Plane & Pilot
Sunday, May 1, 2005

A Needle In A Haystack

Current ELT systems can make life difficult for search and rescue

Between 3:00 and approximately 4:30 a.m., the Sheffield Police and Fire Departments and the Connecticut CAP ground team searched the ELT coordinates near Sheffield with negative results. At 3:49, 84th RADES contacted AFRCC and reported the last known position of the airplane to be just north of Sharon, Conn., at 6:47, at an altitude of 3,300 feet. These coordinates were based on data obtained from the Riverhead, N.Y., radar facility. The 84th RADES, however, didn’t access radar data from another radar facility, which showed the airplane continuing to a position near Ashley Falls, Mass., and changing its transponder code from 3377
to 1200.

At 6:16 a.m., a Massachusetts CAP airplane reported a strong 121.5 MHz signal in the vicinity of Chester, Mass. At least one ground team responded to that location. The Massachusetts State Police notified the New York State Police Air Wing of the ongoing search and requested helicopters to search the areas of Sharon and Sheffield. At approximately 8:00, two New York State Police helicopters launched.

At 8:42, a Massachusetts CAP airplane reported another strong ELT signal in the area of Chester, and a Connecticut CAP ground team again responded to the coordinates with negative results. At 9:48, a Massachusetts CAP airplane reported another strong ELT signal. The Connecticut CAP ground team met up with a Massachusetts CAP ground team and drove to the area of those coordinates.

While these two ground teams were en route to the latest coordinates, Boston controllers called AFRCC and provided a new last-known position based on a second NTAP data extraction. When Boston controllers performed the original data extraction, they didn’t realize that the program switched to a subsequent recording tape during a small gap in the radar returns. After reviewing the data the next morning, the error became apparent. AFRCC provided the new last-known position to the Massachusetts CAP at 10:43. In the meantime, the two New York State Police helicopters refueled at Great Barrington Airport. During refueling, the pilots received new search coordinates. At 10:57, the Connecticut and Massachusetts CAP ground teams reached a road intersection, near coordinates provided by the Massachusetts CAP airplane. The ground teams were led into the woods by the search airplane at 11:00. At 12:15, one of the New York State Police helicopters arrived at the new coordinates, which were approximately three miles west of the crash site. After a short search, the wreckage of the airplane was located at 12:26 p.m. The fuselage was almost intact. The aircraft’s wings had been ripped off. One of the survivors put an arm outside of the cabin, waving to rescuers. One of the children was found alive about 40 feet from the cabin.

The weather observation taken at Pittsfield, Mass., about 15 miles north of the accident site, at about the time of the accident included wind from 300 degrees at 16 knots, gusting to 22 knots; visibility eight miles; few clouds at 900 feet, broken ceiling at 1,300 feet, overcast at 1,800 feet; temperature one degree C; dew point minus-two degrees C.

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of this accident was the pilot’s improper decision to attempt a VFR flight in marginal VFR weather conditions over mountainous terrain, which resulted in an in-flight collision with trees. Factors in this accident were clouds and night-light conditions.

Peter Katz is editor and publisher of NTSB Reporter, an independent monthly update on aircraft accident investigations and other news concerning the National Transportation Safety Board. To subscribe, write to: NTSB Reporter, Subscription Dept., P.O. Box 831, White Plains, NY 10602-0831.


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