For just over five years the Provincial Emergency Program Air (PEP Air) has had a unit in the Elk Valley. PEP Air is the B.C. division of the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) where volunteers provide air support for the National Search and Rescue Program. Brent Bidston, the pilot and Area Air Deputy for the Elk Valley unit described how the group can assist with a search to The Free Press.
“Our unit provides air search and rescue capabilities to help in any search including lost aircraft, people and vehicles over land or water. In addition we can provide radio coverage relay to help communications in remote areas and also transport required specialist personnel to or from our area,” he said. “We are averaging two to three calls a year. These have been mainly in support of Ground Search and Rescue but we were also used for damage assessment north of Elkford when the roads were flooded, and were able to confirm with photos the washed out bridges. We also confirmed that no one was trapped north of the floods.”
The aircraft that the local PEP Air division uses is a Cessna 172 fixed wing airplane. While the plane itself is not exclusive to PEP Air, it is equipped with unique equipment, such as special communication lines that enable the air division to speak with ground units in an operation.
PEP Air also has a specially trained crew to ensure effective operation. There are three roles for the in-plane crew – pilot, navigator and spotter.
“What separates it from a recreational flight is the training and skills of the whole crew including pilot, navigator and spotters, all trained in search and rescue techniques and patterns. We train every month to achieve this,” said Bidston. “The real skill is when they see something, being able to talk the rest of the crew into the object, so we can all see what it is they are looking at and help identify it.”
PEP Air is most often called for a search and rescue operation when teams are unsure as to the location of the subject. They are called in because of the high elevation and speed as well as low operating cost of a fixed wing airplane.
“What tends to happen is they immediately call a helicopter because they hope they know where the person is. If they are not right where they think [then we get the call]. A helicopter is too expensive to use for searching; we can do 10 hours of searching for every one that a helicopter does,” said Bidston.
“A Search and Rescue truck that would be searching the Flathead would probably be going maximum 40 or 50 kilometres an hour, especially if they are looking for signs of people. We are cruising at a minimum of 80 [km/hour] and seeing four or five times further than they could see in the truck.”
Primary funding for PEP Air comes from CASARA National. Financial support is used to training crews and to help remain current in their goal of providing support and back up to Search and Rescue squadrons. Geographically, the Elk Valley provides some problems for Bidston and his crew.
“The vallies are very narrow, the terrain is rugged and our area is quite large. We have recently been looking at some funding so we can go as far as Elko to practice searches in the wider valley,” he said. “We have been most grateful for funding from the Columbia Basin Trust and we have had a donation from the thrift shop in Sparwood.”
Bidston is looking for more volunteers, but due to his aircraft’s weight capacity there is a 160-pound limit per person, making it quite limiting.
“For a spotter, normally the requirement is that they have to be over 19 and not suffer easily from travel sickness,” he said. “Unfortunately, with my aircraft, I am looking for people with maximum availability so if they work it has to be something that they can get a day off from when required. Ideally, someone who is retired and does not go away for too much of the year.”
He added that people outside of the weight restriction can also volunteer in a variety of capacities both in the PEP Air division, but also for local Search and Rescue crews.
PEP Air is a tool for Search and Rescue and while it may not be in constant need, can be an asset in assisting Search and Rescue squads in a variety of capacities.