Drifting for five days 70 miles west of the Pacific atoll of Tarawa, three fishermen ate their last morsels of food and sipped the last drops of water; they were in trouble and they knew it. Suddenly an airplane from Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point flew overhead. The fishermen were spotted.
This rescue of three fishermen lost in the Pacific may not have happened at all were it not for the staff from Command, Control and Communications Engineering Center and contractors from Applied Science Associates some 7,000 miles away in Portsmouth, Va.
The search for the missing fishermen began when the three men were reported missing to local authorities. Two days into the search, the U.S. Embassy in Fiji requested Coast Guard assistance. Watchstanders at Joint Rescue Coordination Center Honolulu began the search planning and determined an “area of interest” where the missing boat might be located. The area of interest – known to search planners as AOI – can be thought of as a three-dimensional cube of latitude, longitude and time. As time passes, the volume of information within this cube grows and the search planning grows exponentially more difficult.
To understand where to concentrate search efforts within this cube, planners turned to the Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System, an information system designed to support drift modeling and resource allocation. The system fills the cube with vectors from data servers, and these vectors are then used to drive drift trajectories of thousands of simulated search objects.
As planners wrestled with the data, an airplane was launched to assist in the search. The aircrew traveled 2,100 miles from Oahu to the area of interest but the missing men were not found. On the second day of the search, an aircrew deployed four self-locating datum marker buoys to calculate drift.
With the buoys providing real-time information – such as winds and currents – search planners discovered the environmental data in their model was not accurate and as a result, the models generated by the Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System did not provide realistic trajectories.
Lt. Cmdr. Michael Jackson, the search and rescue mission coordinator at Joint Rescue Coordination Center Honolulu extended the area of interest following a suggestion made by Coast Guard staff oceanographer, Art Allen. Allen suggested the search planners utilize new modeling data still being integrated into the server.
To integrate this new model in Honolulu, they called on Guy DeWardener, a contractor with Applied Science Associates and a Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System expert. DeWardener adjusted the model but due to the length of time of the search and the amount of additional data from the new model, the cube of information filled up. A new problem arose; the search plan now had so much data it took more time to download. With the help of contractor John Squires, a setting in the program was adjusted and the data began flowing.
With the updated modeling data, a new search plan was established and just a few legs into this new search, the missing men were spotted.
Three men are alive today because of that Barbers Point aircrew and their sharp lookout. But these three men are also alive due to advanced technology and the dedicated men and women who maintain the technical proficiency to use it.