Down at sea: Personal beacon a vital piece of equipment for all seaplane pilots

Survival equipment is vital to anyone flying over water. Whether in a great ocean or large lake, a person – or even several people – in the water can be nearly impossible for searchers to find.

The longer a survivor spends in water, even relatively warm water, the less his chances of survival. Being found as quickly as possible while being protected from hypothermia are, literally, life-or-death concerns.

Jeff Luboff of Ventura, Calif., knows about that from harsh experience.

For his job as a fish spotter, Luboff routinely flies many miles over open water in his single-engine Citabria. On the morning of Sept. 1, 2005, he was about 10 miles off the California coast when one of those pilot’s nightmares turned into reality: the engine lost power then, after a catastrophic bang, failed. Luboff got on the radio immediately with Los Angeles Air Traffic Control, giving his location and situation.

Keeping a cool head, Luboff ditched into the Pacific. The airplane immediately nosed up 90°, tail to the sky, quickly settled to about 50°, then filled with water. It took Luboff about 10 seconds to scramble out but, with full fuel aboard, it didn’t take much longer than that for the plane to sink in what later was found to be 1,200 feet of water.

It was “a survivable impact,” Luboff said, but it was preflight preparation that ensured his rescue.

Before Luboff sets out on one of his flights he packs his airplane with “a small array of survival equipment,” which he described as a survival suit, flares and – perhaps most important, as it turned out – an ACR AquaFix GPS Personal Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or P-EPIRB. As a 15-year pilot and a 30-year offshore fisherman, Luboff said he had carried a P-EPIRB for years because he recognized it could be a lifesaver one day. Last Sept. 1, it was.

His experience as a fish spotter, flying thousands of hours 900 feet above the ocean, has taught Luboff how difficult it is to see small objects in the open sea. He also understands how quickly hypothermia can set in as you float in 60° water waiting for help. “The ability to pinpoint your position is invaluable. Having the AquaFix means rescue comes in minutes or, at worst, hours compared to half a day or never,” Luboff said.

A P-EPIRB puts out a signal detectable by satellites. When activated, it broadcasts GPS coordinates, giving precise latitude and longitude positions to Search and Rescue crews. Commonly, it is the signaling device of last resort, when other means of self-rescue have been exhausted or where the situation is urgent.

Once clear of the airplane and treading water, the first thing Luboff did was to activate his P-EPIRB. He had it on a lanyard around his neck, tucked into his shirt. Next, he put on his one-piece survival suit, which has heat-retaining booties, gloves and hood, and two flotation devices. He also set off flares.

Within minutes, an unidentified aircraft spotted him and remained on the scene until rescuers arrived. The rescue response was, Luboff said, “comprehensive.” The Coast Guard launched an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter, 25-foot and 41-foot utility boats from Station Los Angeles, and another 25-footer and 41-footer from Station Channel Islands Harbor. They saw Luboff’s flares and recovered him in good health.

“From our point of view, the system worked perfectly,” said Lt. Jeffrey Shoup, an operations support officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which provides information from satellites to agencies such as the Coast Guard who do search and rescue missions. “The pilot followed the correct procedures. He used his aircraft radio as the first means of communication and then he pushed the S.O.S. – EPIRB – button as a back-up. If the airplane’s radio wasn’t working, then the EPIRB signal would have set the rescue in motion.”

Luboff, obviously, also is pleased with the outcome. “I spend a lot of time over water or out on a boat, and it’s a comfort to know that with the AquaFix, there’s no guesswork in search and rescue. It’s sad to lose an airplane like that, but when you come out unscathed, you’re thankful.”

Today, Luboff is flying again – with his P-EPIRB – in another Citabria.

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