Back 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.
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