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ELT update: real world advantages, disadvantages

By Kevin Psutka

 

It has been one year since my last ELT update, in which I reported that there was no change in the status of the regulation amendment and that current regulation remains in place.

This remains the status. All aircraft operating in Canadian airspace must carry a serviceable Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) that broadcasts on either 121.5 MHz (TSO 91 or 91a) or 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz (TSO 126). I pointed out that if you elect to equip with a 406 MHz ELT and/or carry a 406 PLB, you must ensure that it is registered with the beacon registry https://www.cbrrcb.ca/cbr/ .

I also highlighted that there is no longer monitoring of 121.5 MHz by satellite and that you should either equip with a newer 406 MHz ELT or carry some other device in addition to your older ELT, and that even if you equip with a 406 ELT you should carry another device because of the deficiencies in all ELTs, including the newer ones. As of now, the revised regulation remains in limbo and, according to the Director General Civil Aviation, is not likely to move forward anytime soon.

The following letter, from Captain Justin Olsen of the Victoria Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, prompted me to provide another update. His letter, using real world examples, emphasizes my many explanations to members about the advantages and disadvantages of the various devices, including ELTs, and how best to configure your devices to maximize their usefulness in the case of an emergency.

I will provide comments within Captain Olsen’s letter, bracketed by “>” at the beginning of my comment and “<” at the end.

Captain Olsen wrote:

In the past months I have had two cases that have underscored the difference between our response to various emergency signals and how poorly it seems to be understood by the average general aviation pilot.

Additionally, we took a phone call from another pilot who had several excellent questions about how SPOT beacons are handled by JRCC Victoria. I bring them to your attention in hopes you can use your privileged platform to teach general aviation pilots about the differences between the response at the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) to 406 MHz ELTs, PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons) and SPOT beacons.

I will also describe how 121.5 ELTs are investigated and the challenges they present. I think all people involved in aviation can agree that in an emergency, time is exceedingly valuable and that a quick response could make the difference between a happy or a tragic ending.

When we are alerted to a registered 406 ELT, the amount of ‘detective work’ required is greatly reduced. We know the aircraft registration, owner name and can relatively quickly find out if someone has gone flying, even without a flight plan through the emergency contacts. This was the case with a Murphy 2500 that I recently had to deal with in Northern B.C. From initial alert to tasking rescue aircraft was 18 minutes. If there had been a flight plan in the system instead of a flight note, it would have been even less.

>I understand from international statistics that only about 40% of all 406 MHz devices (ELTs, PLBs and EPIRBs) are registered. If you do not register your 406 device you are defeating one of the major advantages of a 406 device; its distress signal can be linked to a user account that provides vital contact and aircraft information. Without this link, the initiation of a search may be delayed as they attempt to gather information.<

PLBs do have the benefit of satellite monitoring and accurate location pinpointing, but they have an extra step that delays air response from JRCC. This is because PLBs are assumed to be land based beacons, and when one is detected in JRCC Victoria’s Area of Responsibility it is passed to the RCMP after initial notification by the Canadian Mission Coordination Centre in Trenton.

A practical example of this occurred after a forced landing was conducted that resulted in broken landing gear in a remote area north of Vancouver. I received the PLB information after the pilot triggered his beacon, but without any indication that this was connected to an aviation emergency, I passed the case to the RCMP with all contact information and GPS position for their investigation. One hour later, reports of an ELT on 121.5 began coming in, probably in the same area of the PLB, and the aircraft was talking to high fliers. Using the aircraft reg istration, I found the owner’s name was the same as the PLB’s registered owner, and now knew that the two cases were actually the same. This enabled me to task a Cormorant to the position of the PLB and I informed the RCMP I was assuming control of the case.

Thankfully, there were no injuries and the delay in tasking a rescue helicopter was not a factor, but I realized that an hour is a long time if someone is injured, and if this had happened in a lower traffic region, the response may have been even further delayed. >When manufacturers of PLBs made them widely available and started selling them into the aviation market, I urged the DND’s National Search and Rescue Secretariat to develop a registration field for all PLBs so that pilots could note that their PLB is being used in an aircraft.

This was incorporated into the registration process with a comments field and it is here where you should mention that the PLB is being used in an aircraft, otherwise delays can be expected, as explained with the example above.<

Occasionally we receive SPOT notifications, but we have had none related to air cases so far this year. As I hope the users of this product know, the response tied to activating their SPOT depends directly on the information they have attached to it.

All JRCC’s have a mutual letter of agreement with SPOT’s International Emergency Response Control Center (IERCC) which guides the IERCC through which response is appropriate. They begin by trying to determine the authenticity of the alert and the nature of its source. If they believe the SPOT could be on an aircraft or boat from the data attached to it by the owner, they will contact the JRCC, otherwise they will call the RCMP in the area.

