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Missing Aircraft Crash Sites and Spatial Relationships to the Last Radar Fix

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BACKGROUND: Few studies have examined the spatial characteristics of missing aircraft in actual distress. No previous studies have looked at the distance from the last radar plot to the crash site. The purpose of this study was to characterize this distance and then identify environmental and flight characteristics that might be used to predict the spatial relationship and, therefore, aid search and rescue planners.

METHODS: Detailed records were obtained from the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center for missing aircraft in distress from 2002 to 2008. The data was combined with information from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Accident Database. The spatial relationship between the last radar plot and crash site was then determined using GIS analysis.

RESULTS: A total of 260 missing aircraft incidents involving 509 people were examined, of which 216 (83%) contained radar information. Among the missing aircraft the mortality rate was 89%; most occurred in mountainous terrain (57%); Part 91 flight accounted for 95% of the incidents; and 50% of the aircraft were found within 0.8 nmi from the last radar plot. Flight characteristics, descent rate, icing conditions, and instrument flight rule vs. visual flight rule flight could be used to predict spatial characteristics.

CONCLUSIONS: In most circumstances, the last radar position is an excellent predictor of the crash site. However, 5% of aircraft are found further than 45.4 nmi. The flight and environmental conditions were identified and placed into an algorithm to aid search planners in determining how factors should be prioritized.

Koester RJ, Greatbatch I. Missing aircraft crash sites and spatial relationships to the last radar fix. Aerosp Med Hum Perform. 2016; 87(2):114–121.
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Keywords: crash factors; radar forensics; search & rescue

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Kingston University London, Kingston upon Th ames, UK

Publication date: 01 February 2016

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  • This journal (formerly Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine), representing the members of the Aerospace Medical Association, is published monthly for those interested in aerospace medicine and human performance. It is devoted to serving and supporting all who explore, travel, work, or live in hazardous environments ranging from beneath the sea to the outermost reaches of space. The original scientific articles in this journal provide the latest available information on investigations into such areas as changes in ambient pressure, motion sickness, increased or decreased gravitational forces, thermal stresses, vision, fatigue, circadian rhythms, psychological stress, artificial environments, predictors of success, health maintenance, human factors engineering, clinical care, and others. This journal also publishes notes on scientific news and technical items of interest to the general reader, and provides teaching material and reviews for health care professionals.

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