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SASAR – Joining Hands So Others May Live

Search and Rescue is one of the relatively unknown services in the aviation fraternity, usually because the pilots don’t ever want to think about being a situation that they will be needed, this normally means something has gone horribly wrong.

Increasing your knowledge of how the SASAR and the ARCC actually operate may one day be the difference between a happy rescue and some very sad news relayed to your grieving family.

Lets start off with the range covered by SASAR, it may come as surprise to many aviators that SASAR cover not only South African airspace but in total 28 million km² of land and sea, considering the total area of the planet is only 510 million km², it is a sizable chunk of the this rock we call home. The countries of South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho and  Swaziland are within the SASAR range of responsibility as well as the sea all the way to Antarctica to the south, halfway to Brazil to the west and halfway to Australia to the east.

The establishment of a central Search and Rescue organization is a requirement of ICAO for any member nation and is backed up by South African law in the form of the South African Maritime and Aeronautical Search and Rescue Act. South African Search and Rescue falls under the auspices of the Department of Transport and is answerable to the Mister of Transport.

The operational structure of the SASAR is basically split into two groups, Aeronautical and Maritime operations, for our purposes we will concentrate on the Aeronautical side of things. The operations are headed by the Director of Search and Rescue and directly below them is the Head of Aeronautical SAR operations and then the Chief of Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre (ARCC). Santjie White know by the aviation community as “Heksie” currently is in this position and is without doubt one of the most experienced SAR experts anywhere in the world.  

What can the general aviator do to make a Search and Rescue not end up a Search and Recover, giving yourself the best chance of walking away from a survivable accident?

Before you take to the wonderful open skies we are blessed with here in South Africa, please make sure that you have informed someone where you are going, not the version that you may have told the wife or boss, your real destination so if the need arises they can help by informing SAR where to start searching for you.

Better still file a flight plan it only takes a few minutes on ATNS's file2fly portal and it can alert someone that you have not reached your intended destination long before your family or friends would think something is amiss. I know many aviators believe they are in for a hefty fine if they forget to cancel their search and rescue, this is a myth that has been passed down from instructor to student for ages. The only way you can be held liable for a fine or any other sanction is if it is blatant negligence on your part, most times if you forgot to cancel you will get a call from a friendly ATC asking if you alright, they will be happy to hear your voice as it means they can stand down, just apologise and all will be forgiven.

A while ago some pilots were discussing novel ways to remember to cancel your SAR, one of the suggestions was to wear your wedding ring on the wrong finger so it will irritate you until you make the call, another suggestion leave a note on your steering wheel  of your car so on your return you will see it and cancel if its not already done. Another idea was to stick a piece of tape on your car key, this works especially well on the type of key that flips out the casing you will be reminded as soon as you try and drive away from the airfield.

If you find yourself in a spot of bother it’s important to let the ATC’s or anyone that is listening what is going on. Is it a PAN PAN or the dreaded MAYDAY?

PAN PAN are generally conditions that concern the safety of your aircraft but do not need require immediate assistance, some examples include a door opening in flight, landing gear not extending, sick passenger and the like. The discretion is always yours and if you feel that the situation is an immediate threat call a MAYDAY don’t wait until its too late.

MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY is the call that no one ever wants to make, but it could save your life in a situation of Distress. The definition of a MAYDAY is: A condition of being threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and requiring immediate assistance. Some examples of this are Engine failure, fire or structural failure. But remember as said before if you feel imminent danger in an abnormal situation call a MAYDAY, you can apologise and explain later. YOUR SAFETY IS WHATS IMPORTANT.

In the case of an emergency what detail should you relay to respondents, most important is always :

Who are you?

Where are you?

What’s wrong?

With that information, SAR can start responding to the correct area, and start looking for the right person.

If time permits give as much detail as possible but always remember to AVIATE, NAVIGATE and then COMMUNICATE.

Information that could be beneficial to the SAR effort is :

Identification of the aircraft (Main colour, identifying marks)

Nature of the emergency

Intention of the PIC

Present position, level and heading

Qualification of the pilot (i.e. Student pilot, VFR in IMC)

If you find yourself having to do a forced lob somewhere in the bush, what is the first thing you should do? Most people have the urge to phone their loved ones and tell them that all is well. Please don’t do this rather contact the ARCC, they will contact everyone that needs to be contacted, the people working there are trained to deliver news like this and can limit the panic. While your loved ones are being informed you can give vital information to the ARCC that will help them decided what recourses to activate.

