Alaska Flight Service adds InReach to satellite tracking program

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)

The Delorme InReach has been added to the list of satellite devices used by the Alaska FSS to receive distress messages.

The Delorme InReach has been added to the list of satellite devices used by the Alaska FSS to receive distress messages.

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/

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!