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How It Works: Personal locator beaconHow It Works: Personal locator beacon

Sending out an SOS

How It Works

Users must register their PLBs with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This links your unit’s digital code with information such as emergency contacts and details about how you use the PLB.

Illustration by Steve Karp

We all have the things we carry just in case. Jumper cables, charging cords; if you’re a parent, snacks and crayons. A personal locator beacon is one more item to add to the list, especially if you’re flying over remote terrain.

Personal locator beacons are handheld devices that send out a signal on 406 MHz, the same frequency used for newer emergency locator transmitters. Unlike ELTs, PLBs don’t activate automatically upon impact in a hard landing, but they are accurate, portable, and cost effective—prices range from less than $300 to about $500. Some are waterproof and offer additional features such as messaging, with a subscription. They are one option for pilots with aircraft equipped with older, 121.5 MHz ELTs, which are less reliable than 406 MHz models.

Activate a PLB—in most cases, simply by extending the antenna and pressing the On button—and it transmits a powerful distress signal with a unique digital code. A global system of satellites relays the signal to a network of ground stations and then to a mission control center (the center in the United States is in Suitland, Maryland). That facility matches beacon signals to others coming from the same source to fine-tune position accuracy and then appends registration information and alerts the appropriate search and rescue organization, which dispatches units to the scene. New PLBs integrate GPS position into the distress signal, which can narrow the search area to roughly the size of a football field.

Sarah Deener

Sarah Deener

Managing Editor, 'AOPA Pilot' and 'Flight Training'
AOPA Pilot and Flight Training Managing Editor Sarah Deener is an instrument-rated private pilot and has worked for AOPA since 2009.

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