Outside The Comfort Zone

by Morgan Hite

Jeez, I wish I had worn a white t-shirt, I think, as I climb into the navigator’s seat in the plane. In my battles with nausea in the cockpit, the worst thing is direct sun and heat. Anything I can do to cool down and get in the shade is key. I wear a ball cap and sunglasses, as few clothes as possible, and set the cold air vent fully open and aimed straight at me. If there are goosebumps on my skin and I feel a little hypothermic, that’s perfect.

I fold up my airsick bag and stuff it down in my sock. Mack, one of the more experienced members of the air search-and-rescue team in Smithers, showed me how to do this on a training flight. “Then,” he said with a conspiratorial grin, “it’s right there when you need it.” He had been so right: on training flights I’d used the airsick bag a lot.

The cockpit is tiny. I lean hard into my door so Don, the pilot, can get his seatbelt on. He starts the engine, we put on the headsets, and check them to make sure we can hear each other and Al, our spotter, who’s sitting behind me. I set the cell phone on “vibrate” and tuck it under my leg where I can feel it if it rings.

Taxi; take-off; turn right heading toward Crater Lake. And the cell phone’s buzzing away under my leg. It’s Lynn.

“I’ve got more description,” she says. “This is from the RCMP. The 10 year old is wearing a pink shirt and navy pants, and 5 year-old is wearing a blue shirt and plaid pants.” I pencil this in the margins of the map on my clipboard.

“OK, got that,” I reply. “Pink shirt and navy pants for the 10 year-old. Blue shirt and plaid pants for the 5-year old. Anything else about where they were last seen?”

“Nope.”

“OK, well, we are…” I look out the window and feel my stomach lurch as we climb up over the foothills of Hudson Bay Mountain. “…just over the cross-country ski trails now, climbing to treeline.”

The Gravol has been in my system for almost an hour and half, but I’m feeling dizzy anyway. I usually take a new tablet every 90 minutes, so I reach into my pouch and get one. This is my first actual search.

 

My stomach and I do not agree about air search-and-rescue. I get airsick at the drop of a hat, but my desire to read maps and help people in trouble typically overrules my stomach’s disgust with flying. But it’s not like I always win these battles. I love the navigator’s role, the guy who reads the maps and takes notes, who relieves the pilot of having to do anything but fly the plane safely. So, on this July day, when Lynn, the Zone Commander for air SAR in Northwest BC, called at about 3:00 in the afternoon to say there was an emergency—two kids lost somewhere near Crater Lake, a 5 year-old and an 11 year-old—I’d downed the Gravol and headed for the airport.

We are now at about 6000 feet and taking our first pass over the Prairie. Al is in the rear left seat, so we’ll fly a pattern that systematically brings all of the search area to pass outside his window. “I’m going to fly from the ski lodge to Crater Lake and back, and then we’ll work our way outwards, descending,” Don says over the headsets.

Below us the alternating patches of snow and brown grass flash by. We’re low—maybe 500 feet off the ground. We reach the lake and Don begins a wide left turn. We head out over the slopes that drop away from the Prairie on its south side, and I scan the forest far below, working to calm my jumping stomach. How big would a person look down there? How big would a kid look?

My eyes drift over to the only small meadow in the endless forest below me. I note that it’s got two things in it that aren’t trees. Too white, really. It’s a marshy sort of clearing—perhaps too wet for trees to grow. There’s a… is that a person down there? Moving—no, waving—waving at the plane, and…

“Don, I’ve got two people in a meadow at my three o’clock. They’re waving at the plane.”

Don goes into a hard right turn and I strain my eyes to look straight down. We circle above the meadow. There are two people down there. One is waving; the other is not. Are they kids?

No one in his right mind, I think, would be down there. It’s a small opening in the forest, well down off the Prairie—more or less on the way to nowhere. A ten year-old waving and a five year old not waving: well, I think, that’s the behaviour I would expect.

