High-tech search and rescue adds safety

July 18, 2012

From cellphones to personal locator beacons, emerging technology is giving pilots new ways to shorten the search and speed the rescue in the event of an accident or incident away from the airport, said AOPA Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Melissa Rudinger at a National Transportation Safety Board forum in Washington, D.C.

Most AOPA members responding to a survey knew that the search-and-rescue system based on emergency locator transmitters sending signals on 121.5 MHz is no longer monitored by satellite, said Rudinger, who took part in the NTSB’s General Aviation Search and Rescue Forum as a National Search and Rescue Policy panelist.

With multiple technologies now available to pilots for enhancing distress signaling capability, almost 75 percent of members responding to the survey said they planned to carry other devices or location applications in the cockpit, she said.

The survey showed that 96 percent of members knew that ELTs transmitting on 121.5 MHz were no longer monitored by satellite. With 13 percent of respondents reporting using newer ELTs transmitting on 406 MHz, the survey indicated that general aviation pilots were well informed on the issue, and making a variety of other choices for their safety, she said.

In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed banning ELTs transmitting on 121.5 MHz. The proposal encountered strong opposition from AOPA, the aviation industry, and the FAA, which later that year formally requested that the FCC drop the mandate. ELTs transmitting on 121.5 MHz have been installed in the majority of general aviation aircraft since 1973.

Now, emerging technologies “open up numerous options for search and rescue in the event of an accident or incident,” Rudinger said. “In fact, some of the technologies offer even greater capabilities than the 406 MHz ELT. And of course, the FAA's NextGen technology called ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) could provide search-and-rescue functionality that would make carriage of an ELT redundant.”

With so many choices available to pilots, AOPA would continue to oppose the costs and redundancy associated with mandating 406 ELTs, Rudinger said.

“I want to be clear that this position is not opposition to the 406 beacon itself,” she said, noting that AOPA has worked collaboratively with the search and rescue community to educate pilots about 406 MHz ELT technology.

With technology expanding, Rudinger urged that the search-and-rescue system become capable of detecting data from a wide range of sources.

Adopting an open system would avoid putting the brakes on innovation by mandating a single technology or piece of equipment that likely would soon become obsolete, leaving the system “stuck in time,” she said.

The two-day event July 17 and 18 was chaired by NTSB Chairman Deborah A. P. Hersman. All five NTSB members participated in the forum held to examine federal regulations and policies, and “facilitate dialog between search organizations, technology manufacturers, and industry groups on the issues currently impacting the general aviation community.” The forum’s second day was dedicated to discussing emerging technologies and their future role in general aviation search and rescue.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.