Cleared for Take-Off

by Kimberly R. Kelly on July 15, 2011

I’m 15 for a moment
Caught in between 10 and 20
And I’m just dreaming

Counting the ways to where you are…

21 May 2010
3:00 PM PST, 1500 HRS, 2300 ZULU
San Diego Lindbergh Airport, SAN
Flight, Terminal Nine (9)

I am sitting in a black leather chair, laptop warming my thighs, the white power cord an umbilicus to the wall. I will board in a short time, but am taking advantage of the electricity now to charge global positioning units, the laptop, one Blackberry, one iPhone and six rechargeable batteries. I hope to have enough time to cycle through another six before I have to unplug.

Music catches my ear over tinny speakers buried in acoustic ceiling tiles. I’m 15 for a moment, caught in between 10 and 20…

I know this song, but distracted by the electronics and Transportation Security Agency announcements, I can’t place it.

And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are…

It takes a moment longer to realize that this song is one I’ve sung often, late in the night, driving to yet one more mission, or on the way home, speakers blaring, windows open, trying to keep awake.

How fitting, then, this song, these lyrics, and I’m just dreaming, counting the ways to where you are… should play now, as I wait for a plane to take me north, to deep forests and thick nettles to search for a pilot gone three years.

A much-loved man with thin hair and thick logbooks, with years of experience and a brand-new plane, refuels and, like Amelia, is never seen again.

This was supposed to be my weekend home to relax, play a fierce game of Scrabble, maybe bake a pie. I’ve been on the road every moment the children have been gone, and sadly, a few minutes that they’ve been home, too.

The sea is high
And I’m heading into a crisis
Chasing the years of my life
… there’s still time for you|
Time to buy, Time to lose yourself
Within a morning star

No one has opposed these missions. The children are used to this life, were born into it. They love the gadgets and widgets, the carabiners and glove wraps, the radios and dog toys. They understand why we, a motley crew in orange, do this, but it can be a little harder to justify it to myself when I see their waving hands and smiling faces as I leave our home, leave them.

“This we do, so that others may live,” is the motto of search and rescue.

This pilot has been gone three full cycles of the calendar, 12 equinoxes, and there is no hope that he is waiting around for rescue.

But this finding him is incredibly important in so many aspects. His family will know. His friends can begin their own processes. There are matters of being able to say goodbye, but also matters of being able to lawfully close accounts, insurance, other legal intricacies.

It is also important for the searchers. We, too, are able to know. Searchers puzzle and work a missing-persons case like a dog worrying about a bone, but without conclusion, without knowing, there is no resolution. The worrying never ends. We second-guess ourselves, wonder where and why and how and when we failed. Did someone die because we did not find him or her in time? What did we miss? How do I fix it so it does not happen again? Search is a great mystery, but rescue, or as in this case, recovery, is the great answer.

There are other tangibles. If we find him, we keep someone else, perhaps a dog walker, or a mushroom picker, or a young couple out for a forest picnic, from finding what is never a pleasant scene. We are able to better predict future incidents, based on what we learn from these missions. Perhaps that knowledge will someday be used to expedite the search, and find a survivor in time.

The sun is getting high
We’re moving on… 

My plane has just made its final approach, I hear over monitors. It’s time to close the laptop, and break out the maps, interview reports, a steno pad, a pencil, a highlighter. Time to unplug the phone and GPS, store the batteries into their plastic bag. I’ll be flying the next few hours, so this will give me some uninterrupted quiet time to think about this missing man, try to picture where he might be, how to cover a lot of ground in a little time. Maybe even close my eyes and get some rest. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.

And I’m just dreaming
Counting the ways to where you are…

As I am putting my phone away, a text message chimes from my son. “Good luck, Mama! Find your man! I love you!”

I am cleared for take-off.


Wilderness search-and-rescue vignettes from two long-time professionals, Kimberly R. Kelly and Dave Baldridge, alternating bylines every month. 'Point Last Seen' is a common SAR term used to describe the last known location of a missing subject.

Kimberly R. Kelly is a retired law enforcement underwater investigations and recovery specialist. She has been working in search-and-rescue for 18 years. She is currently working a human remains detection dog in Colorado and serves as the Commander of an international search-and-rescue team.

Senior Correspondent Dave Baldridge was the first managing editor of POWDER Magazine. He lives in Albuquerque, where he volunteers for search and rescue missions with his border Collie, Tadc.

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