Nobody really wants to think about what happens when their plane goes down, but, as pilots, it’s our job to plan for every eventuality. According to the most recent data available from the NTSB, only about 19 percent of general aviation accidents are fatal. That gives you roughly a four in five chance of surviving a crash. Not too bad, right?
But what happens if you go down in a remote area with no one around to help? Even if a pilot is able to communicate their location when they’re in trouble, finding a downed aircraft in a wilderness area can be a needle-in-a-haystack undertaking. Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs), while certainly better than nothing, don’t have the best record for helping search and rescue personnel locate crash survivors. Thankfully, as technology improves, so do relatively inexpensive backup options like personal locator beacons (PLBs).
PLBs were approved for use in the U.S. in 2003. Even if you can’t get cell phone reception, a PLB signal will get through and, these days, track your location to within about 100 meters—usually in just a few minutes. PLBs transmit a personalized signal at 406 MHz, an international distress frequency that can be received by the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite constellation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitors the system in the U.S., including PLB registration (beaconregistration.noaa.gov). Registration is good for two years and is required by law. One of the benefits of registration is that any distress signal will identify the owner to search and rescue personnel.
These devices fall into two general categories—basic PLBs and satellite messengers. PLBs only act as beacons. They are extremely simple to operate and typically have no other functions. Satellite messengers are a different story. They come with a range of capabilities that include GPS functions and text communications.
When considering which one to buy, the first question to ask is what’s the mission? If you’re simply looking for a solid backup for an ELT—something anyone with an older-generation ELT should think about given their less-than-reliable track record—a basic PLB is probably the best way to go. Little maintenance is required, and the price for most models isn’t excessive. Given the similarity in cost, deciding between basic PLB models is largely a matter of picking which features and operating styles you prefer, such as waterproofing and protection against accidentally sending out a distress signal while testing the unit.
For pilots planning more extensive backwoods travel or flying over sparsely populated terrain, satellite messenger functions can offer a lot of great safety options geared specifically for trips away from cell phone reception. In terms of budget, a good rule of thumb for these is that more features equal greater expense. Even for units with similar initial costs, most satellite messengers also require ongoing subscription plans, which is worth paying attention to as the price for plans can vary significantly.
With all of that in mind, here are some of the options currently available.
In addition to the 406 MHz signal, the ACR ResQLink+ PLB has 121.5 MHz homing capability. A true PLB, the unit operates by unlatching and folding the antenna up and pressing the ON button located behind the antenna. Nothing fancier than that. The ResQLink+ can broadcast for about 30 hours. A red flashing light indicates that the beacon is active, and a green light indicates that the distress signal and GPS coordinates are being transmitted.
The unit does have a few nice extras. If you end up needing to send a signal to approaching assistance at night, the ResQLink+ has a bright LED strobe light. In the event of a water landing, the unit is buoyant and waterproof. The battery expiration date is printed on the beacon—it can’t be changed at home and must be sent into the service center. The unit weighs in at 5.4 ounces and has self- and GPS-test functions so the owner can make sure everything is working properly without accidentally alerting the rescue squad.
The ResQLink+ doesn’t require any kind of subscription fee. If you end up having to use your PLB, ACR will replace it for no charge. Purchase price ranges from $244.99 to $275.00, depending on the distributor.
McMurdo FastFind 220
The FastFind 220 from McMurdo is a solid, go-anywhere PLB. It can transmit continually for a minimum of 24 hours on both 406 and 121.5 MHz. Activating it is as simple as removing the sealed cap, unfurling the antenna, and pushing the ON button. The ON button is located under the cap to help prevent accidental activation.
The FastFind 220 doesn’t come with too many frills, but it is waterproof to 10 meters and comes with a floatation pouch and lanyard, so no need to worry about getting it wet. It also has an LED strobe that will flash S.O.S. in Morse code when activated. When the unit is turned on, the indicator light will begin to flash. The pattern and number of flashes show the progress of the emergency signal—two flashes per second when the unit is activated and looking for a GPS fix, three per second when a GPS fix has been acquired, and one long followed by three short flashes in 50 seconds when the distress signal and GPS position have been transmitted.
The FastFind 220 has test functions for both the battery and the GPS—accessible without having to break the seal. The battery has a six-year storage life. It is not replaceable—the unit must be sent to the manufacturer when it needs to be changed. No subscription is needed to use the FastFind 220. The unit costs $249.99.
Learn more at McMurdo.
Ocean Signal rescueME PLB1
The rescueME PLB is probably the smallest PLB on the market at the moment. It weighs about 4 ounces and is just 3 inches long. The antenna pulls out of the unit—there is a knob to manually rewind it when necessary. To turn it on, the operator only has to lift the flap protecting the power button out of the way and hold the button for one second. Once activated, the strobe will begin to flash.
In case of accidental activation, the unit doesn’t transmit a signal until 50 seconds after it’s been turned on—if turned off during that time, no signal will be sent. The rescueME will operate continuously for at least 24 hours. The unit must be sent to an authorized dealer to have the battery replaced once its seven-year life has passed.
Be careful when testing—the test button is behind the same flap as the power button. The company also offers a seven-year warranty. The rescueME comes with a mounting clip that can attach to a belt. The unit purchase price is $299. There are no additional fees or subscriptions.
Learn more at Ocean Signal.
