Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Improving Search And Rescue

Enhanced technology is available, but aviators have been slow to adopt it

As of mid-2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Satellite Operations Center in Suitland, Md., had about 355,000 of the newer 406 MHz emergency beacons registered in its SARSAT database. Each 406 ELT transmits a unique identifier that can be looked up in the database to help determine who's in trouble.

SARSAT stands for Search And Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking. About 62,800 of the registered 355,000 beacons were digital ELTs designed for use on aircraft. Most of the others were personal beacons, such as might be carried when hiking or camping. The FAA's aircraft registry lists about 350,000 aircraft, though perhaps not all are active.

The numbers make it clear that aircraft owners haven't rushed to replace their old ELTs that transmit on 121.5 MHz and the military's 243.0 MHz, even though it has been a couple of years since satellite monitoring of 121.5 ended.

SARSAT was developed by the U.S., Canada and France, and merged with a Russian system to create COSPAS-SARSAT, which operates around the world with 77 ground stations and 30 mission control centers. COSPAS is the acronym for a group of Russian words that translate as "space system for the search of vessels in distress."

The AFRCC (Air Force Rescue Coordination Center) is charged with the management of federal search-and-rescue activities in the contiguous 48 states and providing assistance when the point of focus is in Mexico or Canada. Located at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, AFRCC works closely with the Coast Guard, Civil Air Patrol and others.

AFRCC receives satellite tracking information, is notified by the FAA of overdue aircraft, maintains a computer system with resource files of available assets and generally decides who to send where. In 2011, AFRCC launched 73 search-and-rescue missions involving aircraft, resulting in 12 lives being saved. Overall in 2011, there were 866 missions of all types resulting in 245 lives saved.

The NTSB is among those convinced that the new ELTs help and said so in its October 2012 report on the crash of an Aero Commander 114 at Lander, Wyo., in which the pilot and both passengers were killed. The non-instrument pilot flew into instrument conditions and struck terrain. Even though it's doubtful the accident was survivable, the NTSB said a 406 MHz ELT would have helped search crews find the wreckage much sooner. An estimated 28 hours after the crash, the airplane's 121.5 MHz ELT signal was picked up and reported by a passing airliner. It took another 24 hours for the wreckage to be located by search personnel on a ridge at an elevation of 11,700 feet MSL.

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