Fire detection aircraft missing in Arkansas

Missing AFC aircraft

(UPDATE at 5:17 p.m. CST, February 1, 2014)

The fire detection plane with pilot Jake Harrell on board which has been missing in Arkansas since January 31, 2014 has been found. There is still no word on the status of Mr. Harrell. More information is in a new article here. We will also post additional updates at that location.


(UPDATE at 3:30 p.m. CST, February 8, 2014)

The search for the missing pilot and plane continues. Today, visibility has kept the air fleet on the ground, but as of 3:30 p.m. CST two large ground crews have been out for several hours.


(UPDATED at 12:21 p.m. CST, February 4, 2014)

Incident Management Team plans strategy
The Incident Management organization in Mena continues to pour over maps of the area, collaborating on strategy for a possible weather break Tuesday afternoon. AFC photo.

The searchers looking for the Arkansas fire detection plane and pilot Jake Harrel that disappeared January 31 are again battling weather that for a while restricted their activities, but a break in the weather at noon allowed ground crews to deploy to their designated routes.

The Civil Air Patrol covered 1,206 square miles by air yesterday, in addition to the other areas covered by helicopters and Arkansas Forestry Commission planes.


(UPDATED at 5:57 p.m. CST, February 3, 2014)

Searchers are still combing through and over the forests of Arkansas looking for the fire detection plane and pilot Jake Harrel that disappeared January 31. After low visibility kept most aircraft out of the air on Sunday, better weather today allowed nine Civil Air Patrol airplanes and several helicopters from the state police and National Guard to participate in the search in addition to ground crews. Recent ice storms blocked roads with downed trees and limbs, slowing the progress on the ground. Some of the roads are being reopened with chain saws and dozers.

Dozers used for reopening roads.
Dozers used for reopening roads.


(UPDATED at 12:38 p.m. CST, February 2, 2014)

The search continues for the missing airplane and pilot who was on a fire detection mission in Arkansas when he failed to check in as scheduled after his last radio contact at 1:11 p.m. CST, January 31, 2014.

The aircraft had an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) on board and searchers have been looking for signals from the device but have found nothing yet. ELTs are no panacea, in fact older versions activate properly in only 12% of crashes according to NOAA. Newer models with the Cospas-Sarsat system have a higher accident survivability rate,

Below is information released this morning from the Arkansas Forestry Commission about the missing plane:

Teams Continuously Search for Missing AFC Pilot, Jake Harrell

Mena, Arkansas — Ground crews searched all night along routes below the supposed flight path of missing AFC pilot, Jake Harrel. Last night, more than 200 miles were traveled along back roads and rugged trails, searching for some sign of the pilot or plane.

Jake Harrell
Jake Harrell

Ground squads are focusing today on the north side of the supposed flight route with steep slopes, near Oden. Four wheelers will be used to access challenging sections of terrain. This concentrated efforst is based on information from Jakes cell provider about what is thought to be his last transmission before he went missing on Friday. The Incident Command Post in Mena is carefully monitoring the weaher situation as ice and rain may move through the area. Search crews will not stop; however aerial search attempts may not be possible today.

“We are doing our best to speculate about which direction Jake may have taken the plane on Friday, if his visibility was becoming difficult. We are hopeful that by narrowing search efforts to this area, that we may have a good chance of locating him,” said Billy Black, AFC Investigator.”

ICP for Jake Harrell search
Incident Command Post. AFC photo.


(UPDATED at 7:30 p.m. CST, February 1, 2014)

Missing AFC aircraft
The missing Arkansas Forestry Commission pilot was flying a small plane similar to this.

Search crews are still looking for the missing fire detection aircraft and pilot in Arkansas. At about 6:50 p.m. CST the Arkansas Forestry Commission issued this update:

Search efforts continue through the night for missing AFC Pilot, Jake Harrell. “We are going to be here until we find Jake. Tonight and tomorrow’s efforts are already planned and we are aggressively covering as much ground as quickly and safely as possible,” said State Forester, Joe Fox.

More information.


(Originally published at 11:15 CST, February 1, 2014)

MALVERN, Ark. (ARKANSAS FORESTRY COMMISSION) – An Arkansas Forestry Commission pilot has failed to check in with AFC Central Dispatch in Malvern.

