Eyes in the Sky

The Channel Islands may be known as a yachter’s paradise, but the surrounding seas are notorious for strong tides and changeable weather that challenge even the most experienced sailor. Thankfully, the brave crew of Channel Islands Air Search provides a vital lifeline to those finding themselves in danger on the seas.

Channel Islands Air Search, quite simply, save lives. Founded in 1980, the charity is self-funded and powered by a team of brave volunteers dedicating their time to helping others at risk. Operating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and in all conditions, the team provides a rapid response search capability spanning 4,000 square miles of sea surrounding the Channel Islands and French coast.

Fondly known as ‘The Lifeboats’ Eyes in the Sky’, the crew works closely with coastguards in Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney, France and the UK, alongside other vessels, coming to the aid of others in an emergency. Gareth Le Page, Channel Islands Air Search Crew Manager, has been volunteering with the charity for over seven years. His love of helping others and a keen interest in aviation made him a perfect fit, and he clearly sees it as an honour. “I have been involved in various charities for most of my life but wanted to do something practical and really make a difference. I joined first as an observer before becoming search director and electronics operator, and I’ve never looked back.”

As Gareth explains, the searches are always varied, “You could be looking for an overdue diver one day, a missing vessel the next, or vulnerable people who are reported missing and there are concerns for their welfare – every call out is different.”

The crew has its operational base at Guernsey Airport, with a purpose-built hangar for its lightweight Islander twin-engine aircraft fully-equipped with radar, night vision, smoke floats, radio homing and loud hailer system and primed to go at a moment’s notice. Many of the aircrew are corporate and commercial pilots, while the non-flying crew come from many different professional backgrounds, often with previous nautical or aviation experience. They all have the support of the businesses they work for, who understand their need to leave at moment’s notice when their bleepers go off.

“We receive a beep on our phones, and wherever we are and whatever we’re doing, we drop everything and run to the base. From there, it’s all about focus and staying sharp. It’s a race against time and every second counts.” The team is experienced in dealing with call-outs for everything from dogs missing on cliffs and fears for a swimmer’s safety, to more unusual scenarios. As Gareth explains, “We were called out to a milk tanker that had lost cargo overboard”. There were huge metal containers bobbing dangerously about in the sea. Thankfully, our equipment found them and we managed to arrange a safe clean-up operation.”

Thanks to the determination, diligence and experience of the team, most of the rescues have a positive outcome, but the crew often has to operate in the most challenging and treacherous conditions – putting their own lives on the line. One of the most publicised searches was for the aircraft piloted by David Ibbotson and carrying footballer Emiliano Sala that ditched into the sea off Alderney in 2019. The crew undertook a total of 11 searches over four days – each lasting around three hours, scanning 1,700 square miles in the roughest conditions. Sadly, the plane was located on the sea bed almost two weeks after it went missing.

Despite the danger and stress that comes with the job, it is still the act of helping others that drives Gareth and the team. Thanks to their hard work and commitment, we are lucky to have their ‘Eyes in the Sky’ on standby to keep our seas and coastlines safe for everyone to enjoy.