April 21, 2020 – Missing Aircraft

On 4-21-2020, a report of a downed aircraft was dispatched. I heard the call and monitored radio traffic at the same time I received a call from a Chapel Hill firefighter asking if I was at the airport. The crew Pilot Steve Rhode and Tactical Flight Officer (TFO) Andrew Albert. We were already headed to Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) to fly a scheduled patrol in the Cessna 182, call sign Fire Demon 1, for Wake Forest Fire Department.

I contacted the Wake Forest Fire Department Aviation Battalion Chief Daryl Cash to request advice if we should let the Incident Commander know we would be in the air soon and could assist in the search.

On the way to the airport, TFO Albert made contact with Command and advised them WFFD Car 6 (Fire Demon 1) was about five minutes out from RDU, and we received a response that we could be utilized on the call.

Following an accelerated preflight, we contacted Clearance Delivery and received a priority departure direct to the GPS coordinates of the incident. We departed RDU at 1254. The location was also described as the Knights Play golf course at 2512 Ten-Ten Road, Apex.

RDU Tower cleared us for a priority emergency departure, and it took 6 minutes from departure to the incident location.

While TFO Albert was monitoring MA11 on the radio, I was receiving information from RDU Air Traffic Control (ATC) regarding the last known position and the most current information they had. It was a tremendous benefit to communicate in real-time with RDU ATC and receive supporting intelligence.

We stayed with RDU Departure Control, who cleared the airspace around our search area. During the search, RDU ATC and I coordinated all aspects of the search and airspace issues.

RDU ATC advised us to search the area 3.5 miles south of the tall tower, which appears to be used by G105.1 FM. The problematic tower is located adjacent to the Knights Play golf course. ATC suggested an initial east to the west path on our first search pass. ATC also advised the aircraft in question was a white twin-engine Diamond aircraft. There were some reports of smoke from the aircraft by people on the ground. They had received multiple calls from people on the ground.

TFO Albert was in communication with Command on the ground and did his best to inform the IC of our progress and expanding search area.

The tall tower made it especially challenging to search in that area. There was a constant risk of losing situational awareness of the tower. Because of the tower, I focused the majority of my attention on flying safely around the tower while TFO Albert concentrated on the ground search. The bubble window on the aircraft on TFO Albert’s side made it easy for him to examine the ground carefully using our gyroscopic stabilized binoculars. Sample images from our search height of 3,000 feet are included in this report. We normally fly lower and have a more detailed view but the tower complicated normal ops.

When we were away from the tower, I had moments when I could search on my side of the aircraft. During those searches, I identified a couple of possible targets and circled back left to examine them. Both potential targets turned out to be white homes in dense trees.

During the search, TFO Albert identified a target on the ground that could have been the missing aircraft. He could only see glimpses of the target, but he described it as white material strewn in the woods under a dense tree canopy.

TFO Albert notified Command and continued to circle the target at 3,000 feet. TFO Albert communicated with Command and directed ground team members to the target in the woods. The target was described as debris or trash on the ground and not the missing aircraft.

RDU ATC advised there were no reports of an Emergency Locator Transmitter alert on received on 121.5 MHz. I monitored the ELT frequency and did not hear an ELT signal. There was no smoke observed from the ground. We had covered the area thoroughly. Command asked us to search one area again. It was also the same area RDU ATC had advised was the target of interest.

We had flown over that area many times, attempting to view it from different directions. After we notified Command that no target was observed on the final pass, we advised RDU ATC we were clearing the airspace and returning to RDU.

On our way back to RDU we learned the aircraft in question was reported to have landed at Pope AB in Fayetteville and was not down in the search area.

WRAL latter published this report.

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