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Volunteers provide bird's eye view of derby

Posted: August 11, 2013 - 9:45pm  |  Updated: August 12, 2013 - 12:06am
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The Civil Air Patrol plane is seen taking off from the Juneau airport to patrol the salmon derby on Saturday afternoon.  Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
The Civil Air Patrol plane is seen taking off from the Juneau airport to patrol the salmon derby on Saturday afternoon.

Flying in a bush plane above hundreds of boats Saturday, Captains Rob MacDonald and Brent Fischer scanned the waters below looking for signs of distress: orange life jackets in the water, gas and oil sheen from a sinking vessel, people stranded on the shoreline.

“Basically just looking for any sort of signal letting us know something’s going on,” MacDonald, a mission pilot for the Civil Air Patrol, said before taking flight in a de Havilland Beaver at the Juneau airport.

Civil Air Patrol volunteers for years have lent “eyes in the sky” for the Golden North Salmon Derby, and the 67th annual derby this weekend proved no different. The pilot and accompanying mission scanners and observers provide aerial coverage of the competition to ensure boater safety.

The volunteer organization, which is the official U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, is joined in that mission by boots on the ground. Members of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary are on hand, as are others listening to a certain marine broadcast channel ­— Channel 16 — should someone radio for help.

A Civil Air Patrol volunteer for the past seven years and now the squadron’s deputy commander and operations officer, MacDonald has volunteered to fly over the derby for the past four years. He has never had to respond to a distressed boater as they vie to reel in the biggest salmon, but he says it’s still the Civil Air Patrol’s job to “make sure everyone is safe out there.”

“That’s our mission around this whole derby,” he said.

As water traffic reached its peak Saturday evening — with an estimated 300 to 400 boats on the water — MacDonald and Fischer flew over the entire derby grounds. The two-hour long trip took them from Juneau to Berners Bay, across St. James Bay, back down to Point Coverden, back up through Lynn Canal, along the interior of Admiralty and Shelter Islands, along the back side of Douglas down to Twin Points, back across the mainland and up to Juneau.

“It’s a great night for flying tonight,” MacDonald said in a pre-flight interview. “Relatively calm winds, clear skies, good visibility.”

MacDonald piloted the plane while Fischer, who is the director of the city’s Park and Recreation department, scanned for people in need of assistance. Fischer began volunteering with the Civil Air Patrol about three years ago.

Ideally, the Civil Air Patrol would patrol the duration of the derby for all three days, but that’s not an option due to the expense involved.

“Aviation’s expensive,” MacDonald said. “We decided years ago to fly in the evening and try to go an hour before the closing of the derby night to an hour after closing. That way, if a boat is in distress somewhere on their way back to Juneau, we’ll see them.”

The Canadian-made de Havilland Beaver eats up about $300 in gas per flight hour. Usually, the Air Force provides the funds to cover flying the derby, but the Juneau squadron was late requesting it this year. That meant they had to pay for it out-of-pocket using both squadron and personal funds.

If the Civil Air Patrol were to locate a vessel or boater in distress, MacDonald said they would alert the Coast Guard over the radio. They could also land in the water to assist since the Beaver airplane is outfitted with amphibious floats.

“We’re eyes in the sky, lend assistance if needed,” MacDonald said.

Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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