AFC pilot, Jake Harrell, failed to check-in with AFC Central Dispatch (in Malvern) yesterday after 1:11 p.m. Jake was flying a regularly scheduled fire detection flight from Malvern to points throughout west Arkansas. His last known location was Oden, with the supposed intent of traveling toward Wickes.

Jake is 34 years old and is a seasoned pilot with the AFC, since 2005. He had flown many times on the very route that he traveled yesterday. He currently flies as a part-time pilot with the AFC and works full time with the North Little Rock Police Department. He also serves with the Arkansas Air National Guard 188th Fighter Wing.

Ground crews include two and three-person teams searching gridded locations in Montgomery and Polk Counties – close in proximity to a possible route he may have been flying between check points in Oden and Wickes. Crews are searching by foot and four-wheelers. Chainsaw crews and dozers are on standby. Two Civil Air Patrol planes and a National Guard helicopter are assisting with search efforts from the air. Visibility is difficult from the air at this time; ground crews have better visibility until conditions clear.

The Incident Command structure in Mena is a Unified Command team with the following partners involved: Arkansas Forestry Commission, Polk and Montgomery County Law Enforcement, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas National Guard, U.S. Forest Service, Arkansas State Police, Emergency Management crews from Polk and Montgomery County, local volunteer fire departments, and the Civil Air Patrol.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

7 thoughts on “Fire detection aircraft missing in Arkansas”

  1. Amen, Chris!

    AFF isn’t always in contractors ships nor would I imagine it would be in every State forestry owned or FEPP aircraft under State Foresters control and signatory with the FEPP program.

    When the agencies start paying for the equipment necessary and the subscription service much like a Garmin GPS subscription service to keep glass cockpits current, I would imagine the proverbial radio checkin at an FAA ARTCC, FSS, ATC report to make a call to LMA HQ, or even a call to the many GACC’s in the area, are still viable points of reference to make a call….

    My heart goes out to Jake and his family……as I was applying for that position in 2005 when all the inhabitants from Katrina were moving North from and I was makin friends at the Wafflehouse on the way to the interview in Malvern,,,,,,

  2. Sad and unfortunate for any aircraft or pilot to go missing. I pray for a survivor at this point.
    Though the USFS and DOI has several procedures for flight following in place. Many states do not have the same standards. States have a limited budget thus asking for things like AFF from a contractor might be a deal breaker for the operator. So far as flight plans or ATC VFR flight following a fire patrol aircraft might be considered flight following with company/ agency, so there is no obligation to file a flight plan or request VFR flight following with ATC.
    As far as ELT’s even our FS contracts have not yet fully moved to the multi band 121.5/ 406.0mhz because we think AFF covers things. I personally know that hardly any one is is monitoring 121.5
    While I appreciate AFF I have always checked in at 15 min periods on agency flights, as a habit. I am not fully trusting in AFF
    In my personal aircraft I file a flight plan for all cross country flights and request VFR flight following from ATC on all flights over 30 minutes.
    I am looking for the best results , I was taught in flight school “its not if your engine will quit but when”
    Again pray for this pilot and his family. Unfortunately our federal policies and many state policies are written-in blood and bent metal .

  3. Was the plane equipped with an update emergency locator beacon? Was it a forestry service plane and if so are there not requirements to have the new 206 MHz ELT installed?
    Was the pilot in contact with air traffic control? Was he getting flight following advisories from ATC? He should have been a target on ATC radar. Have they been able to get radar tracking data from the FAA?
    This is a pilots worse nightmare. He should have been able to send a MayDay and there should be a signal from his ELT.
    When will more information be available regarding answers to these questions?

    1. Rather amazing that a fire service plane (contract or otherwise) was not equipped with AFF nor apparently were there check in procedures in place/utilized. Most unfortunate.

        1. Yea, my oversight. Still, most fire service check in procedures call for every 15 minutes and set down if no radio contact with dispatch. The search area seems rather big for 15 minutes of travel with Cessna 205/206 or similar. I wish them good luck and good fortune…very sad.


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