Get Lost and Get Found

October 3, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

passenger_safety_briefing_card-1Back in 1972, U.S. Representative Hale Boggs’ aircraft went missing in Alaska—never to be found. A law was passed mandating that most aircraft be equipped with an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) that met a technical standard order (TSO). The boxes were moderately expensive and the performance left something to be desired. The automatic activation switch worked way too well on hard landings and didn’t always fire off when needed. The number of survivable crashes where someone was actually saved as a result of the ELT was presumably very small.

Some years ago a technical improvement came along. The 406MHz ELT was better, BUT in a recent landmark accident involving Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, it didn’t work either. Faulty mounting disabled the unit and several lives were lost that might not have been if the survivors had been found sooner. The Air Safety Institute created a special passenger briefing video at the request of the NTSB to help pilots properly inform their passengers on exits, emergency equipment, and any special communications gear that might be available.

There has been debate regarding whether the ELT mandate should require a 406 on board. AOPA’s Regulatory Brief on ELTs explains AOPA’s position. If you need more detail, you can read AOPA Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Rob Hackman’s letter to the FCC.

An active AOPA member of the search and rescue (SAR) community, who flies all over Alaska for his business, likes the 406 units but doesn’t think they should be mandated. He does feel that 121.5 units provide a false sense of security since they are not actively monitored. In a recent accident he spent hours searching for a downed aircraft with no luck. The assumption—the aircraft has one of the older 121.5 units.

As explained to me, the regulation does NOT allow for 406 Personal Locator Beacons (I carry one), Spot, or Spidertrack satellite trackers. These devices leave a “breadcrumb trail” and an alert goes out when they STOP sending. They don’t depend on activating under extreme conditions or surviving fire, impact forces, or drowning. They’re not perfect (uncertified), but the certified units have not performed perfectly either. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

These devices would be viable alternatives at a much lower cost to the current TSO’d fixed mount unit. Rather than require a certain technology wouldn’t it be much better to suggest a performance standard? We don’t care how you get the results—just get them. Specifying a particular technology dooms the whole enterprise to obsolescence pretty quickly.

When flying in remote places, Alaska for example, one might choose a more robust tracking system, along with filing a flight plan. Couldn’t hurt.

The Air Safety Institute is able to bring you educational tools such as the Passenger Safety Briefing video and online safety education courses through contributions from generous pilots through the AOPA Foundation. If you value these programs to help keep us all safely flying, please consider a contribution today.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Don

    A 406 does its work in the first 50 seconds after the crash, getting the data to a satellite immediately on a fresh battery. A 121.5, to be useful, must keep transmitting for hours or days. How many times have you been disappointed by battery life in all your other electronic devices?

  • Graeme Smith

    One example of a 406 not working does not make a good example to base AOPA’s argument to allow 121.5 to still be carried. I was at sea in the 1980’s when 406 was mandated around the whole world for ships and 121.5 were off the table. False alarms plummeted – saving precious rescue resources. Accurate detection and successful rescues went up.

    To mix the sea and air for a moment – Last fall during Hurricane Sandy the Tall Ship HMS BOUNTY was lost off Cape Hatteras. The Coastguard C130 and rescue helicopters credited 406 technology board the ship with getting them accurately on scene and (in the case of the helicopters) allowed fuel planning to arrive home on fumes – thus ensuring a successful rescue of nearly all the crew.

    Yes there are alternatives including uncertified SPOT – but it is not an Internationally funded and certified system. 406 through COSPAS-SARSAT is. Why would you not want to carry the technology that has the best chance of getting you picked up?

    Stop clouding the story with singular examples of technology when it didn’t work (through improper installation it seems – hardly the fault of the system). Look at the bigger picture. Stop defending a system (121.5) that no one is actively listening out for.

    Even my humble Cessna 150 now sports a 406. A portion of the additional cost being amortized over the longer battery replacement interval.

  • Mark D Jones

    Why not do away with the requirements to have ELTs at all? I’ve often wondered if there’s ever been a situation where they made any difference.

  • Lynn Redfern

    Another FEEL good MANDATE passed upon those who fly to make flying more expensive and help those who read and ride feel safer!!

    The requirement for an ELT should be voluntary based on needs.

    It just like the so called BI ANNUAL flight review need to be history!

  • Jack Burton

    I agree with Graeme. It is time for AOPA to stop defending 121.5 ELTs. Why not outlaw their manufacture now?
    Mandate replacement in a reasonable time period (10 years, perhaps?). The cost of 406 units has come down to where they are not significantly more expensive any longer.
    Yes, I still have 121.5 in my plane, but would not consider putting in a new ELT that was not 406.

