Boggs & Stevens – A Historical Revisit?

February 23, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

Representative Hale Boggs’ aircraft disappeared in October 1972 while visiting Alaska – never to be found. In the aftermath, Congress mandated that aircraft be equipped with the notoriously under-performing Emergency Location Transmitter or ELT.  The technology – particularly the crash sensing activation devices  – was not ready for prime time. Thousands of pseudo mishaps were reported over the years with some bone jarring landings that may have felt like crashes but weren’t. In crashes, the antenna’s frequently broke off or the G-sensor didn’t sense the crash.

Tons of equipment was purchased but the number of actual saves, where someone was found alive, when the ELT functioned as it was supposed to, and they could not have been found by other means is depressingly small. It’s hard to track down the actual number – government accountability sometimes falls a bit short. The 121.5 ELT was supplanted by theoretically better equipment, the 406 epirb.  AOPA’s position is that they should be voluntary for Part 91 operations.

Senator Ted Stevens and several others were lost in another Alaska crash last summer and unfortunately, the new 406 system that was installed on that aircraft didn’t work either. In this case, the aircraft was found much sooner but it was too late to save some of the victims. According to NTSB’s preliminary report , the ELT’s mounting tray detached and the antenna disconnected in the crash. We don’t yet know whether the antenna was also damaged in the crash making the disconnection a moot point.

Now, here’s where the sense of deja vu sets in all over again: Congress felt moved to ensure that aircraft emergency locator transmitters are properly mounted and maintained. So the Senate, on February 17th, approved an amendment to that effect from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in the Federal Aviation Administration re-authorization bill. The amendment would require that they be inspected annually. This sounds vaguely redundant – considering that most non-experimental aircraft already require an annual inspection and that the original installation is supposed to be done by a qualified technician and so documented.Why this technical issue needs to get into the FAA’s re-authorization, which is quite convoluted enough,  is a mystery to me but apparently not to the Senate.

Some better technical solutions for the quick location of a crash site appear to be in portable 406 epirbs, SPOT or Spidertracks and perhaps the best solution of all would be the ADS-B that would follow an aircraft right to the ground – completely independent of radar and pretty much anywhere.  We still don’t know all the costs  yet and there seems to be some engineering types who think the expense could be much lower than what is currently being mentioned – especially in quantity. There are numerous other benefits to ADS-B besides crash detection while the epirb remains a one trick pony.  Rather than spend the money on a 406 device that may not work so well, seems like ADS-B would be far better investment. While those standards are still being sorted out – how about no mandates for a little while?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Steve Kittel

    “While those standards are still being sorted out – how about no mandates for a little while?”… thats how the American government works…always in a knee-jerk, reactive way by throwing more regulations rather than reviewing whats in place. Look at the Colgan crash…same way with airport security… someone tries to light his shoe on fire…everyone needs to remove their shoes…someone tries to light their underwear on fire… time to strip search granny and your kids…

  • Mark Jones Jr.

    Personally, I believe that the market is ripe for innovative solutions to the problem…rather than a poorly run, cost-inflated, system implemented by the government.

    What can we do to encourage pilots and aviation entrepreneurs to rise to this challenge?

  • Steve C.

    “There are numerous other benefits to ADS-B besides crash detection…”.

    Benefits to whom? Depends on who you are. For the lower-end GA pilot (nuisances though we may be), I’m just not convinced that ADS-B proposes all the value it’s touted to.

    Depending on where you happen to crash, with ADS-B, you might have a good track log leading to the accident site, or you might not, depending on what equipment could receive your broadcast at the time of impact. In the flatlands, it would probably work well. In terrain, it’s all a function of where the broadcast could have been seen. In that light, I really can’t see it being all that much different than a SPOT or Spidertracks, and they cost a whole lot less than ADS-B-out.

    (All are light-years ahead of a fixed ELT, despite the proposed double-super-redundant inspections. No argument from me there!)

    I would buy your argument that there are other benefits to ADS-B if there had been consensus on standards for IN as well as OUT. That didn’t happen, and the even the standards for OUT are doubled, depending on what altitudes you need to fly. In the end, government mostly benefits from it at our direct expense. We pilots, not so much. Lower MEAs perhaps for folks who need that often, but beyond that, I just don’t see it.

  • Matt S

    ELTs are already required to be mounted properly and inspected frequently.

    FAR 91.205 says in part:
    a) Except as provided in paragraphs (e) and (f) of this section, no person may operate a U.S.-registered civil airplane unless—

    (1) There is attached to the airplane an approved automatic type emergency locator transmitter that is in operable condition for the following operations, except that after June 21, 1995, an emergency locator transmitter that meets the requirements of TSO-C91 may not be used for new installations.
    (b) Each emergency locator transmitter required by paragraph (a) of this section must be attached to the airplane in such a manner that the probability of damage to the transmitter in the event of crash impact is minimized. Fixed and deployable automatic type transmitters must be attached to the airplane as far aft as practicable.
    (d) Each emergency locator transmitter required by paragraph (a) of this section must be inspected within 12 calendar months after the last inspection for—

    (1) Proper installation;

    (2) Battery corrosion;

    (3) Operation of the controls and crash sensor; and

    (4) The presence of a sufficient signal radiated from its antenna.

    So I agree that another inspection in not necesary, but I also think that based on this FAR the mechanics of the airplane and the ELT installer need to be investigated for possibly not doing their job correctly.

  • Dan Allen

    Since ADS-B “Out” is already mandated at a future date, it would certainly make sense to move that date up instead of mandating both ADS-B “Out” and new ELT’s or ELT inspections. The money that a new 406 mHz ELT would cost, or that would be spent on repetitive ELT inspections, would certainly go a long way toward defraying the cost of a new transponder with ADS-B “Out” capability, such as the Trig from Europe, which is already available!