How do you actually conduct a search? This, of course, is going to depend on the terrain but some general techniques should be standard for any situation. In the Fire Department we conduct a primary and a secondary search at a fire scene. The primary search is done by a unit, often a rescue truck or "Box" as it is affectionately known. It normally has a two-man crew who will enter the structure after the attack team, which is the engine crew with a water line. If there is clear indication that lives are at risk inside the structure they usually can enter prior to the engine crew, otherwise they wait until the line is advanced because it gives them a means of finding their way out of the structure in an emergency or when a victim is found (follow the hose line.) In a real fire, you usually can't see your hand in front of your face during the search. Everything is done by pattern and feel. The "secondary" search is done after the fire is out. You hope you don't find anybody that you may have missed on your primary search. That is a big downer as you can try to imagine.
A somewhat similar primary and secondary search pattern is applicable to airborne search and rescue too. It varies by altitude and by thoroughness. Let's imagine how that would go. The team arrives at the command center and the Ops Specialist briefs the pilot and crew on the area to be searched and they agree on a search pattern, in general. We will fly along the east side of this road up to the north end of the area to be searched and then start a "Zamboni" or "Zig-zag" or "Riverbed" or "Downwind" pattern (one of several types of search patterns depending on the area to be searched.)
But prior to commencing the low level search the pilot will conduct a higher level "primary" search between 300-500 feet and give the area a broad once-over looking for anything that jumps out like red clothing or a moving person or object, giving special attention to areas that would likely harbor a victim, for example, around structures such as old barns, sheds, abandoned vehicles, etc. This shouldn't take more than 10-20 minutes or one quarter of the total search time. I would imagine that most searches should be limited to one to one and a half hours due to pilot fatigue and fuel concerns.
The "secondary" search will be much more structured and will be monitored and recorded by Ops to make sure that the designated area is covered completely, or if not, what portion of the area was actually searched. Recording the flight will document a good-faith effort by the team and gives credibility to the teams' professionalism. It also reduces the possibility of missing the victim or target during the search. Some areas will require a tighter search pattern depending on visibility and what is down below; corn fields, orchards, forests, swamps, etc. Wind will be a factor and a "downwind" search pattern may be desirable where the pilot lands at a site downwind of the launch site. The best altitude for observation will be determined by the pilot during the search.
Some teams may want to put up more than one pilot to help with the search. The search pattern can be broadened and much more area covered. One pilot can be in contact with Ops and the other pilot(s) fly as his wing-man and monitor the radio. More eyes on the ground and the air. All of this will have to evolve through trial and error and each team will probably have different systems that work better for them and their situation. The important thing is to practice with your team, that way everybody gets to see what is involved and how they can perfect their contribution to the search. I would say that a monthly or at a minimum quarterly drills would do the most to help the team develop and perfect their searches. There is no substitute for area and equipment familiarization either. Somewhere in all this are ways to have competitions and hopefully in the near future we can have Fly-in competitions between teams. Put your thinking caps on.
What do we do?
How do we do it?
Red Angel One out!