Have you made plans to upgrade the Emergency Locator Transmitter in your aircraft? You may want to consider it.
The National Transportation Safety Board advocates replacing the 121.5 and 243.0 MHz ELTs in the country’s general aviation fleet with digital 406 MHz models. Deadline for the conversion is Feb. 1, 2009. The reason? The new units are better monitored and have fewer false alarms. That’s why COSPAS-SARSAT, the international satellite system for search and rescue, will stop monitoring the 121.5 frequency in 2009.
ELTs have been required on most general aviation aircraft since the 1970s. Most are about the size of a juice box, battery-powered, international orange and held in a case mounted to the bulkhead of the cabin. They are designed to activate on impact, such as a crash. However, they can be finicky. Some will go off during a landing, even if it is not particularly hard. Some activate during shipping. In other cases they have failed to activate during a crash even though there is extensive damage. ELTs were originally intended for use on the 121.5 MHz frequency to alert air traffic control and aircraft monitoring the frequency. The only way to know one is going off is to tune to the frequency and listen for the alarm.
As of February 2009, the satellite system will discontinue satellite-based monitoring of the 121.5/243 MHz frequencies, in part because of the high number of false signals attributed to these frequencies.
Although there is no requirement in the United States to replace the 121.5/243 MHz ELTs after that date, the signals transmitted from ELTs operating on the lower frequency will only be detected by ground-based receivers, such as local airport and air traffic control facilities, and over-flying aircraft.
So while the older ELTs still will be legal from the FAA’s perspective, there is a good probability they will provide extremely limited assistance in the event of a crash, especially in a remote location.
That’s why aircraft owners should think about upgrading, says Tom Peterson, the Aviation Emergency Services Coordinator of the Washington State Department of Transportation Aviation Division. Peterson often is called upon to spearhead search missions when a pilot goes missing.
“The boating world has already converted, as required by the U.S. Coast Guard, but the flying folks, particularly GA, have not,” he said. “One of the benefits of the new units is that they are registered. If we get a signal we can make a call and find out who owns the unit. We can find out if it is a personal one, on a boat, a raft, an airplane or whatever, and not just have to send someone out in the middle of the night on what could turn out to be a false alarm.”
The new units also have better satellite coverage, he noted.
“Virtually all the satellites launched in the last 10 years have 406 GPS receivers on board. Wherever you are in the world you will be in view of at least six satellites. That’s different from the older models, where you have to wait hours or maybe days for the appropriate satellite to pass overhead.”
The new ELTs also have a five-watt data burst transmission that provides better reception by satellites, said Peterson, who commented that the old units produce only a half-watt.
Peterson adds that while the new beacons have a lower incidence of false alarms and can get help to a pilot in distress much faster, they are expensive. A first or second-generation 121.5 MHz unit costs less than $300 in most cases. The 406 MHz beacons run about $1,500, not including installation.
It’s the cost that has the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association against the idea of a mandate to make the change.
“It is AOPA’s position that it should be up to the aircraft owners to change, based on their type of flying,” stated AOPA spokesperson Kathleen Vasconcelos.
Peterson notes that some pilots just don’t have the money to upgrade their aircraft.
“Some pilots are electing to buy Personal Locator Transmitters (PLBs),” he said.
These units, often carried by hikers, campers, backpackers and skiers, fit into your pocket and do essentially the same thing that an ELT does, “except they are required to have a three-step process to activate,” he said.
Pilots would have to open the unit’s cover, erect its antenna and hold two buttons simultaneously to activate the PLB.
“An injured pilot or passenger might not be able to locate and activate the device after a crash,” Peterson noted.