Look Up At
The Sky... Is It A Plane, Is It A Helicopter
Or Is It A...Visual Distress Signal?
by Wayne Spivak, National Press
Corps, United States Coast Guard Auxiliary
with Dan Hess, Flotilla 07-03-08, Plantation, FL, United States Coast Guard
In many coastal communities,
lights in the sky after dusk are a rare sight. In other areas of the country,
they are commonplace. But streaking lights always make people look twice.
With the exception of the 4th
of July, these streaking or arcing lights at night should make you sit up and
take notice. They are probably a Visual Distress Signal (VDS), commonly referred
to as an Aerial Flare.
Here's a story of recognizing
a call for help, persistence and nautical knowledge, which saved the day.
The location is Cedar Key,
Florida, the date April 6, 2004, the time 8 P.M. Upon entering a local eating
establishment, a commotion was overheard with patrons that a flare had been seen
about 15 minutes prior. While the diners discussed what to do, one smart
waitress declared she had called the local Coast Guard Station to report the
Approximately 15 minutes went
by before another flare was sighted. Our man on the scene estimated the distance
to the flare to be one to two nautical miles. As he tried to flag down the
waitress, another flare was sighted.
The Coast Guard Station was
able to raise a Florida Wildlife and Game officer (FWG) who was in the area (the
Coast Guard Station was approximately 20 miles away) and had access to an air
boat (those flat bottom boats with the big fans for propulsion – such as those
seen in the 1960's TV series Flipper). When the FWG officer arrived at
the dock, our man, who had been inside the restaurant, introduced himself to the
"Follow the Orion's 'knife
sheath' stars down to the waterline", said the man, a member of the U.S. Coast
Guard Auxiliary. "This will place you in the approximate spot the flares were
As our Auxiliarist watched the
FWG officer maneuver his boat, the Auxiliarist saw that the officer was
traveling too far west. Based upon his current course, the officer would never
find the boat in distress. Thinking quickly, the Auxiliarist requested
permission of a near-by boat owner to use his VHF radio.
Making contact with the Coast
Guard, he was able to have them re-direct the FWG officer. He could hear the
noise the airboat made to change course but then lost track of the airboat. In
the meantime, a Coast Guard Patrol Boat arrived on scene, as well as extra Coast
Guard members via land.
As they prepared to begin
their search pattern, the FWG officer emerged from the darkness with five extra
persons on board, clinging to his airboat.
The Auxiliarist, after talking
with the survivors re-told their story.
A family's 17-foot boat had
run aground and got stuck high and dry after they went out of the marked
channel. The family consisted of husband and wife, as well as their three little
girls – an infant and two older girls, about eight and ten years old. All were
OK, but obviously cold and a little shaken from the experience. They had no
blankets or any way to stay warm overnight and they had no emergency supplies,
even water. Luckily, the weather was good and the sea state calm, which made the
search and rescue a little easier.
In this case, all's well that
end's well. But it may not have been. Here are some guidelines should you see
what you believe is a flare.
1. Estimate the direction of
the flare from where you are.
2. Estimate the distance.
3. Record the time of each
4. Call the Coast Guard.
5. Have your location ready.
6. Have a description of the
type and quality of the flare sighting.
- Did the reporting source
see the flare both rise and fall?
- Rising only?
- Falling only?
- What were the rates of
rising and falling (rapid rise and fall, rapid rise, slow fall, etc.)?
- Was the trajectory steep
(mostly vertical) or flat (mostly horizontal)?
7. Note the flare's color
(red, orange, white).
8. How long did the flare
9. Estimate the angle from you
to the top of the flare's projectory.
(If you hold your fist at
arm's length, with your thumb on top and the bottom of your fist on the horizon,
was the top of the trajectory above or below the top of your fist?)
The answers to these questions
will aid the Coast Guard in calculating true distance and direction from you
vantage point to the approximate position of the vessel in distress. Multiple
sightings aid both you and the Coast Guard in pinpointing the exact location.
For more information on the
procedures for reporting (and taking) flare sightings, the Coast Guard has in
Appendix I of the Addendum to the United States National Search and Rescue (SAR)
Supplement everything you need.
For more information about
boating safety and/or the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary, contact your
local Flotilla by using the Flotilla Finder (www.cgaux.org/units.php).
For more information about the Coast Guard, contact your local unit or find them
on the web at
(By the way, the hero Auxiliarist, who assisted in
locating the family of the 17-foot boat, was Dan Hess of Flotilla 07-03-08,
Plantation, FL. Well done Dan!)