The news cycle continues regarding the crash involving former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and several others. There have been numerous newspaper remembrances of the other big Alaska crash in 1972 that resulted in the loss of Congressman Hale Boggs and Rep. Nick Begich. That aircraft was never found and Congress mandated that all aircraft henceforth should be equipped with Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs).
The concept of having someone search for a crash immediately after an automatically-activated device signaled the impact’s location was seductive. However, the technology was certainly not ready for prime time as the devices often did not go off when needed but were pretty good at notifying the authorities of numerous hard landings that did not require rescue teams. The number of actual saves – where someone was still alive and found purely as a result of the ELT is reputed to be very small. You’ll remember the Steve Fossett search where the aircraft was equipped with a required ELT (not sure which model) that failed to activate. The high number of failed and false activations is evidence that perhaps a totally different approach is needed.
Ironically, in this accident the ELT (reported to be a new 406 mhz model but that is speculative) failed to activate! Had there been personal locator beacons (PLB) aboard (and the passengers briefed on their use) it is quite plausible that the rescue would have come much sooner.
ADS-B is in the offing and would have given an immediate location of the crash site and yet, the public law as written, will not be allowed as a substitute for the 406 devices. The FAA is really pushing ADS-B since the entire ATC system will depend on it in a few years. Hmmm- seems like we’d want to provide incentive to equip yet Congress appears unwilling to allow pilots to use a far superior technology that has much broader application and is more cost effective. I’m obviously missing something.
Personally, I’d rather see pilots invest in airbags that really do work (disclosure – AmSafe, the airbag manufacturer, is a corporate sponsor of ASF safety seminars but this endorsement was unsolicited) and carry PLBs than depend the uncertainty of a hard-mounted 406 unit working as it was supposed to. The engineering is not so easy, as the record has proven – snap off the antenna as is known to happen occasionally in accidents and you’re toast. Additionally, a distinction should be made between Part 91 and Part 135/121 operations such that if I choose to fly without search and rescue (SAR) approved gear, that is my choice.
My friends in the search and rescue community will consider these views worthy of tar and feathers but Congressional mandates, often well intentioned, sometimes lead down the road to tar and feathers anyway.