Answers for Pilots

Emergency locator transmitters

April 1, 2007

Help might be on the way

Just like a list of emergency phone numbers that we keep handy, but hope to never use, the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) in the fuselage of the airplane provides a measure of safety with the assurance that it could bring help if we have an accident.

The first two generations of ELTs, which are currently installed in many general aviation aircraft, are designed to transmit a distress signal on the 121.5-MHz frequency. The first-generation ELT was mandated in 1973 and complied with FAA Technical Standard Order TSO-C91. The units have miserable reliability, with 97 percent of the signals being false and activation in less than 25 percent of accidents. However, they are legal and owners were not mandated to swap them out for the mid-1980s second-generation 121.5-MHz ELTs (that comply with TSO-C91A). The reliability of the second-generation ELTs is better, with the units activating in 73 percent of accidents, and these units are budget-friendly, costing around $200.

The newest-generation TSO-C126 ELT is a digital device, which transmits on a frequency of 406 MHz. Its improvements over the 121.5 variety of ELTs include the ability to pinpoint a search area that's 10 times smaller than its predecessor can and transmit a code every 50 seconds that identifies the owner (assuming the unit is correctly registered). A quick phone call by search and rescue authorities to the emergency contact numbers on file can verify whether the signal is valid and set the rescue operation in motion much more quickly.

The cost is high, as with most new digital technology, so you can expect to pay at least $1,000. If you size up to a unit with a nav interface, the price jumps to more than $3,000 with installation.

As of February 1, 2009, the 121.5-MHz ELTs will cease being monitored by the international search and rescue satellite system known as COSPAS-SARSAT. After that date the signals will be detected only by ground-based receivers such as those operated by local airports and air traffic control, and overflying aircraft. If you have the unfortunate experience of going down in a remote area, your chances of being found will be greatly diminished. Although an ELT upgrade will not be mandated, you'll have to decide whether it's worth the cost for you.

As an alternative, and in addition to your 121.5-MHz ELT, consider purchasing a 406-MHz Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) — a portable handheld unit that must be manually activated, but would provide similar guidance as a 406-MHz ELT for rescue forces to find you.

If you have already installed a 406 MHz ELT,verify that your registration information is correct and up to date or register your unit for the first time. In the United States you can access the National 406-MHz Beacon Registration Database online or if you are located outside the U.S. at the International COSPAS-SARSAT Database.

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Kathy Dondzila

Kathy Dondzila | Manager, Technical Communications, Pilot Information Center

Technical Communications Manager, Kathy Dondzila, joined AOPA in 1990 and is an instrument-rated private pilot.