Volunteers add pilots, aircraft in search for missing boaters

Sky Harbor Aviation at the Jacksonville Executive Airport stayed busier than usual for a Wednesday.  It was full of volunteers wanting to help find missing fire fighters Brian McCluney and Justin Walker.  

“A little mini air force all thrown together over a very short period of time out trying to bring these firemen home to their families,” said pilot Bill Hay, who was helping to lead the effort.  

Several pilots and private plane owners came forward volunteering their air craft and their time to help search for the McCluney and Walker.  The two were last seen launching their boat out of Port Canaveral on Friday.  

“We’ve got little tiny planes all the way up to multi-million dollar aircraft that are coming in from all over the southeast us,” Hay said. 

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department are coordinating the efforts with boats they searching the water.  Hay says they’re taking the coordinates they get from the first responders and breaking them up into squares and then assigning them to volunteers.  

“We’re out searching, and we’re relaying that information to a C-130 that’s being operated by the coast guard,” Hay explained.   He says 9 volunteer aircrafts took part in the search Sunday, 11, Monday, 13 Tuesday, and the flights were still going out late Wednesday afternoon.

The lobby of Sky Harbor Aviation was filled with off-duty firefighters from both McCluney and Walker’s fire departments and regular people, all patiently waiting on the next search flight.  

“From housewives, to neighbors down the street to retirees that are coming in saying, ‘How do I help?’ and I say, 'Do you get air sick? 'And if they say no, we put them on a plane with a pair of binoculars,” said Hay.  

He’s making sure behind the pilot, they’ve got at least one set of eyes looking out each side of the air craft.  

“That allows the pilot to concentrate on maintaining the grid search pattern and maintaining safety while everybody else is looking out the windows,” said Hay. 

He says their volunteer search planes fly anywhere from 400 feet (0.12 kilometers) to 1200 feet (0.37 kilometers) above the water, looking for anything significant that’s floating in the Atlantic that could be connected to the missing men and reporting it back to the Coast Guard. 

“Even a small piece of bumper from a boat can look like a huge piece of wreckage until you get down on it because you have nothing to compare size to in the middle of the ocean,” Hay explained. 

Donations to the search effort can be made through JFRD.com.  Authorities say those funds are going to pay for fuel for volunteers boats and aircraft.