GPS tracking to speed Alaska rescues

January 24, 2013

Help for downed aircraft in Alaska could arrive sooner under a new program that will send distress messages including GPS coordinates from participating pilots’ satellite tracking devices directly to flight service stations, where they would be matched with active VFR flight plans.

The new Enhanced Special Reporting Service (eSRS) could cut emergency response time down significantly by pinpointing the location where rescuers should focus efforts “instead of searching along an entire route when a flight becomes overdue,” said a Jan. 22 letter to airmen announcing the program.

The FAA encouraged pilots and aircraft owners who use Spot and Spidertracks tracking devices to participate in the program for VFR flights in Alaska. Other makes of devices will be added to the program as they become available and undergo testing.

The FAA said it will not actively track flights participating in eSRS, but when a distress message is generated, flight service will receive the coordinates of the aircraft’s position, enabling the more efficient response.

Devices usable under the program augment search-and-rescue efforts, but do not eliminate the need to have an emergency locator transmitter (ELT) on board an aircraft.

AOPA and the Alaska Airmen’s Association have worked closely with the FAA on eSRS for two years, providing feedback and participating in testing, said Tom George, AOPA’s Alaska regional manager.

“This is welcome news. Satellite tracking devices have come down in price in recent years, making them more popular with pilots,” George said. “By integrating the call for help with a flight plan, this program should expedite launching a rescue operation, and may reduce the search time associated with an overdue flight plan.”

The program builds on the FAA’s established Special Reporting Service, which helps track aircraft over mountains or water by maintaining frequent radio contact, the FAA said.

More information on the program may be found on the FAA’s Alaska Flight Service Program Web page.

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.