Flight Service integrates satellite trackers in Alaska

After almost two years in the making, the Alaska Flight Service Program issued a Letter to Airmen last week, announcing a new service that combines two of the popular satellite tracking devices with VFR flight plans.  The program is called the Enhanced Special Reporting Service (eSRS), originally designed to track pilots operating over mountains or water using frequent radio calls.  Of course, in much of Alaska there aren’t nearby radio outlets to receive those calls— so enter the era of satellite tracking devices.  These units combine the features of GPS positioning and a satellite communication network to send “Help” messages to a ground facility somewhere on the planet, which forwards them to the email or text message address of our choice.  So why not send those to Flight Service, the people holding your VFR flight plan?

In a nutshell, that is what this service does.  Pilots who own either a SPOT or Spidertracks tracker may sign up to have alert messages from their devices sent directly to Flight Service. In the event of an emergency, FSS will relay the messages to the Rescue Coordination Center, including your location.  Signing up is fairly simple.  Fill out, or update, a Master Flight Plan indicating that you want to participate in the eSRS program, and list the type of satellite tracker you have. (The service is currently limited to SPOT or Spidertracks, however other devices are expected to be tested and added in the future.)  Upon receipt of that plan, Flight Service will email the information needed to add them to your contacts list.  You can still have your family or friends receive the message at the same time.  A few details to be mindful of:

  • FSS is NOT actually tracking your flight. They only expect to receive a message if you are in distress and need help.
  • This supplements, but does not take the place of the legal requirement to have an ELT.
  • There is no charge by FAA for this program; however both SPOT and Spidertracks charge an ongoing fee for their tracking and messaging services.

An example Spidertracks track from a 191 nm photo mission flight into the Alaska Range. Had anything gone wrong, FSS would have received an email with my flight track and my reported position within the last two minutes before the unit quit transmitting. It would have been hard to describe this route precisely for FSS in a flight plan.

I have used both SPOT and Spidertracks devices.  Before the FAA offered this service, my wife was my primary contact to receive a distress message. This was fine until she was riding in the airplane with me. And even though I have other friends set up to receive my messages, they don’t necessarily know where I am going, and who is on board.  So having an alert message go straight to Flight Service, where it can be matched up with my flight plan, brings the information together needed to get help headed my way.  This seems especially well suited for people flying to remote areas where there are no phones or radio outlets to close a flight plan.  While we have always had the option to file a long-duration, “round robin” flight plan, it didn’t offer much protection until we came up overdue, which might be several days.  Combined with a satellite tracking device, Flight Service will respond when they get the help message.   It also makes sense for pilots who fly on complex routes on a “round robin” flight plan where it is difficult to precisely describe to Flight Service where you intend to go.  How well this works does depend on what tracker you have, and how you chose to use it. Do your homework before investing in a device.

This program didn’t just happen.  Adam White, at the time serving as the President of the Alaska Airmen’s Association, and I approached the FAA about this concept.  It took a team of Flight Service staff from the three “parent” flight service stations (Juneau, Kenai and Fairbanks), the Alaska Flight Service Program Office in Anchorage and support from FAA headquarters to develop the concept and operational procedures.  While Adam and I served as the initial “parties in distress” to test the system, before the service was declared operational, a dozen other pilots from the interior, south central and south east Alaska participated in the beta-testing phase of the program.  Spidertracks Ltd. loaned the FAA a system for test purposes while a member of the Flight Service staff loaned their personal SPOT tracker for the test period. My thanks to all that donated their time, talents and resources to incorporate this new technology, which I hope in the future will get pilots help sooner, and reduce the time spend searching for overdue aircraft.

To learn more or to sign up, Flight Service has developed a brochure and other background information to explain how the system works.  It could someday save your bacon!

2 thoughts on “Flight Service integrates satellite trackers in Alaska

    • Currently this program is only available in Alaska, however there is testing going on which should lead to a similar program for the rest of the country. AOPA will be spreading the word when that happens.

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