Missing Person – Suicide | Flight Debrief and Lessons Learned

Another in my publication of my flight debriefs to help share lessons learned.

Flight Time: 60 minutes

Mission Goals:

To assist Wake Sheriff’s Office with the location of a missing 16-year-old female.

What Went Well:

The following items were conducted without incident:

  1. It was a safe flight operation within normal limits.
  2. Teamwork between the pilot and Chief Barrett was excellent and seamless.


WSO contacted WFFD Battalion 1 through dispatch and requested WFFD Firebird 1 aerial assistance in the search for a missing 16-year-old female.

Chief Barrett arrived at the dispatch location first and received a briefing from WSO regarding the situation. This information was shared with the pilot upon arrival at the scene. Chief Barrett did a very good job in scouting out an initial LZ to begin operations from.

The initial information we received was the missing females cell phone was pinging in a wide area and in different disparate locations. The location information was not substantially beneficial.

What we did have to go on was information the missing female had been known to frequent a nearby horse farm and enjoyed the horses.

Landing zone 1 (LZ1) was established in a location along the road towards both a pond between the subjects home and the horse farm. An additional report said there was a path from the end of this road to the horse farm.

The initial search area was defined by the dashed yellow lines shown below.

Missing Person – Suicide | Flight Debrief And Lessons Learned

The intention was to fly a decreasing square inside the search box area. This would let us cover the area of the path and over to the small pond and horse area as rapidly as possible.

The issue we ran into was we had no search staff on the ground if a target was found. A Sheriff deputy would have to relocate to the target and attempt to locate anything found.

After flying the north end of the box a 90 degree turn to the south was made and once the horse area was reached a turn to the west was made and a closer examination of the multiple targets was conducted.

There were some thermal targets of interest. But once these were visualized we had to hover in place until a deputy could arrive to visually identify the targets.

The horses were easy to visualize. And the primary target of interest was either in the open or near/under some light brush.

Missing Person – Suicide | Flight Debrief And Lessons Learned

A significant amount of flight time was wasted while the deputy made their way to the search area. We had given command the GPS location by radio.

Once the deputy arrived, the horses began to move and it was easy then to identify probable fresh dung piles as ancillary targets.

The deputy made contact with a civilian standing in the horse field. They were attempting to assist with the search. This civilian was most likely the target of interest.

After loitering as long as possible and examining the horse farm a bit more, the UAS needed to return to LZ1 for a battery change.

Upon landing, we were notified of additional intelligence. Apparently, the missing female had left a note saying she was in the woods along Melvin Arnold Road.

We relocated and established LZ2 at the entrance of the driveway onto Melvin Arnold Road.

Missing Person – Suicide | Flight Debrief And Lessons Learned

A parallel flight path was conducted along both sides of the road. Some targets were found and investigated.

For example, in the image below, you can see two deputies being directed towards a target of interest in the woods along the road.

Missing Person – Suicide | Flight Debrief And Lessons Learned

The target was visualized and identified as a power box or panel.

Missing Person – Suicide | Flight Debrief And Lessons Learned

After flying the search along both sides of the road we were beginning to relocate to a new LZ location when we were informed the missing female had been located, decreased by a self-inflicted gunshot.

It was said that the victim had been deceased for a number of hours when she was located and would not have given off much more than an ambient thermal reading given it was a warm evening. Additionally, she was located in thick brush and was probably not visible from the air.

What Could Have Gone Better:

  1. It would have been very beneficial if it was known at the onset of our arrival that the missing female had left the note indicating she was going to be located along the road and if there were any clues about her desire to self-harm. In that case, more time and effort would have been directed along the road to search it from multiple angles.
  2. The issues surrounding incident intelligence are not new. In my experience there tends to be a fog of reliable and actionable information on these multiple agency incidents.
  3. It would have been most beneficial to our aerial search efforts if we had been allowed close access to the origin of the information known about the incident instead of relayed information.
  4. I’m not sure it was clear to either Chief Barrett or myself who the supervising agency Incident Commander was or how diluted the intelligence was that we were receiving.

Flight Video:

Recommendations From Flight:

In a perfect world, more information should be gathered from the scene incident commander to provide the most undiluted facts as known. That goal is always a work in progress and is known to be an ongoing issue.

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