It takes a keen eye and strong stomach to be a search and rescue member.
I’m not sure if it’s a calling meant for me given that flying around in a small plane made me feel queasy for days and my eyesight is less than stellar, but for the men and women who volunteer, it’s a calling close to their heart. They have a passion for the job fuelled by a desire to help people.
In September I got a rare glimpse into the world of rescuers. I was invited along on an Island training exercise for the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association.
I drove to the airport on a chilly, overcast Saturday morning not quite knowing what to expect. The weather looked less than promising – dull black clouds hung overhead, speckled with sunlight that broke through the grey mess above.
When I arrived I was briefed that the flight takeoff window had been moved back to afternoon to coincide with clearer skies.
Over the next hour I watched as members participated in spotter exercises, learning skills to identify objects or signs on the ground of a downed plane, lost hikers or other people who may be in trouble.
Once the spotter training was finished, everyone was briefed on the rescue scenario of the day. A fictitious blue and white Piper 160 aircraft went missing after it took off from Duncan, heading to Campbell River. It never arrived at its destination. Contact was lost with the flight near Crofton. The 38-year-old male pilot had eight years of flying experience.
Once the weather cleared enough for take off, I boarded a small plane. As the aircraft took off, its green interior became my focus and I fought back the nervousness.
I had never been in a small plane before and didn’t know what to expect. It wasn’t as bad as I imagined.
I took on the role of spotter. I admit I wasn’t that good, only calling out one object with the prompting of a fellow spotter onboard.
Scanning the ground takes an immeasurable amount of concentration. It’s a natural response to flick your eyes across the horizon and take it all in.
But doing that during a search could mean missing a vital sign of a plane, person or vehicle on the ground. Sometimes the objects are only in view for a few brief seconds as the plane passes overhead, so the keen eyes of the spotters are essential.
The spotters must ensure they adhere to a specific search pattern extending either from the bottom of the plane outward, or downward from the top of the plane.
A spotter’s eyes can become strained after an hour of scanning the ground but searches often go on for hours. Even a few minutes break could mean something vital is missed.
Rescuers take the work seriously. Although they take the time to laugh and joke before they head off to the skies, they know that concentration is needed to get the job done.
A flash of light or glimpse of colour could be an indication of an important object on the ground. It could be part of a plane or a wayward kayak from someone who was lost in the ocean.
After hours of scanning the ground I become queasy. I never expected to be in the air as long as I was.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to tag alone for the exercise. There are many people who want to help others and the association is an avenue for those with that calling.
I would hate to be in the position where I was lost in the wilderness with my poor survival skills, but I hope that knowing that colour, flashes of light and other indicators can help a spotter find me in that situation.