  • Duane Truitt

    I don’t believe Mr. Landsberg is defending aircraft installed 121.5 ELTs at all – rather, he seems to be (as am I, and probably many other pilots) skeptical of the entire concept of mandatory installed aircraft ELTs … i.e., installed systems mounted to an airframe that automatically transmit in the event of an impact as defined by an arbitrary G-force limit, which may or may not be due to an accident.

    Here’s some obvious fatal flaws with installed ELT systems:

    In a ditching, an ELT, regardless of technology is probably useless, as it cannot transmit to satellites from the bottom of a lake or ocean. Sure, a pilot might have the presence of mind before ditching to manually initiate a 406 sending a single burst to system monitors prior to hitting the water. But what if he/she doesn’t? Even if a burst is sent off, with winds and ocean currents, survivors in the water or on rafts can drift many miles or even many tens of miles from the location of the initial burst. A PLB can stay with the survivor providing pinpoint locations to the satellite for many hours after initiatiation.

    Even in an impact on dry land, the installed ELT only tells you where the aircraft is located … that is, if it works at all, assuming it’s been properly mounted and does not get destroyed in the impact or resulting fire. An ELT does not tell system monitors if any persons have survived or not, or what condition they’re in, or how many are aboard, alive or dead, or in imminent environmental danger, etc.

    A 406 MHz PLB or a commercial device like SPOT is in the possession of a person and requires initiation by an operator, telling the monitoring authority that at least one survivor is present. A portable device also gives the GPS-derived location of the survivor, which may not be the same as the location of the aircraft. Some portable devices also have the capability to transmit text messages providing valuable information on the number and condition and injuries of survivors, and other threats such as weather conditions.

    A SPOT device also provides the option for calling in non-emergency assistance, such as in a forced off-airport landing, or need for mechanical assistance.

    I feel far more secure with at least one PLB and one text capable SPOT device on board, in the physical possession of at least two persons, than with any installed 406 MHz ELT. This combo provides redundancy and survivability and portability, as well as bread-crumb tracking, and the ability to deliver critical information to SAR.

    Mr. Landsberg’s main point is not to say which device is best … it is that FAA’s bureaucratic and schlerotic rules routinely fail to keep up with, and indeed even suppress, technological innovation. By forcing pilots to pay for what we do not want or need, FAA also constricts our ability to invest in what we do want or need.

  • Merl Raisbeck

    Bruce hits the nail on the head: “Rather than require a certain technology wouldn’t it be much better to suggest a performance standard? We don’t care how you get the results—just get them.”

    The basic premise of both the 406 and 121.5 ELT’s is flawed: They’re supposed to work _after_ a catastrophic event, and they’re “superior” by virtue of being sanctioned/required by the government. As when ELT’s were first mandated in the political circus following the Hale Boggs case, outdated, expensive technology is being crammed down our throats when there are cheaper, more effective alternatives.

    The breadcrumb systems offer an excellent alternative to ELT’s. They’re much more reliable because they work by “failing”, i.e. where they quit signalling is where you are. And, because they’re not legally required by name/TSO, they can be easily and economically phased out when something better comes along.

  • Chris

    This article gets one major technical detail totally wrong. Units like Spot and PLBs do NOT fire when the breadcrumb trail ends, they must be manually activated. They have built in GPS units, and your location is encoded into the satellite transmission. And unlike 121.5 ELTs, they send a serial number which is associated with an online registration. So within about 120 seconds of pushing the button, SAR agencies know who you are and where you are to within about 50-100 meters.
    In contrast, a 121.5MHz ELT must transmit for hours and still be transmitting when SAR choppers arrive. And that’s when the frequency was monitored by satellite, it’s not anymore so it’s useless unless someone is in range and listening on 121.5.

    406MHz ELTs function exactly the same as 406MHz PLBs, using the same satellite system. They do not breadcrumb trail, they only transmit when activated.

    SPOT has a breadcrumb trail function but it isn’t used for emergencies, only to track your trips. You have to push the emergency button to get an emergency response. SPOT also has a much less powerful transmitter than an ELT, so it won’t work as well under cover. But the newer SPOT units can send text messages and post stuff to Facebook (whoopee!).

    Bottom line- I get that AOPA opposes mandating 406MHz ELTs in all aircraft due to cost. But it’s important to not spread false information, ever. Doing so makes AOPA lose credibility.
    For the record- I carry a 406MHz PLB every time I fly. I support mandating them in all aircraft over time, unlike the old 121.5 ELTs they actually work well. Yes they are expensive, but this is a cost that Is likely to actually save some lives.

