* Plymouth Composite Squadron

Serving southeastern Massachusetts

Pictures taken by CAP member during search.

News | Thursday, July 15, 1999

This signal was a test for cadets

By Rich Harbert
MPG Newspapers

PLYMOUTH - Somewhere among the dozens of boats bobbing at anchor in Plymouth Harbor Tuesday, a small transmitter sounded a steady warning.

Just as steadily, a half dozen Civil Air Patrol cadets under the guidance of Lt. Col. Robert Westfield were closing in.

Using maps, compasses, hand-held radios and an electronic locator device known as a Little L-Per, the cadets were able to get a rough fix on the transmitter's signal. Triangulations from the state boat ramp and the town and state piers suggested that the beacon emanated from the southeast, not far from the end of the jetty. And seven minutes later, the cadets zeroed in and found the life-saving device sounding its warning from the deck of Westfield's 27-foot Catalina, Celestial Air.

A buoy marked "Westfield" might have given the cadets a clue but they found the transmitter the hard way - the same way they will be expected to the next time the U.S. Air Force calls with a report of a downed airplane or capsized boat.

"Okay, that's a find. Good job," Westfield told his cadets as the transmitter was pulled aboard the launch.

Known as an Emergency Locator Transmitter or ELT, the devices are used by most aircraft and many boats to signal disaster. They can be activated manually by accelerations of 5Gs or more and, in some cases, by being tipped on their sides.

They transmit a signal that can be detected by satellite and some aircraft. The signal is then relayed to Langley. Va., and the search and rescue call goes out to the Civil Air Patrol.

Tuesday's training exercise on the waterfront was conducted to give the cadets experience in the art and science of the job.

Sgt. Stephen Donaghey, a 17-year-old local resident who dreams of someday flying for the Air Force, led the cadets. He plotted out the triangulations on a map of the harbor after taking readings from the Little L-Per.

The Little L-Per is a simple looking device with two antennna that pinpoint the location of a signal by measuring the difference of intensity between signals to the two antennae.

Westfield, a former Air Force crew chief, said the Pilgrim Squadron is usually called out a couple of times every year to track down an ELT. Fortunately, most signals are false alarms that result when boaters forget about the devices when they start overhauling their boats in the spring or fall.

Westfield has personally tracked several signals to boats in local marinas. Even midnight calls are not so bad, he said, when the transmitter is located on deck. Tracking down a boat owner in the middle of the night, however, takes some of the glamor out of the volunteer work.

One ELT was even found in a dumpster at the rear of the town pier. Westfield said the owner got a new one and discarded his old without worrying about the consequences.

Not all the searches end in false alarms. And not all are successful.

The squadron was called out last spring to search for an airplane that disappeared somewhere in the Plymouth/Carver area. The airplane was equipped with an ELT but it never sounded enough of an alarm to bring help.

Westfield said it's possible that the ELT's batteries were bad. Or, if the plane sank in deep enough water, it would have sounded a signal that only planes flying directly above could hear.

Either way, the plane's fate remains a mystery. A team of divers is slated to begin searching area ponds and lakes for it later this summer.

Westfield said the search and rescue training session on the harbor was helpful because it oriented cadets with the task of locating a boat on the water, where masts and hulls can interfere with the signal and equipment.

Indeed, as the cadets set off into the harbor aboard Mark Freedman's launch, the hand-held VHF radio being used by cadet Tony Tassinari was initially worthless.

Despite Tassinari's best efforts to shield stray signals and hone in only on the ELT, the signal bellowed from every direction. Cadet Alex Currie had better luck with the Little L-Per, using it to direct the launch between the Kinesis and the Amore Mia, past the Anna Marie and the Wayne-O, and finally between the Leprechaun and Campbell's Sloop to Westfield's Celestial Air.

Even then, the Westfield put the cadets to the test - feigning ignorance of the transmitter's location until the radios and the Little L-Per's conclusions were verified by sight. "It never fails that they get close to it but are not quite sure," said Westfield. "But I would give them an excellent on this find. Their accuracy was right on the money."

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© 1999 MPG Newspapers, Plymouth, Mass. All rights reserved.

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