Is there colour? What if they are just other searchers? The older one’s shirt looks white. But then, no, it is pink, pale pink, and the other one definitely blue. “I think that’s them…” I say. I’ve forgotten all about my jumpy stomach now. “Let’s get coordinates.”

Don takes us straight over the meadow and marks the point on the GPS. I write down the coordinates and time. We resume circling, this time to the left.

“They’re still waving,” confirms Al. We fly around them for another minute to communicate that we are interested in them. They sure seem interested in us.

“OK, I’m going to call Lynn,” I say.

“I’ll fly back over the ski area, so you can hit the cell phone tower,” replies Don.

“Hello,” says Lynn.

“Hi Lynn, we think we’ve found them. I’ve got some coordinates for you.”

“Let me get a piece of paper.” As she says this Don takes us into a turn over the ski area and heads back west into the sun. Oh no, not sun. Not now. My stomach is churning, my dizziness increasing. This is not a good time for the Gravol to cut out.

“OK, go ahead,” she says.

“Five four. Four six, decimal one one seven” I say. Normally I get a thrill out of talking on the radio as if I know what I’m doing. Right now I’m just trying to hang on. “One two seven. One seven, decimal six one three.”

“OK, I copy that. What are they doing?”

“They’re in a meadow, down in the trees off the Prairie. They seem to be staying there, waving at the plane.”

“Excellent. We’ll relay this to ground team.”

Whoa, dizzy. Hastily I pull my airsick bag out of my sock, and open it on my lap.

“OK, thanks.”

“OK bye.”

I am just able to push the microphone away from my mouth before throwing up in the bag. Everything seems to be whirling as Don swoops the plane in low and we head due west into the sun back across the Prairie. There is almost nothing in my stomach, so it is just horrendous heave after horrendous heave.

This is cool, I think. Now we’re going to find out what my stomach does when I’m airsick and we can’t head back to the airport.

 

As we pass the green t-bar at the ski hill I crack open an eye and see a bunch of adults with knapsacks getting out of cars. Then the phone’s buzzing in my lap.

“Hi Lynn,” I say.

“OK,” she says, “I’ve talked to the RCMP, and they relayed the coordinates to the ground team.”

“Excellent. We see what we think is a search party at the base of the green t-bar.”

Even as I’m talking to Lynn, I’m working with the background rhythm of nausea that has emerged. Don is flying a racetrack pattern between the ski lodge and the meadow. There’s the cool, soothing, eastbound leg—my stomach starts to feel better and I open my eyes. It’s a good time to talk. Then there’s the turn over the ski hill—I barely feel this one—but then the sun is blasting in. I close my eyes, there’s choppy air, I’m fighting nausea: steady, steady. Finally a turn over Crater Lake, and then the worst part—prepare yourself—we’re over the meadow where the girls are, so Don waves the wings, first right then left. It’s a nailbiter whether my stomach can hold on here. Then smooth, level, cool flight east again and I start to relax. The vent air blasting in my face, Don and Al chatting, keeping an eye on the girls.

“Looks like they’ve moved over to the side of the clearing.”

“I’ll bet the bugs are bad down there.”

“Yes, judging by the fact that we’re hitting a lot on the windshield up here at six thousand feet.”

“I wish we could see where the searchers are.”

Don uses the GPS to measure the distance from the t-bar to the meadow, and calls flight service: ”It’s about one kilometre, but you may want to tell them to use a helicopter. Those ravines are pretty big.”

Flight Service in turn relays a request to us to remain on station until the ground crew meets up with the girls. And soon I hear Al saying, “Oh, they’re there, they’re there! They’re meeting them!” He sounds really excited.

“They’ve got to the girls?”

“Yep, they met them at the edge of the clearing.”

“Excellent. Head for home?”

“Head for home!” says Don.

Ah sweet words.

 

Smithers, BC, July 2008

Copyright 2008, Morgan Hite

This piece was originally published in Northword April/May 2009