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?