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Missing Alzheimer’s Man Search Flight

Missing Alzheimer’s Man Search Flight

Incident: Missing Alzheimer’s Man

Flight Time:  3 Hours

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Mission Goals:

To assist Mt Airy Rescue Squad in missing man search.

What Went Well:

  1. Good communications and teamwork within the air ops team of Pilot and Tactical Flight Officer (TFO).
  2. Excellent coordination with Air Traffic Control (ATC).
  3. Exceptional organization and data transfer between Command Post and flight team.
  4. Mt. Airy Rescue Squad demonstrated they are an extremely professional and technical operation.
  5. Safe flight operations in a highly challenging location.
  6. The missing man was found.


On the evening of August 18, 2021, Chief Nathan Webb of the Mt. Airy Rescue Squad contacted Chief Cash at the Wake Forest Fire Department for aerial assistance with a missing man search.

The man was last seen at 0945 at his residence and was reported to be a 75-year-old white male in a blue zip-up rain jacket, possibly work boots, maybe jeans, glasses, and a ball cap.

Chief Webb provided GPS coordinates of the location of found clues which is exceptionally unusual in our experience. But those coordinates were critical in the operation.

The man had been missing already for 24 hours before the 911 was received. He had reportedly spent the previous night in the rain.

The flight to the incident scene is approximately 50 minutes after departure from Raleigh-Durham. Given the time the request was made, we decided that we would have to wait until the morning of the 19th to depart, or it would be dark by the time we reached the target area.

We have been having low morning ground fog with a ceiling below 500 feet, and it burns off quickly, but I decided that we would depart the following morning once the ground fog was thinning.

After arriving at the airport on the 19th, the aircraft was prepared and preflight for safe operation. Again, good teamwork made this a faster process.

Missing Alzheimer’s Man Search Flight
TFO Chief Cash preparing aircraft.

Once the aircraft was prepared for flight and the VIPER radio was confirmed operational, we began our departure and utilized our priority dispatch code to skip the line of departing aircraft and get an immediate release. We departed at 0940.

Raleigh ATC provided exceptional assistance.

The flight to the location was uneventful, but I did visualize low-lying ground fog in areas that reinforced the decision to wait for departure in the AM.   

As we neared the target location, TFO Cash contacted Command on DPR 4 TG 5 to coordinate flight operations.

The search area was in a challenging location up against some steeply rising foothills. Moreover, it extended across the North Carolina and Virginia state lines.

Between the floor of the area and the top of the tower on the foothill at the search area, we had a vertical rise of about 2,600 feet and had to give the tower at the top additional vertical clearance.

Missing Alzheimer’s Man Search Flight
Missing Alzheimer’s Man Search Flight

Additionally, the weather was potentially moving in from the west, and it created the potential for poor leeward wind conditions.

As we approached the area after making contact, I discussed my intended flight operations with TFO Cash to make sure we were on the same page as a crew.

The plan of action was for us to make a pass with the target area on the pilot side of the aircraft so I could assess the location and orient myself. I then made a pass around and over the foothill to determine the wind impact at the time of the search.

Missing Alzheimer’s Man Search Flight
Terrain in area of search.

I determined what I felt was a safe distance from the rising terrain and began making horizontal passes along the search side face.

To stay in the tight search area and away from the terrain required me to fly wingovers on the turns.

Additional GPS coordinates were passed from Command to TFO Cash, and we departed the area towards lower terrain to plot these in without worrying about terrain clearance.

We turned back to the search area, flew the GPS coordinates, and received word that the missing man had been located alive with a head injury.

Following termination of search by Command, we departed the area back to base. We spent a total of 30 minutes flying against the foothills.

That kind of close terrain flying required exceptional crew coordination. With the rising terrain and towers on his side of the aircraft, TFO Cash did a great job calling out targets. As well as using the gyrostabilized binoculars to examine the heavily wooded area below us.

It has been reported multiple times that having an aircraft circling overhead can draw out the victim and let them know a search is ongoing. But in this incident, I suppose the most I can say is that the man was found, and operations terminated without incident. Everyone returned safely.

Your Wake Forest Fire Department flight crew in FIRE DEMON 1.

Missing Alzheimer’s Man Search Flight
Your Flight Crew: TFO Chief Cash & Chief Pilot Steve Rhode

What Could Have Gone Better:

All of the factors that could have led to a better flight were beyond our control—for example, darkness, fog, and steep terrain.

I have no other suggestions about what we could have done differently.

Flight Video:

Video captured from the airplane, FIRE DEMON 1 in-flight shows terrain, towers, command post, and general search area.

Recommendations From Flight:   Continue training flights and patrols to continue sharpening our skills and opportunities to assist.

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