  • Eric Greenwell

    Satellite trackers like SPOT, Delorme’s inReach, and Spidertracks are voluntarily installed in a large number of prilots flying gliders (gliders are not required to install ELTs) The pilots are willing to buy the units, then pay subscription fees of $150/year or more to use these units, because they provide peace of mind to friends and family, who can see check their location easily from any internet connected computer, and because their location is known within a 5 mile radius (or less) if a crash disables the tracker and the pilot.

    An ELT provides none of the “peace of mind” benefit, and a fraction of the crash benefit, since they don’t reliably activate, and costs more than a tracker and many years of subscription fees.

    I think the FAA ought to acknowledge this wide acceptance of satellite tracking, and accept it as an alternative to an ELT, at least for non-commercial flights. It could even save them some effort when a flight plan isn’t closed – they can check that the track actually got to an airport.

  • John Turner

    Voluntary use of tracking systems is a good use of the airwaves, but they should not be mandatory – especially when that information becomes publicly visible, or even generally available to government agencies. Drivers would not tolerate being tracked every day, all day, and pilots should not either. We could easily end up with enforcement action taken solely based on such information.

    Impact-initiated beacon systems of any flavor are great tools, but we should not necessarily be striving for perfection under all circumstances. It seems that the best available, economically viable system is the installed 406 ELT. Flyers who want to carry a 406 PLB are not prohibited from doing so, but neither should they be required.

    As to cost, there is no reasonable explanation for a significant cost differential between a 121.5 and 406 ELT, and we all know that FAA certification has long increased the cost of such devices above that of non-certified devices. With the shift from FAA-certification to ASTM-compliance, prices should drop dramatically.

  • Colleen Keller

    I dislike the ELT concept – they notoriously work when you DON’T want them to (false alarm rate >90%) and DON’T work when you DO want them to (often destroyed on impact). But, there are cases where ELTs have led to a successful find and saved lives. The system is in place and monitored and serves a useful purpose.

    The false alarm rate is astonishing, though. At the NTSB General Aviation SAR Forum in July 2012, the current Operations Officer of the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) stated that of 3,491 SARSAR “incidents” recorded in 2011, only 106 were actual distress events. Talk to any Airport Manager around the country and you’ll hear stories of being called in the middle of the night to search for beacons going off in hangars. This is a huge problem and a waste of scarce SAR assets.

    I personally do not count on my ELT to save my bacon in a forced landing situation. I carry a registered 406 MHz PLB that I intend to activate before I hit the ground. I also try to take advantage of flight following and radar services…talking to someone makes me feel more secure. And, I always carry my active cell phone despite what the FCC says, to ensure that cell triangulation will help in finding my crash site if it comes to that.

    I have been working for years now in the field of searching for missing aircraft and can attest firsthand that there are many cases where ELTs (both types) do not provide an alert and other means were used to locate the wreckage. There are steps a pilot can take to assist searchers in locating the crash site. No one solution is best – rather, the layered defense that Mr. Landsberg advocates is the wisest approach. And, brief your passengers on how to operate safety gear – they may end up saving your life.

  • Alan D. Resnicke

    My passengers are briefed to “push the red button” when I start screaming. They laugh… but it get’s their attention.

    Jocularity aside, when I had to replace my 121.5 ELT a few years ago, the 406 market was so backed up I couldn’t get a unit for several weeks, at least. With a trip fast approaching, I had to install another 121.5, which I still have today. However, my 2ndary COM radio is ALWAYS tuned to 121.5 to monitor my ELT and any others that might have been activated, unless I’m using it for a flip-flop frequency… and then I come back to 121.5 when done with that freq.

    The FARs still require us all to monitor 121.5 when able. Isn’t everybody doing this???

  • Brian Hannan

    AOPA Australia (I am ret VP and a USA AOPA member) fought the regulator and won the case to carry handheld (originally 121.5 now 406 PLB) for private ops INSTEAD of an ELT fixed in the aircraft.
    The then Pres completely destroyed the regulator’s claims of ELT success.

    I have previously supplied the details to USA AOPA and believe this is the way they should go. Our own SAR people have also provided the details to ICAO.

    Countless examples of ELT failures whereas a PLB carried on the person has much more potential if you survive a crash.

