I was taking advantage of a breathtaking spring morning to fly to historic Dacy Airport (0C0) in Harvard, Illinois, a rarity with three intersecting grass runways and no pavement to be found. I turned into taller grass alongside the runway to taxi back for takeoff. This area was a little bumpy and I got jostled around a bit, but my tailwheel aircraft soaked it up with aplomb.
As I neared the approach end of the runway, I noticed a blinking red light on the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) panel-mounted indicator. An ELT, carried aboard most general aviation aircraft, sends a distress signal if its senses a high G force—an indication of a potential accident. I couldn’t imagine that the ELT had activated, as I didn’t think taxiing through the rough patch of grass had shaken the airplane enough to trigger an alert. I quickly pressed the ELT reset button and performed the before-takeoff checklist without giving the incident much thought.
As I was climbing out after takeoff, perhaps 300 feet above the runway, I noticed a call on my cellphone from an 800 number. I wish I could have answered the phone, as I suspected right away who might be calling, but I didn’t want to get distracted while in a critical phase of flight. As I pondered who might have just left a voicemail, I received a call from my son, then one from my mother in quick succession. Now I knew for certain what was happening. The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (ARFCC)—responsible for coordinating search and rescue activities, which are mostly carried out by the Civil Air Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard—was trying to determine if I was all right.
Recently, a 406 MHz ELT was installed in my Cessna. This newer type of ELT transmits a radio signal along with precise GPS coordinates, and it can be tracked by authorities via satellite (a benefit older-style 121.5 MHz ELTs no longer enjoy). The ELT must be registered with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including aircraft and owner information—and two additional “24 hour emergency contacts.”
Within five minutes of my ELT activating the ARFCC had contacted me and everyone on my emergency contact list. Upon landing I didn’t even need to listen to the three voicemails waiting for me; I called the Air Force first and my concerned family next.
While I unfortunately contributed to the false alert tally in 2019 (there were more than 8,700 false alerts in 2017), I did learn that simply resetting the ELT if it has been unintentionally activated is not enough. You should call ARFCC at 800-851-3051, or any air traffic control facility, right away to make them aware of a false alert.
On the positive side, this experience gave me a tremendous respect for the people, process, and technology in place to coordinate our rescue if we ever have an off-airport landing.