How technology helped us find a missing aircraft

Google Earth Overlays for missing aircraft
Google Earth overlays for missing aircraft

On Tuesday evening, I was asked by the Civil Air Patrol Incident Commander (IC), Lt Col Mike Carlson to assist in the search for a missing aircraft. A Piper PA-32 was overdue on a flight from Dodge City, KS to Casper, WY. The aircraft was found on Thursday afternoon through the dedicated efforts of all involved. As a the planning section chief  (PSC) for the mission, I was responsible for helping to narrow the search and recommend future search areas. To accomplish this, we leveraged all the technology at our disposal. Here are the steps we took, the technologies used, and the lessons learned.

Google Earth

Google Earth was perhaps the most effective tool we had out our disposal. On Google Earth I plotted every detail I possibly could, and as a team we viewed the results of the plots to make search decisions. Once tasked as PSC, I first plotted the departure and arrival airports and the suspected flight path.

As the mission developed, we captured more information. The next major piece of information plotted were the NTAP points (radar points) of the suspected route of travel for the missing aircraft. I plotted each point and drew a path connecting each point, this showed us where to start our search.

CAP Grid System
CAP Grid System

We next overlayed the CAP Grid System for our area of search. This allowed us to rapidly determine search grids for our pilots. Using the grid system as a template, I shadowed the areas searched and proposed to be searched. This helped to tell a story and easily identified future search grids.

As the search progressed, we received input from ground teams in the area of sightings they were making. I would plot the coordinates of the ground team along the direction of the sighting and distance. After the mission concluded, one of the ground teams provide me with their GPS tracks. These were uploaded into Google Earth.

We each piece of the puzzle, we were able to narrow the search to being within .15 miles of the actual missing plane location.

Google earth makes it convenient to turn the display of an item on and off depending on the need. One of the key features that helped to quickly narrow the search was the 3-D view of the terrain. By changing the view from 2-D to 3-D, we were able to rule out proposed search areas.


We use SPOT to keep an eye on our aircraft in flight. Approximately every 10 minutes, the SPOT device transmitted a signal that is displayed on a Web site we followed. In addition to regular status checks on the radio, the SPOT device allowed us to follow our aircraft in flight.

Upon the completion of each day’s sorties, we downloaded the tracks from SPOT in a KML file and posted it to the mission Google Earth KMZ file.


We used Dropbox to store documents vital to all essential personnel. Primarily, we used Dropbox to share the ever changing Google Earth KMZ file. Each time Google Earth was updated, we updated Dropbox. Additionally, we posted photos taken from the search aircraft into Dropbox.

Dropbox is a great tool for collaboration with a dispersed team. Our team was certainly dispersed; the IC was in Cody, the Public Information Officer (PIO) was in Cheyenne, and I was in Laramie. Additionally, we had aircrews flying out of Powell, Gillette, Casper, and Casper. We were also working with the Albany County Sheriff Department and search and rescue teams.


Skype was our primary means of communications among the mission staff. We created a Skype group that was used throughout the mission. Except for an occasional conference call, typically twice a day, we extensively used the chat features to keep the team up to date. At the end of each day, we copied the chat and saved it as a text file to the mission files.

Using the premium features of Skype, we were able to conduct conference calls with all essential agencies. The IC could conference in both Skype users and other phone numbers.

Because I could access Skype from all my computers, my iPad, and smartphone, I was always up to date on the status of the mission.

Evernote and Google Alerts

With Evernote and Google Alerts, we were able to track and capture all the news stories relating to the search. Here are the details for capturing important information to Evernote. I track and save all news feeds with the terms “Wyoming” and “Civil Air Patrol” in them.


WyoLink radio system was essential to the IC and his ability to communicate with aircrews, ground teams, and other essential agencies. Other systems have been substandard to this effective system. WyoLink has been a welcome augmentation to other systems we use such as mutual aid, and the CAP system.

Lessons Learned

This was perhaps one of the most effective and educational searches that we had carried out. However, there are always lessons learned.

  • I could have changed locations and integrated with the Albany County Sheriff to demonstrate how we are tracking the mission. I will still do this as well as establish relations for future missions.
  • We could have established a Dropbox folder specifically for this mission and get it shared to all parties earlier.
  • Take advantage of the 3-D capability of Google Earth earlier in the mission.
  • Work to get everyone on Skype chat to keep everyone informed.
  • Clear out Skype timely each morning.

I learned a lot on this mission and wanted to share my lessons learned.