Tom Haines

Steve Fossett, ELTs, and your money

October 3, 2008 by Thomas B. Haines, Editor in Chief

How risk averse are you? What’s your financial threshold for investing in a 406 MHz emergency locator transmitter (ELT) that will increase the likelihood that you’ll be found in the unlikely situation that you crash some place that is not obvious? Would we have found Steve Fossett hours after his accident instead of a year later if he had invested in a modern ELT? Those are questions I’m wrestling with as I look at the ELT situation.

As it turns out, you have about four choices. The cheapest: Do nothing. Your old-fashioned 121.5 MHz ELT will be perfectly legal to fly with, at least in the United States, even after February 2009 when satellites stop monitoring that signal; going to Mexico or Canada–different story. Search and rescue crews will continue to monitor the frequency.

Next you could buy a 406 MHz ELT, which is monitored by the satellites and will likely do a better job of locating you and calling in the cavalry. But the G switch on the new models is the same as the old one so the likelihood of the ELT going off is the same as before–and they don’t have a terrific record. You’ll pay about $1,000 for a basic 406 MHz ELT, including installation. But, the next option, adding a GPS interface probably doubles that cost, but greatly improves the accuracy of the search because the system bursts coordinates to the satellite for easy tracking should you “land somewhere other than an airport,” as I like to say rather than using the “c” word with passengers.

Finally, you could get similar benefits by keeping your old ELT and investing in a personal locator beacon (PLB). It too can provide good accuracy in finding you, but it has no G switch, so it’s up to you to set it off if you end up in a bad situation. PLBs can be had for a few hundred dollars.

For more, see Ian Twombly’s sweepstakes project update this week and his feature article on the subject in the October issue of AOPA Pilot.

As for me, I’m uncertain. It would be nice to know the cavalry is coming, but do I want to spend $2,000 for the unlikely chance I’ll end up someplace as remote as Steve Fossett (his 121.5 MHz ELT apparently didn’t activate). Those PLBs might make a nice Christmas present for those who never know what to get me…. (Note to self: Send link to wife.) How about you?


6 Responses to “Steve Fossett, ELTs, and your money”

  1. Rod Rakic Says:


    Analog ELTs have have proven to have an automatic activation rate as low as 20% in real off airport incidents.

    A G switch is just not a reliable way to get help.

    I’m a fan of PLBs, but I carry a SPOT messenger in my flight bag now.

    Remember, while Steve owned a watch that could transmit a distress signal on 121.5, he left it on his dresser that morning.

    I spoke with Jason Miller on The Finer Points podcast a while back about how pilots can increase their chances of getting help.

    Thanks for the update.

  2. Steve Ells Says:

    I like the idea of an airplane-mounted 406 MHz ELTs but recently learned that batteries cost over $400. Guess I’ll be carrying a SPOT or a PLB.

  3. Steve Ells Says:

    Please disregard my previous comment. I was mis informed. Soooorrrrryyyyy.

  4. Cary Alburn Says:

    Shortly after I bought my airplane, a 1963 Cessna P172D, I had the non-pleasure of throwing a rod and landing in a field only a few miles from help. I radio’d the nearest airport before going down, and as it happened, I had a “rescuer” flying overhead who flew home, got his vehicle, and picked me up half an hour later. While it was a smooth landing with no airframe damage, it reminded me that no matter how reliable modern (?) airplane engines might be, they aren’t perfect.

    Over some 35 years of flying, I’ve flown over a lot of territory throughout the US in which a smooth landing would be impossible and help would be hours away at best, assuming first that a downed aircraft could be found.

    So after my aircraft got its new engine, I bought and had installed one of the first Artex ME406s in my airplane. The ELT that I replaced was a good tried and true Narco of questionable vintage–still worked, still passed inspection, but didn’t have the remote switch required of all newer installations. But I wanted to improve my chances of being found, if I should ever again suffer an engine failure and help didn’t happen to be as close and as quick as my recent experience. Ask any S & R folk, and they’ll tell you that the grid patterns and equipment used to track a 121.5 signal is not easy to use and takes awhile to locate, not to mention that the satellite technology for the 121.5 signal can take hours to “hear” the transmitter. All this causes delays in finding a downed aircraft, assuming that the relatively weak 121.5 signals can be heard, at all. In contrast, the 406 signals are much more powerful, much reduce the search pattern area, and they trigger the SARSAT satellites within a few minutes of activation.

    Just like everyone else who has never lost an engine in flight, I never thought I would ever have to use my mock engine-out training from my student days–and I was fortunate enough that when I did, there was a relatively smooth field and I did a pretty OK job of using it. But now that I have, I am not only a lot more conscious of the terrain I’m flying over and the likelihood of setting down safely, but if I have to set down, I want to be found, sooner than later.

    We spend huge sums on our airplanes for all kinds of things that have much less importance, I think, than a modern 406 ELT. That it cost me about $1500 to have mine installed is pretty minor, compared to all of the other expenses I’ve incurred as an airplane owner, and the benefits of improving my chances of being found quickly should I go down in an inhospitable location is enough justification. So I don’t understand the positions of both AOPA and EAA, which not only object to any mandates for better ELTs but seem to dodge the valid arguments for having them. I could understand their positions if there were no provable benefits, but that’s not the case.

    It isn’t often that I vehemently disagree with an AOPA or EAA position, but this time I do. I encourage all airplane owners to get on the 406 bandwagon–20,000+ rescues are attributable to 406 technology, as a consequence of being available in the marine environment for several years.


  5. artemushek Says:

    Что то в верхнем углу высплыло, и Каспер показал что сайт заражон вирусом,
    аффтар, да у тебя iframe вирус …

  6. kmcpilot Says:

    I threw a rod on my plane a cessna 182C 1960 a couple of weeks ago. although I landed on a road I was carrying too much speed, and went off the end of this road, and flipped the plane destroying it. Me and my passenger walked away, but my old ELT never went off so I would say to all that getting something to upgrade your system is worth it. I also spent several years in search and rescue, and having trouble finding planes that have crashed was a common occurance. Even though I had given my location to the nearest tower it took over forty minutes to get them there, and the helicopter still had issues finding us when they were coming in. If we had not been in a place where our phones worked it could have been a tough time. Don’t skimp on your safety equipment you hope you never need it, but if you do it needs to work perfectly, not rarely. Like everyone else my ELT passed its inspection just a few months before my crash so trust me you want any help you can get.

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