Pilot Steven St. Amand, spotter Monica Kreft and navigator Dave Taylor climb into the single-engine Bonanza airplane at the Yellowknife airport, ready to find the missing canoeists near Prosperous Lake.

"Two people in a red canoe are reporting they're in distress," Kreft reads over the plane's intercom system. "They don't know where they are, they have no GPS, no communications, but they do have an orange tarp."  

St. Armand gets the plane to the proper altitude, Taylor reads out the course, and Kreft scans the wilderness for any hint of orange — even though the mission is actually a training exercise on a Saturday afternoon.

These exercises keep volunteers in shape and ready for when the search is real and the members of the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association are looking to bring someone home safe.

"Most of the time we're out there because people made a mistake. They didn't plan properly," Taylor explained. "Here in the North, if whatever you're using for transportation breaks down, you're stuck. You're not going anywhere.

"It's unlikely anybody is going to wander by and give you a hand," he said.

Monica Kreft

Monica Kreft spots from the back of the cockpit. 'My eyes start from the wing, then I have three spots where I stop and scan,' she said. 'Always making that line away from the aircraft in the search area.' (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Taylor plotted a course that looked like an expanding square for this exercise mission. The search area grew during each pass, allowing Kreft to scan dozens of square kilometres from her position in the back of the cockpit.

"My eyes start from the wing, then I have three spots where I stop and scan. Always making that line away from the aircraft in the search area," Kreft said. "I'm especially looking for a tarp, markings, or anything people could have used to attract attention."   

Taylor estimates his group is called out to assist RCMP and other authorities with searches about a dozen times a year.

Most recently they were involved with the search for a mushroom picker who lost contact with her fellow campers  outside Yellowknife.

Changing technology means Taylor is no longer charting the plane's course using a map and pencil. There's satellite technology, GPS and digital cameras to plot their exact position and assist in the search for the missing person.

"I wouldn't say the job is easier, I'd say it's different," Taylor said. "We're a lot more precise."

"When we're flying this pattern, we're supposed to be within a tenth of a nautical mile [200 metres of the course]. I don't know how you could do that with a map and pencil," he said.

"But we can definitely do it using this technique here."    

During the exercise, Kreft spotted something that looked like their target. After flying low to check it out, it was the right colour, but not the right lake, and St. Amand returned to his flight pattern.   

After another 45 minutes of flying, the crew spotted the objective on an island on Prosperous Lake, right where it was supposed to be.  

Knowing where to look makes the biggest difference in finding someone who is missing, Taylor says, adding people going out on the land should tell people back home where they're going and bring something in a bright colour that can be seen from the air.

"You need your backup, your people at home to recognize you're having a problem and do something about it," he said.  "Then somebody needs to go find them."