505th Command and Control Wing radar expert rings in New Year with lifesaving action

  • Published
  • By Capt. Lisa Dowling
  • Western Air Defense Sector Public Affairs
For one lucky pilot, just making it to 2009 was the highlight of his New Year's Day, thanks to the quick-thinking expertise of a radar expert from the 505th Command and Control Wing's 84th Radar Evaluation Squadron.

Paul Christensen, a 23-year old pilot of a Taylor Craft-21 single-engine aircraft, left Moscow-Pullman, Wash. bound for Slate Creek, Idaho, on New Year's Day. The trip, about 120 miles, should have only take Mr. Christensen about 45 minutes. However, after several hours, Mr. Christensen had not arrived. That's when John Henderson, a radar expert with the 84th RADES, stepped in to provide life-saving knowledge to find the lost pilot. The 84th RADES is a 505th CCW unit located at Hill AFB, Utah, although Mr. Henderson is part of a small 84th RADES detachment in Washington state.

Mr. Henderson, along with two other members of the 84th RADES, works closely with the Western Air Defense Sector at McChord Air Force Base, Wash.

The 84th RADES team received an urgent call late on the 31st from the WADS mission crew commander. Mr. Christensen had never reached his destination in Slate Creek, Idaho. His family was worried, especially since it was dark and very cold along the missing pilot's route.

"Once I got 'the call', I worked closely with the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center to relay any information as I got it," said Mr. Henderson.

During events like this, Mr. Henderson's job is to determine the most likely location of the missing aircraft. When a general location is determined, the team hopefully will either verify the pilot landed safely, or if necessary, direct search and rescue teams to the site. Mr. Henderson, a retired Air Force Master Sergeant and experienced private pilot, studies gigabytes of recorded radar data to discern a radar pattern that would resemble the pattern created by an aircraft flying along the planned flight route. He combines 3-D imaging with radar feeds to get a computerized topography map. Mr. Henderson then puts himself in a virtual cockpit of the downed aircraft, flying the same route and altitudes the missing pilot flew. Mr. Henderson can then determine if a pilot failed to clear a ridge line, or if he flew down a valley before disappearing. He usually pinpoints the likely crash site within a few hundred feet, and tells search and rescue teams precisely where to look.

"I'm a pilot myself with more than 1,000 hours of flying time, so it helps me think like the pilot," he explained. "Instead of a search area of hundreds of square miles, we're able to condense it to a matter of square feet," he said pilot," he explained. "Instead of a search area of hundreds of square miles, we're able to condense it to a matter of square feet," he said. As a result, downed pilots who survive the initial crash are often rescued before their injuries or the elements can take their lives. Mr. Henderson's skill in narrowing the search area helped Idaho Transportation Department rescuers locate Christensen, who was found uninjured later the same evening.

Mr. Henderson is no rookie at radar analysis and 3-D modeling. He's the Site Chief for the 84th RADES' McChord location, and one of only a handful of people in the country capable of this level of forensic radar analysis. His primary job is to support the radar infrastructure underlying the nation's air defense network. He processes volumes of raw radar data in real time to keep the U.S. Theater Air Control System running smoothly. Mr. Henderson and his staff have developed uniquely powerful software tools to analyze the historical radar data, and those tools led directly to the 3-D software he uses for search and rescue, all for the price of a laptop.

Mr. Henderson is a true hero behind the scenes."John is exactly the type of professional the Air Force needs on watch," said Col. Paul D. Gruver, WADS commander. "He took an extremely serious - and potentially deadly - situation on New Year's Eve and turned it into a life-saving success story. I'm proud to have him as a member of my team."

Though the 84th RADES team is rarely credited, the Search and Rescue and Recoveries mission couldn't take place without their valuable efforts, said Mr. Henderson.

"We're like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz. We are behind the scenes making everything happen," said an excited Henderson. "I love my job, and saving lives."

Along with his pilot experience, Mr. Henderson is a major in the Civil Air Patrol. Though not every event ends happily, 2008 ended on a happy note for uninjured pilot, Paul Christiansen, thanks to this "unsung" hero and the team at the 84th RADES.