In the past months the CAA have been executing many ramp inspections of aircraft, this has forced many pilots to have a close look at their first aid kits, something that generally doesn’t rate to high on the importance list. Knowing what is in the First aid kit and more importantly how to use everything is of vital importance. Taking a first aid course at your local fire station or hospital is always a good idea.

All aircraft have to be equipped with a fire extinguisher, have you ever had to use one and do you even know how to use it, familiarising yourself with all this should be done to increase your chances of survival.

Building up a Survival kit for your aircraft is never a bad idea, I know it takes up space but it’s a small sacrifice to help you survive a crash in a remote area. Some good ideas to add to this kit are:

Water: a 500ml water bottle can go along way to keep you hydrated in an emergency

 A lighter: not to light your cigarette, in the bush fire generally means life

A lightweight space blanket: it can get very cold very quickly in a mountain top especially if you are losing blood

A pocketknife or better still a “Leatherman” type tool:  


Mirror: can be used to signal passing aircraft in the day

Umbrella: not only can it keep you dry in the rain it can also be used to catch rainwater

PLB: personal locator beacons have saved many downed aviators all over the world

Flashlight: for light at night and help make you visible respondents, please remember don’t shine it at the helicopter as the crew are probably wearing night vision equipment and you will blind them.

Powerbank: if your phone survived the crash and is useable keeping the battery alive will increase your chances of actively aiding in you own rescue.

In the modern technological age, we find ourselves we are all carrying a smartphone with us, Smartphones are amazing things and are generally tracking our movements without us even knowing about it. Apps like “Find my iPhone”,”AirNavPro flight tracking”, “Spot trackers”, “Life 360”, “Glympse” and “WhatsApp Live Location” can narrow a search area considerably if someone other than you have access to the passwords.

Staying with the aircraft is in most cases the best idea as it can be found much quicker than a person wondering aimlessly through the wilderness, unless of course you can see some form of civilisation close by.

How do the ARCC go about business when you find yourself in a situation you didn’t want to be in?

Firstly, they will start with a massive information gathering process

DO YOU HAVE AN ELT – IS IT REGISTERED WITH CAA, they will activate all  Distress Beacon Detection equipment

Flight plans will be pulled and analysed, check with ATC’s who you might have spoken to you, Check all airfields in the vicinity, as well as DEP/DEST/ALTN. Security, police, refuellers, airport management, your operations, family etc.

After all possible information is gathered, the ARCC will  start with the search planning. They will plot all information on electronic mapping software, as well as old-school paper maps. They will  then determine search areas, both primary and secondary. All the resources will have already been placed on standby these include assets from the SAAF, SAPS, Mountain rescue organisations and sometimes they will use private resources. Something to remember though, it is against the law to take any SAR action unless tasked by the ARCC! So please don’t go off on a private search for a missing buddy.

While all the resources are out searching, the ARCC spend that time to regroup and refocus, trying to analyse the follow-up search patterns, they  take the feedback from the search parties, and plot them on maps. This is to ensure they don’t inadvertently miss any areas during the search.

Throughout  the whole process the ARCC  will update the families of all developments.

The ARCC will only stand down once the aircraft has been located and all occupants have been accounted for,  the scene has been officially handed over to the SAPS and SACAA and of course once all the resources are back home safely.

Something everyone must realise that SAR in real life is not like the movies, it takes time: Resources need to be activated. SAR operations hardly ever happen close to home base for resources, so it takes time to reposition, searching is a meticulous process and takes VERY long, hours, sometimes even days.

Every pilot should give his family short briefing  on the workings of SAR, so if they ever find themselves in that situation,  they will have realistic expectations. Please brief them not believe utterances on online forums, Facebook, Twitter etc, these are more than likely wrong and will just create panic and confusion.

 Be safe out there please, SAR do what they do out of passion but they would rather not have to ever go out looking for a downed aviator.


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