Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Fourth of July to Remember!

Kate Allen, 1st Lt, CAP
UDF Standard
Amelia Earhart Senior Squadron 188
California Wing

If you had asked me on July 3 what I'd be doing for Independence Day this year, I'd have told you cheerfully that my husband, daughter, and I were heading a couple of hours north to Santa Rosa for a barbecue. 

Anyone who knows the Allen family, however, would have guessed I was speaking too soon--and they'd be right.

We did end up in Santa Rosa for a barbecue; we also located and deactivated a live EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon) on the way.

The 121.5 radio signal was first heard the morning of July 3 by a Civil Air Patrol (CAP) member, who e-mailed me and my husband, CAP 1 Lt Mike Allen, to see what the next step would be to get a search going.  My hubby has developed quite a reputation around California Wing for being a go-to guy when it comes to ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter) missions and Urban Direction Finding (UDFing).  By the morning of July 4, the signal had been pinned down to a trash heap at Redwood Empire Disposal in Santa Rosa, but getting at it had proved impossible to the CAP UDF teams who had gone out ahead of us.  So, instead of our reds, whites, and blues, we donned our UDF uniform of blue shirt, gray pants, and reflective orange safety vest, then headed out the door and logged into the Air Force search mission as a UDF team (thank goodness for our friend hosting the barbecue--when we arrived in Santa Rosa she whisked away our daughter, Future Cadet Allen, so we could hunt the beacon!). 

Once Mike had informed Redwood Empire Disposal's supervisor of our presence and purpose and acquired permission to search the grounds, we put on clear nitrile gloves from Mike's trauma kit and pulled out our secret weapon: an L-Per (think: UDF helper!) with Yagi antenna array.  This device is designed to be able not only to tell us whether a bleeping EPIRB is to our left or right, but whether it's above or below us--truly a superior UDF tool.  I unfolded the considerable metal contraption carefully, not having used it in well over a year, and when Mike asked to carry it first, I gave it to him straight: "Hey, you've had about a zillion and a half UDF finds--my turn to play!"  He held up his hands in spousal surrender, and away we went to shoot bearings for our first triangulation.  I got the hang of the L-Per again within minutes, asking Mike questions to refresh my memory as we went along.

We found the trash heap easily enough: we started with our 121.5 signal and adjusted the sensitivity dial from maximum to minimum, and then went off frequency to 121.6 (the idea is, if you can hear the beacon bleeding into other frequencies, you're getting pretty close!).  We readjusted the sensitivity dial to maximum and followed it till we could reduce sensitivity to minimum again and still hear the signal.  A few bearings shot all around our heap of choice demonstrated that the EPIRB was somewhere within it, rather than elsewhere in the yard.

At 15 feet high and easily 50 feet in diameter, this smelly pile of junk seemed mountainous.  By the time we'd pinned down which heap the signal was coming from, we looked around and realized that the guys who had been working before were nowhere in sight.  We solicited some help from within the building and in a few minutes returned with an employee who was willing to work the trash heap with a bulldozer during his lunch break.  He warned us to stay clear of his path and then moved the machine effortlessly into the pile, scooping up a load and shaking it gently--as gently as bulldozers can shake anything--into a more manageable mound in front of us.  I checked the pile and confirmed that the EPIRB was still in the larger heap.  The employee scooped the small pile away and backed up to collect another one.  This time Mike checked.  Still in the larger pile.  He asked me to shoot some bearings just to be sure; the signal was still strong and still coming distinctly from the larger pile.  We were able to go further off frequency again, this time to 121.775, and as the employee pulled out more and more trash from the heap, we were able to get an increasingly clear signal. 

After what must have been nearly a dozen scoops, we could hear the low static of data bursts from the 406MHz satellite signal once a minute, another sign that we were virtually on top of it--but we hadn't spotted it yet.  Mike had the Yagi in hand as the signal moved in the direction of the next scoop.  The signal went up--and then crashed down.  It was in front of our feet!  By this time we had gained an audience of several employees, and they helped us pull away cardboard, plastic, and metal as we sought a glimmer of the life-saving device.

I saw it first.  It looked like the end of a traffic cone--orange with a bit of reflective tape around the top.  I pointed with an excited screech and Mike pulled it out from the pile.  I let loose an enthusiastic whoop, grinning as he held it up.  It was a buoy, an EPIRB designed for use on a boat.  The employees all looked at us, probably wondering whether all the fuss had been worth it.  After assuming the honor of disarming it, I explained that by finding and deactivating it, we were clearing the radio waves for any authentic distress signals that might otherwise be masked by the non-distress signal.

The employees who helped out offered to take a picture of us after it was all said and done.

Afterward we headed back to our car with EPIRB in hand, deposited the EPIRB into a bag marked for hazardous materials (also from Mike's trauma kit), and peeled off our gloves to dispose of them.  Then we went on our merry way to our friend's Independence Day barbecue, a successful CAP UDF mission under our belts.  All in a day's work for this CAP family!

1 Lt's Mike and Kate Allen, CAP - 4-Jul-2012 
Image courtesy of CAP 1 Lt Kate Allen

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