By Alyssa J. Miller
Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard District 7
If Maurice Kirk hadn’t been carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB) on Feb. 16 when his J-3 Cub went down more than 70 miles out to sea, he probably wouldn’t be alive today.
Kirk’s story exemplifies why pilots should assess the type of flying they do and equip their aircraft with the type of ELT or alternative emergency equipment that best suits their needs. While AOPA opposes any attempt to mandate a change to 406-MHz ELTs, it does encourage members to proactively seek emergency equipment that matches their flying habits.
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“Pilots can have a 121.5-MHz ELT or 406-MHz ELT installed in their U.S.-registered aircraft,” said Rob Hackman, AOPA senior director of regulatory affairs. “Because satellites will stop monitoring 121.5 MHz next year, pilots should be evaluating their choice of ELTs and all other emergency equipment, including PLBs.”
Right now, the FAA is not mandating a switch to 406-MHz ELTs. Both units will continue to satisfy the Federal Aviation Regulations and work after Feb. 1, 2009; air traffic control and pilots will still monitor 121.5 MHz.
A 121.5-MHz ELT continuously transmits a signal that search and rescuers can use to home in on the aircraft, but it is limited to line of sight. A 406-MHz ELT can be GPS-enhanced and emits a data burst at specified intervals that contains registration information. Alternative emergency equipment, like a PLB or a cell phone with GPS technology are other options to consider. The advantage of a PLB or cell phone is that pilots can activate them before making an emergency landing. A 406-MHz ELT includes a cockpit switch, so it can also be activated in advance.
Kirk, a 62-year-old pilot from South Wales, United Kingdom, ditched his Piper J-3 Cub in the ocean between the Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos Islands after an engine failure.
The FAA notified the U.S. Coast Guard at Great Inagua of Kirk’s mayday call, and a HH-60 Jayhawk twin-engine search and rescue helicopter set out based on information from Kirk’s VFR flight plan.
Kirk, who was carrying a 406-MHz PLB, estimated that he activated the beacon about 20 minutes after he ditched the aircraft and swam to the surface. Kirk said the cold water shocked his system and deteriorated his ability to think clearly, so he did not think to activate the beacon while he was trying to inflate his life raft.
When search officials received the PLB signal and the unit’s registration information, they contacted the facility in New Zealand where he purchased the unit and then contacted his wife in South Wales to ensure the PLB hadn’t been stolen (and that her husband was indeed flying in the Caribbean), Kirk learned after his rescue.
The HH-60 helicopter diverted to the PLB’s transmitted location and rescued Kirk, who was suffering from hypothermia, a little more than two hours after the J-3 Cub went down.
“There’s no doubt that if I had not had this particular personal locator beacon, I would have been shark meat, simple as that,” Kirk told AOPA. He said now he’d carry the PLB wherever he flew.
AOPA supports the FAA’s current policy that allows pilots to choose what type of ELT to use and will oppose any type of mandate.
The association has compiled information on the two types of ELTs to help members decide which will work best for them after 2009. For details on the differences in technology and cost of the ELTs, read Steven W. Ells AOPA Pilot column “Airframe and Powerplant: Getting a Better Signal” and AOPA’s regulatory brief.
February 28, 2008