ELTs help rescuers find general aviation pilots quicker in emergency situations.
Out of the mouth of babes (so to speak): I was hustling along on my morning walk, and my phone rang. The voice on the other end identified itself as Terry Quinn. He further identified himself as a reader, but not a pilot, and in his words, "…I'm not an aviation expert. In fact, I'm a retired railroad guy. But, I have a question: Why don't overseas airliners have a floating locator buoy that pops up to the surface when they go down in the ocean?" I stopped walking, thought for a second and said, "That's a damn good question! Why don't they?"
Now, before I dig myself into the kind of journalistic hole that generates a ton of emails pointing out the error of my ways, let me start with this caveat: I know next to nothing about airliner technology or policies. I'm just a rag-leg, little airplane driver who watches the news more than I probably should, and the concept of a floating locator system never crossed my mind. But, it has now, and I'm right with Terry Quinn: How can we have so many airplanes flying over water with limited ways of finding them if they go down?
Okay, I know that airliners spend a lot of their time being tracked on someone's radar scope and talking to ATC, so the assumption is that someone, somewhere knows exactly where they are at all times. But, they don't spend ALL their time on radar. In fact, the Continental U.S. itself has huge, gaping holes where no one actually knows exactly where you are. Of course, this is more so with the little birds than the big ones. Hence the ELTs most of us carry around. In theory, if we come to an abrupt halt, the ELT sets off electronic fireworks, and "they" can home in on our signal. Assuming, of course, that we haven't gone into a lake and taken the ELT with us. That has happened more than once. However, if we're out over the water in our own airplanes, or in an airliner, that's exactly what happens every single time there's an accident. The ELT goes in the drink, and that's the last it's heard from.
Airliners spend more time on radar than we do, so when something happens, the powers-that-be know pretty much where the episode happened. But, when over the ocean, that doesn't mean that's where the wreckage lies. The search areas, even for incidents where radar follows the airplanes right down to impact, are always measured in hundreds, if not thousands, of square miles. If there's no radar coverage, the area is MUCH larger. The Malaysian accidents are classic cases in point. In most cases, the searchers depend on floating wreckage to give them a starting point. Usually that works, but not always.
If the airliner isn't on radar, as with Malaysia MH370, knowing exactly where to begin the search is pure guesswork. MH370 flat disappeared, so conspiracy theorists have it grabbed by aliens, foreign agents, etc. And they might as well be right because, when you're combing a featureless ocean, not even knowing where to start—it's like looking for a particular blade of grass on a football field, and you're doing it while looking through a soda straw. Worse yet, you don't even know if it's the right football field or not.
I've found it interesting that after every ocean accident, it seems to take them longer than expected to find the black boxes even with the "pinger" attached to them working and the searchers having a known starting point. In addition, bear in mind that in accidents like those in Malaysia, we could be talking about water that's miles deep. If you don't have an exact location, the wreckage may never be found.
So, how do you come up with a way of knowing the exact location of a crash site? One way is to ask a retired railroad guy who just happens to have an obvious answer. And here's where I get into territory I know nothing about. Again. However, as always, I'm willing to stick my neck out.
The black boxes are mounted in the tail of an airliner for a reason: They're more likely to survive because they're the last thing to arrive at the crash site, and the shock to their innards will be cushioned by the crushing of the airplane in front of them. Of course, if the tail breaks off, as with this last one, the boxes may not be with the rest of the wreckage. But, they'll be close by. Still, in the case of an overwater flight, they'll be submerged, and there's the big bugaboo: Regular ELTs don't work under a couple hundred feet of water, so they have a pinger attached that's supposed to be locatable by sonar, but that doesn't always work. Plus, the range is limited. Solution? Don't let the ELT/black boxes go in the water with the airplane.
How hard can it be to rig something like an airbag actuator that fires the black boxes and a locating beacon out of the back of the airplane the instant a high level of deceleration is sensed? Or, at the very least, a fairly simple ELT type of device is launched that pops to the surface and begins talking to satellites immediately after the aircraft goes down. Then, at least there would be an exact GPS location on which to focus the initial search.
In little airplanes, ELTs have saved lots and lots of lives simply because they lead the rescuers to the scene of the accident much more quickly than an eye-ball search would. However, even with ELTs working and an incident on land, finding an accident site sometimes takes much longer than we wish it did. Let's face it, an airplane is fragile and can compress itself into some pretty small nooks and crannies. And a fire will erase much of it, leaving a small target for searchers Not long ago, a Cessna wreck was found locally that had been missing for 20 years: It was within a few miles of a major airport but had wedged itself into a crevice in the rocks and was all but invisible. Even the ELT hadn't saved it. Maybe we need an electronic beacon to shoot out of our tailcone on impact just as much as airliners do.
No one likes to talk about the dark side of aviation, but airplanes are man-made mechanical contrivances. So failure is possible. I'm probably overlooking something obvious, but it just seems as if anyone who can design a machine that can carry 300 people at 500 mph for long distances ought to be able to also design a foolproof way of finding the airplane, if it goes down anywhere—land or sea.
Hmm! What am I missing? I'll bet some readers can, and will, tell me.