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Missing planes: An inside look at the team that finds them

‘You’re hoping you get there soon enough’
Mark Young, commander of the National Radar Analysis Team, part of the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol, stopped recently at the Smiley Cafe on his way from Montrose to Farmington. The National Radar Analysis Team helps locate missing aircraft across the nation, and sometimes internationally.

If you ever see Mark Young rush into a coffee shop and pull out his computer, odds are he is setting up to track a missing aircraft as part of a national recovery or rescue attempt.

Young is commander of the nation’s only aircraft search and rescue radar team – a group of volunteer data hounds who can find a missing plane within minutes.

The National Radar Analysis Team, part of the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol, was formally established as a national squadron in 2008. It is responsible for locating downed planes anywhere in the United States, and it uses everything from radar to cellphone and satellite data to get the job done.

“We used to do missions for 10 days, two weeks, maybe find the aircraft, maybe not,” Young said. “That was a common thing. Now ... 95% of them we resolve within an hour or two.”

The Civil Air Patrol has been responding to aircraft search and rescue missions since its creation in the 1940s.

A missing plane incident in 1997 changed the game. An Air Force pilot unexpectedly broke away from an aircraft training mission, flew into the Colorado Rockies with four 500-pound bombs on board, and was never heard from again.

In that case, the Air Force searched for weeks before turning to a new radar mapping program that laid radar data over a topographic map. The software quickly produced a location, showing the Air Force the value of the new mapping technique, Young said.

“That was the inception of the team, and then it grew from there,” he said.

The 12-member NRAT team is made up of volunteer programmers and analysts working remotely around the country, five of whom are located in Colorado. Typically, the team conducts about three search and rescue aircraft missions each week.

Members are responsible for locating missing aircraft in the United States, but they have also helped find missing aircraft abroad. For example, when the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing over the South China Sea in 2014 with 239 people on board, the radar team joined the search.

Roller-coaster response

When the team receives a call, “it takes us a few minutes to get to a computer, find a coffee shop or whatever, and get logged in,” Young said. In about 95% of its missions, the team can find an aircraft’s position to within 100 yards, he said.

That process generally takes about 10 minutes.

The team draws data from automatic surveillance systems on planes, military data, satellites, private companies and even aviation enthusiasts with their own radar receivers. The system compiles about 3GB of nationwide data each hour.

The response is “a roller coaster of emotions,” Young said.

Once members find the site, they can typically tell whether it was a survivable crash. They notify the local agencies, which can typically arrive at the scene within an hour or two, depending on the location and survivability.

“And then we wait,” Young said. “We’re kind of on pins and needles. ... You’re hoping somebody’s alive and you get there soon enough.”

The team’s speed makes the difference for response, said Jeff Sparhawk, president of Colorado Search and Rescue. When La Plata County Search and Rescue needs assistance finding a downed plane, it contacts the Colorado SAR to connect with the radar team.

“They definitely are on top of things. I’ve never seen it, but my understanding is their radar analysis is kind of groundbreaking stuff, at least when it was first developed,” Sparhawk said. “It really can make a difference in terms of how fast we get to a downed aircraft.”

Not only does the data help with response speed, but it has helped locate missing planes that would have otherwise remained mysteries.

An airplane headed to Amarillo, Texas, went missing in 2015 after leaving Flagstaff, Arizona. Its radar track shows that it unexpectedly flew north, eventually crashing in San Juan County, Colo.

In 2015, a plane headed from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Amarillo, Texas, veered off its flight path. Because of radar data, the team realized the pilot had flown north, over Farmington and Durango, and crashed in San Juan County, Colorado.

“Before we had this radar data available to us, we would have flown, I don’t know how many sorties looking for that guy and never found him because he wasn’t in the area,” Young said. “This has completely changed search and rescue.”

Volunteer effort

Like most search and rescue operations, the radar team relies on volunteers.

Most NRAT members have jobs in aviation fields, some with the Federal Aviation Administration or the Air Force. Some are retired.

“There’s a long history for the radar team in Colorado. They have made quite a difference over the years here,” Sparhawk said. “Their team works so well with all of the other teams, that collaboration is a big piece of what allows (operations) to work so smoothly.”

Young, a lieutenant colonel in the Civil Air Patrol, has been involved in search and rescue operations for four decades, even receiving a congressional public service tribute in 2018.

He was a responder with the radar team when famed pilot Steve Fossett, a record-setting aviator, went missing in 2007 while flying between Nevada and California.

“Unfortunately, there was not very good radar coverage. We spent a good three to four weeks trying to find a track,” Young said. “He was found a year later by some kids who actually found some $100 bills flying in the air. ... They were coming out of his wallet.”

When he’s not responding to missions, he is hiking around the Four Corners placing receivers on mountains and rooftops to access automatic surveillance data from planes.

For his day job, he is a medevac helicopter pilot – in 2009, he set eight world records, including a high-altitude landing at Pikes Peak. Recently, he was a security guard for then-candidate Lauren Boebert, who was elected to Congress in November.

“It’s very rewarding once we do find a plane, if we find it quickly and save a life,” Young said. “There’s a lot of dedication from our members for that reason.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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