A little over a year ago Flight Service offered a new service to Alaskan pilots, allowing them to incorporate satellite tracking devices into their VFR flight plans. Named eSRS for Enhanced Special Reporting Service, pilots sign up for (or update) a Master Flight Plan to identify the satellite tracking device they use, and obtain contact information so that a distress signal will be received by FSS—along with your GPS location. (For a more complete description of the service see http://blog.aopa.org/vfr/?p=396)
While this was initially restricted to SPOT and Spidertracks devices, starting on March 10, 2014, FAA has added Delorme InReach to the list of supported devices. The InReach has some features worth noting. Its purchase price, in the $300 range, is attractive. Like the other devices in this class, the user has to subscribe to a messaging or tracking service—which ranges between $10 – $25 per month. Flight Service has already been paid for— so no added cost there. And they operate 24/7, with someone always on duty to receive a distress call. FSS already knows your aircraft type, number of people on board and other detail from your flight plan, and is poised to expedite getting help on the way during an emergency. Add to that the GPS coordinates with your location. This service could take hours off the time required to summon help, when you need it the most!
The InReach has some attractive features in addition to price. It uses the Iridium satellite constellation, which provides excellent coverage in Alaska. The unit also supports two-way texting, so in addition sending a HELP message, you may be able to communicate with rescuers to let them know exactly what assistance is needed. It is portable and can go with you outside the airplane. The only down side, from an aviation perspective, is that it lacks the automatic tracking feature used in the Spidertracks system, which automatically sends a distress in an emergency—even if the unit is destroyed in the crash. That is a powerful feature that trumps a 406 MHz ELT, from my perspective.
AOPA and the Alaska Airmen have worked closely with the FAA in support of this service. In a little over a year’s time 55 pilots have signed up and, almost 1,000 flights have been conducted under the program. Hopefully more people will consider participating with the addition of the InReach unit to the program. For more details on eSRS and information on how to sign up, see: http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ato/service_units/systemops/fs/alaskan/alaska/esrs-ak/