    Happy to provide anyone details of the AOPA material and an article in Australian Flying magazine. Brian [email protected]

  • William Due

    Some of your readers have correctly hit the nail on the head asking the question why AOPA is so staunchly defending the 121.5 ELT. There are many examples that many could cite wherein an ELT, 121.5 or 406, did not work properly. Yet, it is known that many rescues have occured when the ELT was activated properly. It is sad when a crash occurs and the family has no closure due to missing individuals such as in the Boggs case. AOPA and many could argue there is no reason to have an ELT. As a former CAP member, however, I simply do not agree with the concept an aircraft should not have an ELT. The Civil Air Patrol has thousands of “saves” to its record because of locating an aircraft with an ELT. Why is it that an aircraft owner will spend thousands on the latest GPS or autopilot, but is adverse to spending $1,000 to $1,500 on the latest ELT technology. While no system may be perfect, having an ELT on board that will automatically begin transmitting on a crash is better than nothing. While the cost of a PLB has come down, it takes human activation that may not be available. The satellite system can pin point an aircraft’s location within a 100 meters or so. The present 121.5 relies on someone listening to that frequency, a fact that is rare in general aviation considering the total number of hours flown. Yes, there are some out there who constantly monitor 121.5, but unless the aircraft is equipped with the proper equipment, there is no way the direction or location or that signal can be discerned. The 121.5 ELT is a dinosaur. Shame on AOPA failing to support the “newer” technology.

    William Due
    San Antonio, TX

  • Bruce Landsberg

    To Chris….

    I am guilty of sloppy writing in describing the breadcrumb trail as “sending out an alert.” It does not – but it gives searchers a very good place to look where it stops and as soon as someone is noted as missing – usually within a few hours – the effort is much easier. As noted – it doesn’t depend on crash survival to work.

    William – would like to know the source of your statistic for CAP’s “Thousands of saves.” The number of lives actually saved by ELT, where the wreck could only be found by ELT is reputed to be extremely small. I don’t have numbers to back that up so if you’ve got more than anecdotal evidence we’d sure love to see it. I’m prepared to be swayed by new information.

    All – thanks for your comments!

  • Brian Hannan

    Be of good cheer as I note the following in my research – no transmission, automatic alert:

    Spidertracks claims “With spidertracks you’re not reliant on your ELT surviving an accident for you to be found and rescued, because the SOS message is sent by the spidertracks website.” Spidertracks sends your GPS location to the company servers every two minutes and in the event of no transmission generates an alert.

    I am with you also re ELT. Our own AUSSAR people have cited numerous examples where impact ripped off aerials and ELT became useless.

  • Chris

    Brian- very interesting, I hadn’t heard of that product. It sounds like an excellent service.
    That said, it only applies to SpiderTracks. A handheld PLB sends no breadcrumb trail, you have to push the big red button to get help. Same with SPOT- it DOES leave a breadcrumb trail (if you turn that feature on), but you still have to push the button to get help.

    However speaking more generally- I would not ever want to fly cross country without a real 406 beacon in the plane (be it an ELT in the tail or a PLB in my flight bag). I view it as no different than having seat belt and airbags in a car- I will almost certainly never need it, but if I DO need it, it’s scientifically proven that it can help keep me safe.
    The system behind it (COSPAS-SARSAT) is specifically designed for one purpose alone- to find me when I’m in trouble. And it does that very well (MUCH better than 121.5 ELTs ever did). IMHO, if I am ever down in the middle of nowhere, the 406 satellite system is my best chance at a rescue. (Google Cache link due to gov’t shutdown) in 2012, COSPAS-SARSAT resulted in 263 rescues, 22 of which were from aviation accidents. With the number of GA accidents per year, that’s a not entirely insignificant number.

  • Brian Hannan

    Thanks Chris, and I certainly agree – the articles I have written for Aust Flying Mag mention Spider and Spot but stress they are not first party services.

    Our AUSSAR registers your 406 and allows you to provide reference people in the event of activation. They also allow you to update your activities – e.g. current trip – so they have an audit trail before they even begin looking.

    We are very 406 oriented because we lack the radar coverage you have in the USA so most of Oz has no low level surveillance.

    We have also seen numerous examples, as Bruce suggests, of ELT aerials damaged / ripped off during crashes or the ELT useless because of fire or sinking in the ocean.

    Here’s an example from one pf my mag articles:

    A spokesperson for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) which operates the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) highlights how quickly things changed. “Sixteen minutes after the 121.5 MHz satellites were switched off, AMSA’s Rescue Coordination Centre Australia, detected two 406 MHz distress beacons in the Great Barrier Reef region off the Queensland coast. Four fishermen were subsequently rescued after their fishing vessel had caught fire and sunk. Without their 406 MHz distress beacons, we may never have found them.”

    There is also the $ side of things – we can get a 406 PLB with GPS for under $400. No ongoing subscription fees.

    That’s why I believe the case USA AOPA should be fighting is for private ops to allow a 406 PLB or EPIRB in lieu of a fixed ELT. Any fight for 121.5 is to me contrary to logic.