November 8, 2005
The FAA issued a notice to airmen (notam) Wednesday announcing plans to end satellite processing of emergency locator transmitter (ELT) distress signals broadcast over 121.5 MHz and 243 MHz on February 1, 2009. This comes at the request of the Cospas-Sarsat program, an international search and rescue program that uses satellite-aided tracking, and is part of a transition to 406-MHz ELTs whose signals provide more information with greater accuracy than the current ELTs.
"AOPA recognizes the benefits of the 406-MHz ELT but opposes any attempt to force pilots to upgrade. The unit alone costs about $1,000, with installation adding more to the cost. So the decision whether to upgrade or to keep the 121.5-MHz system should be left to the discretion of each aircraft owner," said Rob Hackman, AOPA manager of regulatory and certification policy.
Aircraft owners and pilots should be aware that ELTs that transmit on 121.5 MHz will still satisfy FAA requirements and be legal after the transition date, but they will provide limited assistance in the event of an accident because their signals will no longer be received by a satellite. However, the FAA and the Department of Defense will still monitor the frequency from the ground and can initiate search-and-rescue operations.
Currently, only one company in the United States sells the 406-MHz ELT suitable for installation in aircraft. This advanced ELT uses digital technology to transmit information specific to you and your aircraft, including your GPS coordinates and personal contact information.
Pilots who fly in mountainous terrain or unpopulated areas might want to invest in the new equipment because their 121.5-MHz signal might not be picked up by ground stations, thus delaying or even preventing a search-and-rescue operation. But those flying in populated areas might decide against the upgrade because it is more likely someone will see them go down or that an air traffic control facility will pick up the distress signal.
For more information about the 406-MHz ELT, read " Airframe & Powerplant: Getting a Better Signal" in the January 2005 issue of AOPA Pilot.
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