AOPA Get Your Glass Sweepstakes Update -- Upgrading to 406 MHz

March 25, 2013

Sweeps Update

Project Update: October 2, 2008

Upgrading to 406 MHz

By Ian J. Twombly

Of the many new and exciting pieces of equipment inside AOPA’s 2008 Get Your Glass Sweepstakes Piper Archer is a 406 MHz emergency locator transmitter (ELT). Because satellite monitoring of 121.5 ELTs will end on February 1 next year, the decision to equip with a new digital, 406 ELT was easy.

Last month we featured a story in AOPA Pilot describing the end of satellite monitoring and what it means to aircraft owners. There’s no easy conclusion to be made with this issue, other than that installing a new 406 ELT is not required and monitoring of older 121.5 ELTs will drop significantly starting early next year (satellite monitoring will end, but pilots and ATC will continue to monitor the frequency). Beyond that, each owner/operator has to weigh the pros and cons individually to decide what is best for their personal situation.

Because the sweepstakes airplane represents the pinnacle of GA technology, we decided to install the new ELT. In our case, Kannad came forward to assist with the project and we are happy to have them on as a first-time contributor. Kannad’s ELT is new to light GA and is priced to compete well in the still small 406 ELT market. As more owners decide to upgrade, prices are bound to come down, making the new boxes more accessible for all owners.

Installation

The arguments for and against equipping with a 406 ELT are contained in the magazine story. What we didn’t take time to digest was installation, which is a major factor to consider when purchasing a 406 ELT. Peter Stelzenmuller, the head of Penn Avionics in West Chester, Penn., said that install costs will vary widely by airframe.

The standard 406 unit is a similar installation to a 121.5 ELT, Stelzenmuller said. But 406 ELTs require a dash-mounted manual on/off switch, which could add to the cost if one wasn’t previously installed. That’s because most of the ELT install is contained in the tail, whereas an on/off switch would require the technician to run a harness through the cabin and onto the panel. One nice feature of the new on/off switch, however, is that many have a battery test function, among other benefits.

The cost goes up even more, Stelzenmuller said, if the owner wants to couple the ELT with GPS. Arguably most of the 406 ELT benefit comes in GPS reporting. Once a 406 ELT is set off, it bursts a stream of data to the satellites monitoring the world. If a 406 ELT doesn’t have GPS integrated, it sends a code confirming that the ELT is in an airplane, and information to help match data in a registry operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Once NOAA gets that signal, the verification and search process begins. If the unit is integrated with GPS, the end of the data burst includes latitude and longitude of the airplane’s last position. That gives search crews an X to mark the spot of the downed aircraft.

Stelzenmuller said the GPS data is derived from the RS 232 serial port on the panel-mounted GPS. It’s continuously updated and stored once a second. Many manufacturers sell their ELTs and nav data interfaces separately, which considerably ups the cost for owners. Stelzenmuller also confirmed the installation cost goes up with the GPS interface –likely the reason only about 10 percent of Penn’s customers are electing to go with it. One nice benefit of packaging each piece separately, however, is that the GPS interface can be added later.

Finally, Stelzenmuller said, don’t be surprised about increased install costs for a 406 ELT when compared to a 121.5 ELT. Whereas older ELTs could usually be tested with a handheld radio, 406 units require a new piece of test equipment. Penn picked its unit up for $14,000.

We’re sure the sweepstakes winner will agree that in addition to a fantastic panel and a great-looking airplane, the Archer is packing a state-of-the-art safety feature in its new 406 MHz ELT as well.

Next week: A race

E-mail the author at ian.twombly@aopa.org