The Kenai Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol will hone its search and rescue skills with three separate practice operations around the Kenai Peninsula this weekend.
"We practice so that when the real thing happens we know what to do," said CAP member Jayne Hempstead.
CAP, the civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, is a nonprofit and federally chartered corporation of nearly 60,000 people age 12 and up. On the peninsula, there are three CAP squadrons -- in Kenai, Homer and Seward.
"The Kenai Composite Squadron of CAP has nearly 100 members, with a core of 30 of those members being active," said Capt. Henry Knackstedt, the commander of the Kenai-based group.
Knackstedt said in Alaska, with more pilots per capita than any other state in the nation, CAP provides a crucial service of locating downed planes, and the group frequently is used to locate lost boaters, as well as lost and injured backcountry recreationalists.
"We're often the first ones called upon by the Rescue Coordination Center at Fort Richardson in Anchorage," Knackstedt said.
He added the Kenai squad-ron flies about 20 to 25 missions a year. Most are nondistress situations, but three to four may involve someone in a real emergency.
"Also, every month from February to September we run practice drills," he said. Three different practices scenarios are planned for this weekend.
Jayne Hempstead will play an active role in Saturday's drill.
"I'll be the person on the ground who is supposedly lost," she said.
Depending on the snow conditions, Hempstead said she likely will skijor or snowshoe with her dogs about five miles into one of the lakes, possibly around the Skilak Lake Road or Mystery Creek Road areas.
"At this time of year, these are typically places where people might be hiking or doing some late season ice fishing and could get off trail and lost or slip on the ice and be injured," she added.
The scenario is common on the peninsula and can play out in several ways. Some people in need of rescue have a cell phone and call with their general vicinity to help narrow the search parameters.
"Having a cell phone can help a lot in these situations," Knackstedt said.
However, other times a call may come from someone else -- such as a spouse -- and the caller can provide little information other than that the lost person said he was going hiking that day and is overdue.
Hempstead said the search and rescue team likely will plot an inland search grid.
"This is a methodical way of flying an area to increase your chances of finding someone," she said.
"The pilot will fly the grid back and forth while the air crew -- 'scanners' and 'observers' in the plane -- look for the target."
She added that once located, the CAP air team typically determines the coordinates of the victim (or wreckage in some cases), pinpoints these coordinates on a global positioning system, and relays the findings via radio to a dispatcher on the ground so that other agencies can pick up the survivors.
Hempstead said other CAP drills this weekend may include message or supply drops from planes to people on the ground, as well as aerial searches to locate emergency locator transmitters.
An ELT -- commonplace in most aircrafts -- is an alerting beacon that can be activated manually or automatically in a crash.
"It sends out a signal that we'll practice pinpointing the location of," Hempstead said.
Hempstead said she enjoys being a member of CAP and taking part in the rescue drills in her spare time.
"CAP is a great group that provides a great service," she said.
She added, "I'm a pilot and my husband and I are both active hikers. If we ever crashed or were lost, we would want to know someone was looking for us, and this is a way of providing that search and rescue service to others."
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