Fifteen years ago, on April 26, 2006, a search and rescue mission for a missing airplane in Pennsylvania became the spark that later led to the establishment of Civil Air Patrol’s National Cell Phone Forensics Team.
At the time, then-1st Lt. Justin Ogden was a member of the Penn State Composite Squadron in University Park, Pennsylvania. Multiple wings and squadrons were involved in the search for a Maryland Wing member on a non-CAP flight.
The search lasted six days before the crash site was found in an area known locally as “The Punchbowl” – just north of the Pennsylvania border, about 45 nautical miles northwest of Frederick, Maryland, the plane’s last known location.
Ogden, an electrical engineer who’s now a CAP major, recalls providing communications support during the mission.
“My involvement with the cellphone came about because others called the (cellular) carrier, and we (the ground planning section) wanted to review the data to confirm its accuracy. It was the reason our ground operations base was established where it was and the basis for our search planning
“I was handed the cell company’s phone number and told to ‘have at it.’ Upon digging into the clue further, we learned that some information was misinterpreted and was directing the search to the wrong area,” Ogden said.
The cellphone data pointed searchers in the right direction, though Ogden cited “some hesitancy in that first search in trying to gauge ‘how much faith do we put into this clue?’”
That concern proved unfounded. The missing pilot’s son, in a call to Ogden afterward, told him, “Through your work, my father was found within 300 yards of the location you plotted.”
As the mission counts ramped up over the years, Ogden saw the need for and developed the software and techniques now used almost daily by the team’s analysts. For the mission in 2006, all analysis was done by hand.
“The momentous event in 2006 was figuring out that this new technology could be applied to search and rescue and understanding how it could scale to support other missions,” Ogden said. “I never expected to get another call from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center after that first search was over.”
But that wasn’t the case. Ogden used cellphone data analysis in three more missions in 2006 and six the following year. In 2008, cellphone forensics analysis was used in 27 missions, with seven finds and seven saves credited by the AFRCC.
Ogden was joined by Col. Brian Ready and Maj. Jerad Hoff, and the three became the core of the National Cell Phone Forensics Team, designated a national CAP asset in 2009. Since then, Maj. John Schofield joined the team as an analyst, and Lt. Col. Vic LaSala is an analyst trainee. Everyone on the team is a member of the Arizona Wing. In 2020, the team was assigned 338 missions by the AFRCC and credited with 201 finds and 96 saves.
“This (2020) was a top-five-of-all-time save year for us,” says John Desmarais, CAP’s director of operations. “Technology has really changed how we operate. What once took days of laborious searching is now done remotely.”