Updated: Dec 27, 2019
Probably the greatest risk to airborne search and rescue it a motor out while searching at low altitudes. There are other risks such as a helicopter arriving in the search area in which case the best practice may be to get yourself on the ground as soon as possible with a controlled landing. That particular situation demonstrates the importance of the Operations Specialist being in contact with the search administrators and with ground support being aware of approaching aircraft. But a motor out at low levels is a serious issue. You will typically be breaking one of the commandments of paramotor flying and that is you are not keeping a landing zone within range of your glide ratio. In watery areas where lost individuals can be common, you always have the option of landing in the water. As stated before, landing in the water can be one of the safest places to land if you are prepared for it. How do you prepare? A few things are imperative.
One, you need to be wearing a life vest. I always wear a life vest even when flying over land because it adds additional safety whether it is used for flotation or body protection. My pockets are filled with emergency equipment; whistle, horn, space blanket, tourniquet and flashlight. More details on that in an upcoming article.
Two, you need constant communication. I carry a remote PTT so that I can contact local air traffic and my command center in a minutes notice.
Three, your paramotor needs to have flotation attached to it. There are several devices on the market that are designed specifically for this eventuality. Watch Tom Kubat's video (here) where he reviews the current products and determine which one would work best for your setup.
Four, you need to have a suitable and well-trained chase team nearby to effect a quick and efficient rescue of yourself and for retrieval of your equipment. This could be a pontoon boat, an air-boat, a bass boat, a Jon boat, etc. Even a kayak off of your land vehicle is a possibility. I carry a kayak in my trailer as a tool of last resort and so that I can go kayaking when traveling with my paramotor for sport. Practice with all these assets is essential. I would have weekly or bi-weekly training for my team and monthly or quarterly full-blown drills for area familiarization. Having another pilot in the air with you has its pluses and minuses. It is good to have someone in the air that can see exactly where you have landed and can make a quick assessment of how serious the situation is. By the same token, having two paramotors in the air doubles your chances of having a mechanical problem and an emergency landing situation. This decision is up to the team.
Five, your equipment needs to be in top-notch order and condition. Follow your PM schedules religiously if you are going to be involved in ASAR. Since you will be mostly involved with straight and level flying and not aerobatics, a motor-out is going to be your biggest concern and since you will have little time to resolve a motor-out issue, I suggest you not even try to restart it and that you prepare immediately for an emergency landing unless you suspect that it is caused by a low idle setting. Even then, you normally won't be idling when flying low to the ground because of the rate of decent at idle. Best to just use the time you have to make the best landing possible. I would suggest that you use the same instructions that a pilot gets for motor-out during takeoff, and that is to remain in straight and level flight and not make adjustments close to the ground that could cause you to pitch or oscillate. I can envision in the near future people coming up with lightweight crash protection gear that does not exist today.
The exception would be if you can make it to water that is deep enough to protect you. If doing a search along a body of water that might be easy. In that case you should remain conscious of the wind direction at all times by watching how the ground passes under you. If you are going to ditch, turn down wind as opposed to upwind. Upwind may slow your ground speed for a landing on ground but when you contact the water you will come to an abrupt halt and the wing will fly past you and then stall and fall back down on top of you driven by the wind. If you are flying downwind, the wing will sail past you and settle ahead of you in the water. Admittedly, this can be hard to determine along a treeline since there can be unpredictable rotors coming off the treeline. It is unlikely you will be flying in much wind for a search and rescue operation so flying downwind shouldn't pose a high speed problem. More on this in another article.
If you are going to land in the water I would suggest you follow some steps. First, turn toward the water and announce over the radio that you are going down. "Mayday, mayday, mayday, motor out, motor out" or simply "Ditch, ditch, ditch" which would be easy to discern even with broken or poor communications. Establish a system of communication with the team that has distinct sounds and doesn't have you guessing as to what it being said. Here is where a remote PTT button is useful. This may be all the time you have since at 100 ft you probably have 15-20 seconds to react. If you have time, free your hands, hank down your trim tabs and disconnect yourself from your equipment except for your harness or seat belt. Hyperventilate. That may come naturally in this situation. Discard anything you can that is attached to you as soon as you can such as your helmet or reserve parachute. A reserve is probably not necessary for ASAR but I wouldn't condemn anybody for carrying one. It could come in useful at higher altitude searches. I have a lot to say about reserves in another article. Retrieve your brake toggles and flair on touchdown. Wait until your wing has landed on the water and then unfasten your seat belt or harness, grab your risers and roll out of it to one side or the other. If you have automatic inflating floats on your equipment, you may opt to deploy them manually before impact but they may interfere with other operations. Use your knife at this point if needed to clear rigging or penetrate your wing if landed on you. Stay with your equipment if it is floating just be sure you are not connected to it.
I have never made a water landing with a paramotor. I have made water landings with a parachute as part of my training in Special Forces as a member of a Scout Swimmer team. We wore dry suits that provided plenty of flotation however there was always the danger of inversion with the air filling your legs and making it difficult or impossible to invert yourself. We wore weight belts and equipment that was tethered to us and which we dropped prior to landing and towed behind us while swimming. We used the equipment as an indicator of when to release our six point harness and sit in the saddle like a swing set prior to touch down. It is difficult to determine altitude looking down at water so falling out of the seat too early could be hazardous. With low level search, falling from a high altitude is not going to be an issue, I don't think. There is lots of room for ideas and innovation in the area. But once you settle on a method you should practice it by running the steps through your mind while wearing your equipment. This will create a mental pattern that will come in handy in a real emergency. I would add it to my pre-flight takeoff check list, if I was planning on flying over or near water for the search. Practicing real crash landing is impractical in any event so mental preparation is absolutely necessary. It should be paint-by-numbers. And at a minimum you should be wearing a life jacket.
Here are some links to emergency water landings. They are instructional.
I added this series on 12/27. Much to say on it in another article that is soon coming.
Please feel free to make comments or ask questions below. If you have experience in this area I invite you to make your views known.
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How do you do it?
"Operations - Red Ange One - Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! - Ditch, ditch, ditch!"