As a fail-safe, if the IERCC cannot contact a responsible Canadian agency within 60 minutes from the initial alert, they will call the JRCC and we will either action the case or forward it to the appropriate agency.

What is important for your members to understand is that SPOT depends on them maintaining accurate information on their file and to make it abundantly clear that this SPOT is used on an aircraft, otherwise time could be wasted figuring out who is the responsible agency to investigate the alert.

>In our guide to configuring SPOT we highlight the need to include the following in the SOS section of the SPOT registration page:

“This SPOT is used in an aircraft. When a SOS distress signal is received from this unit, call the XXXX Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (insert telephone number here) and tell them this is an aircraft distress call”.

Insert the closest JRCC to your normal operating area (Victoria, Trenton or Halifax) as your primary contact (periodically check these numbers to ensure that they have not changed). Please note that the toll free numbers are not accessible from outside of Canada (SOS distress signals are received at GEOS in Texas) but they are provided here for your information in case you or your friends need them.

Victoria JRCC 250-413-8933 or 800- 567-5111

Trenton JRCC 613-965-3870 or 800- 267-7270

Halifax JRCC 902-427-2100 or 800- 565-1582 <

Providing the aircraft registration gives us a starting point to work from, but as with most things, the more information they provide, the better. Should they loan a SPOT to a friend, if this could be reflected on the file, it would also save time and confusion. Manual activation can also be a stumbling block in an airborne emergency. Finally, there are the older 121.5 beacons. Yes, there are still high fliers monitoring this frequency, and we typically receive several reports of hearing short bursts of ELT traffic each week.

The problem is that aircraft at high flight levels have huge areas over which they can hear these signals. At FL300 the radius of the area they can pick up signals is 164 nm, and because of this there is significant investigation that we must do before tasking our air assets to search for the beacon source.

After we have narrowed the search area and determined that it is probably an aircraft in distress, the signal must be homed as without satellite monitoring, there is no way for the location to be pinpointed other than by homing. All these steps are adding time to the process, when time may be of the essence.

I hope that these concrete examples will give the members of your organization something to consider. Of course, having any ELT is better than none, and combining a PLB with an older ELT will give a position once the Duty Air Coordinator has determined the case is actually an Air Incident and not simply a PLB. SPOTs can give accurate location, but it is important to remember the weakest links in the response system will be the accuracy of the information provided by the user and that they do not activate automatically. However, neither of these situations can compare to the speed with which the rescue system can respond to a registered 406 beacon.

These beacons are not cheap, but like any insurance, when needed, their value is priceless. Because the use of 406 beacons in general aviation was not mandated for the majority of aircraft your members may own, it is important for pilots to understand the strengths and weaknesses of whatever system they choose to use and to be diligent in using their equipment properly. I hope that I have shed some light on what happens behind the scenes and perhaps cleared up any questions that pilots may have had regarding these emergency alerting devices.

>COPA’s long-standing position remains that we are not opposed to 406 ELTs but they should not be mandated. 406 ELTs are great when they work but they provide absolutely no information until they are activated and since they are prone to exactly the same failures as older ELTs (antenna breakage, inverted wreckage masking signals, crushed or consumed by fire or submerged), it is likely that if you only carry an ELT, there will be no indication of where you may be or where you have been. That is why COPA encourages everyone to equip with what is appropriate for their area of operation.

Tracking devices such as SPOT www.findmespot.com, Spidertracks www.spidertracks.com and InReach www.inreachdelorme.com , to name a few, provide tracking services and more.

In the event of an ELT failure and even if you are not able to activate an alert on the tracking device, at least there will be a breadcrumb trail to help narrow the search. Remember to include links to the tracking reports web page in the remarks section of your flight plan or the space provided on Navcan’s online flight plan facility https://plan.navcanada.ca/account/login/?next=/ for tracking urls.

There are deals available to COPA members to encourage you to equip with appropriate devices to suit your needs. COPA members are eligible for the first year of SPOT tracking service (value $50 – refer to this link for details http://www.copanational.org/files/kp09023.doc ).

InReach (see review article in December COPA Flight) offers a 15% discount on their service as long as you continue your account with them.

If you decide to purchase a 406 ELT from Aircraft Spruce Canada, you will receive a buck slip that you can send to COPA for a complimentary first year of membership or extension of one year to an existing membership.

Thank you Captain Olsen for providing this insight and highlighting the need for pilots to purchase and configure their devices to improve their chances of being found as soon as possible.<