Steamboat Springs Don Heineman has located "downed aircraft" in some unlikely places like the back of a flatbed truck traveling down Interstate 40 outside Albuquerque. He even located one "missing plane" in a trash dumpster.
Heineman is a lieutenant colonel in the Steamboat Springs Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol. He moved here from Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1994 after being transferred by his employer, Peabody Coal. He quickly began laying the groundwork for Steamboat's first Civil Air Patrol squadron. Today, he is one of 35 members of the Steamboat squadron, which turns four years old on July 1. The Civil Air Patrol, under the supervision of the U.S. Air Force, conducts searches for missing aircraft.
Of course, the downed aircraft in the dumpster and on the back of the truck weren't really lost airplanes. But they were real Civil Air Patrol search missions. In the case of the trash dumpster located in the downtown of an Arizona city, Heineman's find was actually an emergency locator transmitter removed from a plane. The transmitter was inadvertently activated and tossed in the trash. In the case of the mobile emergency signal, Heineman has tracked enough transmitter signals that seem to be moving targets, to guess that they are wrecked planes on the way to salvage yards on the back of a truck.
Incidents like that are surprisingly common, according to Heineman.
"Ninety-seven of 100 signals are false," he said. "The problem is, we don't know which they are. We'll launch no matter what time of night or day, because hours and minutes mean lives."
Heineman's story about a call to search for a downed aircraft near Aspen illustrates the commitment that Civil Air Patrol volunteers bring to the squadron. The call came on a dark night, when flying near Aspen involved some inherent danger.
The Steamboat squadron is the only one of four on the western slope that is qualified to conduct night searches, Heineman said. In the case of the Aspen call, Heineman wasn't eager for the night mission. More often than not, the emergency locator transmitter giving a false signal is from an aircraft safely parked on the tarmac after a rough landing, Heineman said. A good solid bump can set the transmitter transmitter off, he explained. And unless the pilot switches his radio to that frequency as a precaution, they may never know they've initiated a search. In this case a member of the local search and rescue group assured him the transmitter signal wasn't coming from the airport and he launched a search.
"There was no moon, it was completely dark, and there's fourteeners (among the highest peaks in Colorado) over there," Heineman said.
Heineman knew he could safely fly a line from Eagle to Carbondale, and by doing that, he was able to confirm the transmitter signal wasn't emanating from a point north of the line. He urged ground searchers to take another look at the airport, and sure enough, the transmitter was in a plane parked safely on the tarmac. It was another false alarm.
The Civil Air Patrol is a non-paid, civilian auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force and provides more than 75 percent of all inland search for the air force, 2nd Lt. Christina Chapman said. She is the public affairs officer for the Steamboat squadron. Although she holds the rank of lieutenant, and Heineman is a lieutenant colonel, they are not actually officers in the Air Force. Heineman actually spent four years in the Air Force as an in-flight radar technician on B-52 bombers. Chapman is a Realtor, and her colleagues come from many backgrounds. They are police officers, chefs and business men and women.
Not all of the members of the Civil Air Patrol are pilots others develop the skills to coordinate missions on the ground. Other members are passengers with their own mission during searches in addition to the pilot, each search aircraft carries an observer and a scanner.
The observer is trained to give the pilot directions that put the aircraft in optimum position for the search. That leaves the pilot free to concentrate on flying and monitoring the air space, to ensure there are no conflicts with other aircraft.
"That's why precision is so important," Chapman said. "It's important to have situational awareness to know exactly where you are in relation to the land and terrain, the airspace and to other aircraft."
The scanner has less training, but represents another set of eyes to try and pinpoint the scattered pieces of aluminum that are often all that's left of a downed aircraft.
The Civil Air Patrol also is involved in aerospace education, and in conducting the cadet program that builds leadership skills in young people. Mike Gagnebin leads the cadet program in Steamboat.
The Colorado Wing of the Civil Air Patrol helped save 12 lives in 1999, and although the Steamboat squadron has participated in a number of missions, its members have not had to search for a downed aircraft locally during the squadron's existence. Instead, they've found themselves helping to pinpoint the location of wild fires and searching for people lost in the backcountry.
The Steamboat squadron counts several members who are also members of Routt County Search and Rescue. The two organizations have cooperated on the search for a lost hunter, a lost snowboarder and two lost teen-age hikers on Gore Pass. Two years ago, the Civil Air Patrol monitored flooding conditions along the Yampa River from the air.
Heineman was one of the first searchers on scene in the mountains near Vail several years ago when Air Force Capt. Craig Button crashed his A-10 attack jet. Civil Air Patrol pilots from the Front Range were unable to reach the search area on the first day because of a storm front that clung to the Continental Divide.
"We're one of the lucky squadrons because we have a Civil Air Patrol aircraft based here," Chapman said.
The Civil Air Patrol's Cessna Turbo 182 has extra power that makes terrain flying in the Rocky Mountains a safer proposition.
"It's a different breed of aircraft," Heineman said. "They only made a few of them."
The Steamboat squadron also is very fortunate to have three qualified flight instructors in Lt. Col. Roger Taylor, Capt. Sam Haslem, and Heineman. Heineman was active in the Civil Air Patrol in Denver and in Flagstaff before coming to Steamboat.
In some instances, Civil Air Patrol pilots fly personal aircraft on missions. But first, they must pass a test, Chapman said. They are reimbursed for their fuel by the Civil Air Patrol.
Of the 18 pilots in the Steamboat squadron, not all are mission pilots. Before they can become mission pilots, aviators fly a certain number of hours as "transports" ferrying personnel to search areas. They also go through special training before flying missions.
Searching for downed aircraft and missing persons in mountainous terrain carries with it a certain amount of risk, Chapman said. And cool heads are definitely required.
"We try to get away from that hero complex," Chapman said. "Sure, you really want to help, but you don't want to become another casualty."
To learn more about the Civil Air Patrol, contact Heineman at 870-3163.
To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org