Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
It was a cold December in Chicago, Sunday, December 23, 1990. An ELT was up an running somewhere in the Southwest Chicago area, and RCC placed it at Midway Airport. The MC called me, and myself and then-Captain Tim Markham proceeded to Midway. Markham lived south of Midway and approached from the south; I lived north and approached from the north. Neither of us picked up the signal on our way in, and a windshield tour of Midway produced nothing. Because of the proximity to the airport, an aerial search was not practical nor safe, and we proceeded with a ground pattern. After several hours my scanner failed. Lesson 1: always have both spare batteries AND a power cord. I had gone through my spare batteries for my aircraft receiver.
It was now early a.m. Christmas Eve. Markham continued to search and in an expanding rectangle pattern, detected a signal emanating from a rail freight yard. He drove into the freight yard, looked for rail security and found none. After some additional waiting, he drove in and located the source of the signal, a containerized shipment on a train. He copied the container numbers down and left the rail yard about 2:00 a.m., phoning me with the container identification information at about 6:00 a.m. We now knew this was a nondistress signal. Lesson 2: TRUST NO ONE. Plot the lat/longs/longs yourself, don't take anybody else's interpretation. The lat/longs for this target were within one half mile of Burlington Yard.
About 6:30 a.m. that morning (Christmas Eve), I got on the phone to try and find help at Burlington Northern Security. As I started telling my story to the rail police sergeant, he cut me off and said "this sounds complicated, I think you'd better talk to the captain."
Well it turns out this wasn't all that complicated. The captain was a retired Air Force OSI guy and understood a little bit about emergency locator transmitters and within about two minutes was able to tell me when the trailer was scheduled to be picked up, where its next destination was, where its next rail ride was and where its ultimate U.S. destination was. It was to be picked up by a trucking company in Chicago, hauled to their yard and shortly thereafter hauled to a different rail yard to board a different train to ride to New York where it would be loaded onto a ship. The only information that Burlington Northern had about the contents of the trailer was "aircraft parts." The Burlington Northern Captain's only question was "where did we want to intercept it?" Looking at logistics, it looked like the most cost-effective time to catch the container would be at the trucking yard in Chicago. He gave me the phone number.
I then called the trucking company, again expecting a long story. I got bumped up to a Vice President, who, as it turned out, was student pilot who flew out of Midway. He was pleased to find out that somebody actually chased ELTs, and I had two officers meet him at the rail yard where they (the trucking company), cut the locks off the container and opened it. The contents -- two disassembled J3s, one with an ELT with batteries intact. They opened the container, located the ELTs, removed the battery, applied a new lock and the J3s made their train to make their boat ride, destination, England. Some of us have plane and boat finds, but only Tim Markham has a train. Lesson 3, don't let your preconceived notions control your search. We weren't looking for a train.
This story submitted by Thomas B. Golz of Illinois Wing.
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