Outside the 
comfort zone:

🕔Apr 07, 2009

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 (SAR) team in Smithers, showed me this trick on a training flight. “Then,” he said with a 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. Don, the pilot, starts the engine. We put on the headsets, and check to make sure we can hear each other. Al, our spotter, is sitting behind me. I set the cell-phone to ‘vibrate’ and tuck it under my leg where I can feel it if it rings.

Taxi and take-off; turn west toward Crater Lake on Hudson Bay Mountain. Already the cell phone’s buzzing 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; the five-year-old is wearing a blue shirt and plaid pants.” I pencil this in the margins of the map on my clipboard.

I look out the window and feel my stomach lurch as we rise. The Gravol has been in my system for almost an hour and half, but I’m feeling dizzy anyway. I usually take one 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 help people in trouble and love of map-reading typically overrules my stomach’s disgust with flying. But it’s not like I always win these battles.

On this July day, when Lynn, the Zone Commander for air SAR in northwest BC, called at 3:00 in the afternoon to say there was an emergency—two kids lost somewhere near Crater Lake—I’d downed the Gravol and headed for the airport.

We are now at about 6,000 feet and taking our first pass over the Prairie, a broad, rolling expanse of alpine terrain on the mountain’s shoulder. We’ll fly a pattern that systematically brings all of the search area past Al’s backseat 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.

*On the way to nowhere*
Below us, 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, and I scan the forest far below, working to calm my jumping stomach. How big would a kid look down there?

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. It’s a marshy sort of clearing—perhaps too wet for trees to grow.

There’s…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, more or less on the way to nowhere. A 10-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’s pink, pale pink, and the other one’s 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. 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.

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

*Dizzying turns*
Just then Don takes us into a turn and heads 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,” Lynn 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,” she says. “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 the ground team”

Whoa—dizzy! Hastily I pull my airsick bag out of my sock and open it on my lap. I’m 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 again. There is almost nothing in my stomach, so it is just one horrendous heave after another.
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. The phone buzzes in my lap.

“Hi Lynn,” I say.

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

“Excellent. We see a search party by the green T.”

Even as I’m talking to Lynn, I’m working with the background rhythm of nausea that has emerged. Don is flying a racetrack loop 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 back west, the sun blasting in; I close my eyes and fight the nausea. Steady, steady. Finally we turn over Crater Lake and I prepare myself for the worst part: 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.

Don and Al are 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.”

Don uses the GPS to measure the distance from the T-bar to the meadow and calls Flight Service, which in turn relays a request for us to remain on station until the ground crew reaches the girls.
But 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, such sweet words!