Poor Search and Rescue (SAR) coordination has been highlighted by a succession of international air tragedies. In a case study, Brian Day, ICAO HQ technical officer, SAR (retired) and now a civil aviation SAR consultant, said SAR's purpose is clear and unambiguous – it saves lives.
“SAR has a proud record, putting a brave face on tragedy and collecting valuable safety data for the industry,” Day said.
But, he said, SAR must change, in a variety of ways.
“For a long time SAR has not been well supported. In a word, the industry has become complacent,” he said.
He added that to be effective SAR needs the involvement of a wide-ranging number of different entities, including security, police, diplomatic and military.
“Cooperation, communication and coordination are the essential 'three Cs' of SAR.” he said. “Aviation SAR is a legal obligation and cross-border cooperation is a necessity.”
He highlighted the loss of Air France AF447 while en-route between Rio to Paris on 1 June 2009.
“When the aircraft failed to make contact the RCC should have acted faster,” he said. “In fact it took more than six hours before a distress phase was declared.
“It was 10 hours before the first SAR aircraft was despatched. The search was uncoordinated and offered little probability of detection.”
He said that any cross-border search attempt is likely to be “shambolic” without the correct plans in place.
Day also highlighted the case of UP56, a Boeing 747-400 that declared a fire while over the Arabian Gulf in 2011. The aircraft had overflown Bahrain, Iran and Emirates search and rescue regions.
If there had been a disaster the coordination may have been very problematic , Day surmised.
“The recent loss of MH370 involved both the Malaysian and Vietnamese FIR boundaries,” he said. “Again, there were time delays before an alert or distress phase was declared.
“As I stand here and say this I have cold chills passing down my spine,” he added.
“We are not speaking here about an interesting news item, but the lives of 239 people – an entire week was lost looking in the South China Sea.”
He said the problems in all these cases were failures in organisation and the obvious question is whether the states involved were incompetent or under resourced. He highlighted an ICAO survey that showed fundamental problems with SAR arrangements across 191 states.
“In summary, half of the world's SAR provisions are dysfunctional and downright dangerous,” he said.
“Africa fears no better than other states globally. That's no more acceptable than the rest of the world.”
What is now urgently required is both a worldwide network of state and regional SAR boundaries, he said.
“The strategy is simple – we need to establish a regional organisation for SAR, rather than a country-led model to strengthen the safety net of last resort,” Day concluded.