One of my community service projects is volunteering with CASARA BC, the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association in British Columbia. They are a great bunch of folks providing a very important service.  But they are hidden in a Romulan cloaking device as far as the Web is concerned. When I tried to join them, I couldn’t find a single page that described the basics of who what where when how and why they are and do.  So I’m writing it, and here it is.  I hope this will be helpful to others, at least until CASARA BC gets an official recruiting page up.

Or until the one obscure BC Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA BC) page can be discovered by a straightforward search. (A sneakily search-engine friendly link to it is part of my contribution.)

In Canada, the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) is an organisation of civilian volunteers who are prepared to help find and rescue missing flyers, boaters, and hikers by flying small civilian planes to look for the missing party or for radio beacons. Generally, when and if CASARA finds their target, they relay the location to Canadian Forces, which sends in the skilled crews who actually jump or hike to the site and perform the rescue.  All this is done under a rescue coordination structure run by the Canadian Forces. The rough US equivalent is the Civil Air Patrol.

National CASARA has a nice website with links to the provincial CASARA chapters. The link given for the BC chapter is PEP is the British Columbia Provincial Emergency Program, the province’s umbrella organisation for all kinds of search and rescue teams.  So BC PEP’s home page salutes volunteers, talks about home emergency preparedness, says how important search and rescue is. But it doesn’t mention air search and rescue until a continuation page, where there is the bare phrase “Civil Air Search and Rescue”. Astonishingly, this doesn’t link to the useful BC Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA BC) page on; it links right back to the national CASARA site!

A diligent web search finds many traces of CASARA BC, enough to make it clear the organisation exists. But what isn’t easily discoverable on the public web, at least as of this writing, is a straightforward information page that tells prospective BC volunteers what their local CASARA is and how to get involved.  So let me tell you what I’ve found out.

CASARA BC is also known as PEP Air, and it reports to PEP BC. I’ve never experienced that connection. It is divided into six zones. The only zone I’ve encountered is the Southwest Zone, which covers the Lower Mainland. The Zone Commander is Tom Fisher <>, who is a great contact for prospective volunteers, and who gave me permission to post his email address here. That difficult-to-find PEP page lists the six zones of CASARA BC: Vancouver Island, Southwest, Southeast, Central, Northwest, and Northeast.

CASARA BC has monthly exercises for training and information-sharing.  Everything I’ve done to date with CASARA has been at these monthly exercises. They run from 9 a.m. to about 4 p.m.  The morning is lectures: briefing from the zone commander of the month’s news, and training on navigation or spotting technique or the new ELTs or what have you.  The afternoon, if the weather is fine and the budget holds out, is a flight exercise. (Mind you, from when I started with CASARA in September 2007 it was nearly six months before we achieved this combination and I flew.) A few pilots with navigators, and as many spotters as will fit into their planes, go up to practice search skills. Sometimes there are ground exercises, like homing in on a practice ELT. Most months there are some forms for us to fill out. (That’s how you know it’s a government operation.) When we don’t fly, we usually end by noon. When we do, we run until 4pm or so. Thankfully, these exercises include doughnuts, and sometimes sandwiches.

The Southwest Zone has two meeting places. One is at Abbotsford Airport (CYXX), at the Abbotsford Flying Club (map to AFC). This is a white single-story building with a green roof, near the Shell Station and airport terminal. The CYXX meeting is on the second Saturday of each month.

The other is at Boundary Bay Airport (CZBB), at the Pacific Flying Club (map to PFC). This is a white two-story building with a flat roof, at the far-left corner of the parking lot at the end of Skeena Road. It’s a separate clump of buildings from the CZBB terminal, to the east. The CZBB meeting is on the third Sunday of each month.

The monthly exercises tend to be cancelled in December, because holidays conflict, and in August, because local airshows conflict.

CASARA BC traditionally has a booth at the Abbotsford Air Show, which this year is Fri–Sun, Aug 8–10, 2008. We plan to have a booth at the Pitt Meadows (CYPK) airport days, Sat–Sun, Aug 16–17, 2008. And we should be at the Chilliwack (CYCW) Flight Fest, Sun Aug 17, 2008. If you want to find out more about CASARA, come visit the booth, and ask questions. I did that at the 2007 Abbotsford show, which is how I began homing in on CASARA.

CASARA BC also takes part in SAREXes, or search and rescue exercises, and in national-level search and rescue training courses. I’ve heard reports about these from those who attended, but I’ve never attended myself. Maybe in 2009.

And of course, CASARA responds when the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre calls. So far we seem to get 1-3 calls per month to investigate ELT beacons going off; these are almost always equipment malfunctions or operator goofs at airports. Interestingly, we sometimes get called to transport search and rescue crews rather than to search ourselves. And, of course, every so often we get called to search for a lost plane or boat. I haven’t experienced any of these yet.

So what can one do in CASARA?  The basic role is spotter:  look out the window of an aircraft flying 1000′ above the ground for signs of the missing craft or people. The only qualification for this is normal vision (glasses OK), a level head, readiness to fly in small planes, and some basic CASARA training, including two flights. I’m completed these steps and have my spotter wings. Spotters do not need to be trained pilots, though some of us are.  Another role is navigator: sitting in the right seat next to the pilot, read the maps, guide the pilot, record what is observed, communicate, and fill out many many forms.  Next year I may move up to navigator. Pilot training gives a big leg up on navigation, but non-pilots can learn the skills too.  The most glamorous role, to me, is pilot: fly a suitable plane safely and accurately over the search area so that the spotters can spot. While I’m a licensed pilot, I’m a ways from being ready to fly for CASARA: they require 250 hours logged, mountain flying skills, and probably more. I’d love to do this someday, but at the rate I’m going it will be five years until I’m ready. As you might expect, there are administrators: signing us in, assigning crews, herding the forms. A few people work radio communications, both on the ground and in the air (the “high bird”).

Our chapter has very good technology geeks.  They love to tinker, and have successfully wired GPS trackers to ham packet radio to mapping software, delivering real-time maps of actual search paths. I understand that even the Canadian Forces pros were impressed by (envious of?) what our tech could do.  I have the impression that not every CASARA group can do this.  It sure is fun to listen to these folks. It reminds me of the spirit of the MIT Model Railroad Club.

So far as I know, CASARA doesn’t operate its own aircraft. The craft we fly are owned by or rented by our pilots, and CASARA reimburses their costs.

What I like about volunteering for CASARA is that lets me fly in small airplanes, doing something interesting and useful, without it costing me much.  A side benefit is that the CASARA people are friendly, interesting, aviation enthusiasts. They have a wealth of knowledge which I can tap.  Most of what I know about 406 MHz ELTs, their poorly-acknowledged weaknesses, and their little-appreciated alternatives, comes from CASARA people. I was able to get great advice when I was planning a trip from Vancouver to Calgary by small plane.

So, there you go.  If you are interested in CASARA in BC, I hope this information helps you get connected. For more information, contact the Zone Commander Tom Fisher <>, or (if it’s August), come see us at an air show. For other areas, use the CASARA national site contact page. Blue skies!