trained State Emergency Service (SES) Air Observers and a Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA) officer and then faced a 4,700 miles (7,600 km) round trip from Perth to Sunderland’s yacht, which is near the limit of the aircrafts’ range. The boat was sighted about 10 minutes after the plane reached its designated search zone and the teenager was rescued by a fishing boat within 24-hours of the first PLB signal.

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Two years later AMSA enlisted the help of Air Canada & Air New Zealand scheduled flights to assist in a search and rescue operation.  AMSA had detected an emergency beacon activation with its location 270 nm east of Sydney.  They immediately requested the Air Canada Boeing 777 Flight 33 – en route to Sydney from Vancouver – to divert to the area of the beacon to assess the situation.

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AMSA’s own Essendon-based Dornier aircraft was also tasked to attend this scene, while an Air New Zealand Airbus A320 – en route to Sydney from Auckland – was vectored to the area to provide confirmation of the yacht’s position and gain more information about the nature of distress. However, Air Canada won this particular task in extraordinary fashion.

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The Air Canada’s chief pilot – Captain Andrew Robertson – decided that they had enough fuel to assist in the search and dropped the aircraft from its 34,000-foot cruising altitude down to 4,000 feet.  On approach to the area he made a PA announcement to the passengers to scan the rough sea-state less than a mile below for a yacht.  Soon after, a couple of eagle-eyed passengers – who had obviously not been working their way through the in-flight bar – ended up spotting the craft.  The discovery was summarily celebrated with a burst of applause.  Appealing for passenger involvement in a rescue clearly is a better way to assuage passenger boredom on a long flight than an in-flight movie.

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Rendering assistance to those at sea can come from the sea or the sky….What was remarkable about this unusual saviour was that from the initial emergency signal to when the Air Canada aircraft located the yacht, a mere 25 minutes had elapsed.

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Both AMSA & NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Search & Rescue experts will be speaking in the SAR programme.

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Ben Drew
Head of Programmes
Tangent Link

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