The SPOT Gen3 straddles the line between satellite messenger and basic PLB. It doesn’t provide any kind of two-way messaging, but it can be used to send either an S.O.S. alert to the emergency network or a standardized all-okay check-in message to personal contacts. It can also send a preset text message or an alert for roadside assistance if the car breaks down on the way to a remote airfield. Lastly, there is a help button that will alert personal contacts that you need assistance in a non-emergency situation. Messages and personal contacts are set by logging in to your online account, so they can’t be changed without internet access. Each type of message has its own button.
The SPOT Gen3 also has a tracking function that shares your GPS location to your online account at selected intervals. The unit is dust-proof and waterproof. It can stay functional after being submerged (1 meter) for up to 30 minutes. It runs on 4 AAA batteries, which are good for 1,250 messages. Like the other satellite messengers, SPOT requires a subscription to function. Plans are either $199.99 per year or $19.99 a month. The SPOT Gen3 unit costs $149.99.
Learn more at SPOT.
BendixKing AeroWave Text & Track
The AeroWave Text & Track from BendixKing is a two-way satellite messenger, and, as the name implies, a location tracker. The Text & Track makes use of the Iridium satellite network to provide total global coverage, so no need to search for a cell signal. The device will send texts of up to 90 characters and receive up to 140 characters. It can also send any of 50 user-defined pre-set messages.
Perhaps most importantly for pilots traveling in remote areas, the Text & Track can act as an S.O.S. beacon in the event of an emergency. Its rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are both user-replaceable and will operate for up to five days without needing to be recharged. In addition, the Text & Track can be paired via Bluetooth with a smartphone, which allows access to additional features through the smartphone app. An optional holder can be used to further integrate phone and tracker, allowing for power sharing and charging. As an introductory special, unit price for the AeroWave Text & Track is $399.95. A subscription is also required.
Learn more at BendixKing.
Garmin inReach Explorer+
The inReach Explorer+ from Garmin falls squarely in the satellite messenger category. It goes a lot further than just providing a location in an emergency. It offers two-way text messaging via satellite, so it’s available in areas without cell service (100 percent global coverage through the Iridium satellite network). Once an S.O.S. is triggered by the user, the unit can be used to text message directly with the GEOS 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center throughout the emergency.
In addition, the Explorer+ has a digital compass, barometric altimeter and accelerometer. It can also be paired with compatible mobile devices—both iOS (iOS 9 or higher) and Android (4.1 or higher)—via the free Earthmate app. Earthmate provides access to topographic maps and NOAA charts.
The Explorer+’s rechargeable lithium battery can last up to 100 hours in tracking mode. If the unit is in power-save mode, battery life can stretch to 30 days. The Explorer+ is 6.5 inches long and weighs in at 7.5 ounces. It is impact- and water-resistant. Other features include non-emergency location tracking and sharing, access to weather forecasts and GPS guidance.
Cost for the unit is $449.99. An active satellite subscription is required to use it—and that includes the S.O.S. and emergency features. Monthly subscription plans range from $11.95 to $99.95.
Learn more at Garmin.
For even more functionality than the standard satellite messengers, there’s the Iridium GO! mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. Iridium GO! enables your smartphone to call and text message from just about anywhere in the world via the Iridium satellite network. It’s compatible with both Apple and Android products.
The Iridium GO! unit works with associated apps for a variety of mobile devices. For emergencies, the unit has an S.O.S. button. Users need to configure the S.O.S.—via the Iridium GO! app—prior to use. It can be programmed either to send the GPS location and emergency alert to a preset phone number or to GEOS worldwide search and rescue. An active subscription is required for GEOS service. A working mobile device isn’t needed to activate the S.O.S. function.
One Iridium GO! unit can support up to five mobile devices operating within a 100-foot radius. While it provides the most communications options in an emergency, there are some drawbacks. The rechargeable battery lasts just 15.5 hours when it’s on standby and 5.5 hours talk time. Purchase price for the Iridium GO! is between $799 and $879.95. Subscription plans range from $49.00 to $129.99 per month.
Learn more at Iridium.
A Word About 121.5 MHz ELTs
In addition to the now-standard 406 MHz emergency band, all PLBs have a low-power beacon that transmits on 121.5 MHz, the same frequency band used by older-model ELTs. While the 121.5 MHz signal works well for PLBs—the 406 MHz signal gets rescuers to the right area and the 121.5 MHz beacon helps them home in on the source of the signal—it hasn’t proven to be an effective method for locating downed aircraft by itself. According to NOAA-SARSAT data, 121.5 MHz ELTs have a 97 percent false alarm rate and only activate properly in about 12 percent of airplane crashes. Not good odds for getting help.
New-model ELTs operate on 406 MHz, which has the advantage of providing global coverage—unlike 121.5 MHz ELTs, which need an aircraft or station in signal range to pick up an emergency alert. There is also no way to personalize a 121.5 MHz signal, while the 406 MHz ELTs and PLBs are registered to their owners, allowing emergency responders nearly immediate access to information about who they are looking for. Time for responders to reach an accident site is reduced by an average of six hours with 406 MHz ELTs.
While there is no mandate to update a 121.5 MHz ELT, NOAA discontinued satellite-based monitoring of the frequency in 2009. NOAA estimates there are still about 170,000 121.5 MHz ELTs in operation in the U.S. While the 406 MHz models are significantly more effective and reliable, they also cost about $1,000 more. Though not automatically activated like an ELT, a basic PLB can provide 406 MHz capability for less than a third of the price.
For more on planning for the risks of more adventurous flying, check out Risk Management, Again, Really?