FAA turns a blind eye to the ELT debacle

 - March 30, 2007, 7:48 AM

Although the FAA warned business jet operators that there was no way it could extend a January 1 deadline for installation of emergency locator transmitters (ELTs), the agency apparently did not make an effort to enforce the rule after hundreds failed to comply on time.

An FAA spokesman confirmed to AIN that although the agency was aware that around 600 business jets were not upgraded with ELTs by the deadline, no enforcement action was taken against aircraft operators. Apparently, as far as the FAA is concerned, none of those airplanes flew without an ELT after the deadline, and so there was no reason to pursue enforcement action.

The reality may be something quite different, however. There almost certainly were some operators who feigned ignorance and flew without an approved ELT in the days and weeks after January 1. Shortly after the ELT deadline passed, rumors began to swirl that FAA inspectors were cracking down on operators. One avionics shop manager said he had heard that as many as 500 operators had been “busted” by FAA officials during ramp checks of airplanes. This, however, was certainly not the case, and the FAA quickly quashed the rumor, saying inspectors at its enforcement branch were performing no more checks than usual and that no such directives had gone out to local FSDO officials.

The reason so many operators failed to meet the mandate on time stems from supplier issues after an influx of orders led to backlogs late last year that could not be filled on time. The logjam by now appears to have broken and the vast majority of the 600 airplanes in question apparently have undergone upgrades.

The ELT mandate was ordered by Congress after the 1996 disappearance of a Learjet 35A in New Hampshire. That aircraft was found three years later, not by a search team, but by a forest ranger on a routine survey. Afterward, lawmakers decided that emergency beacons should be installed in business jets to prevent such a situation in the future. (The original mandate for ELTs in light airplanes was also ordered by lawmakers in Washington after two congressmen disappeared in their piston single in Alaska in the 1970s. To this day their airplane has not been found.)

The likelihood that a business jet would crash and again remain missing for such a long time is a remote possibility, a fact that may have played a role in the FAA’s decision not to get tough with operators who did not install ELTs on time but who might have flown anyway. At the time, some observers incorrectly speculated that the FAA would make an example of these operators, hoping to convince others to get serious about future mandates, such as those for domestic reduced vertical separation minimums (DRVSM) and terrain awareness and warning systems (TAWS).

One Gulfstream II operator recounted the story of how he was able to keep flying after the deadline had come and gone even though a local FSDO said his ELT installation was no good. Late last year the operator had a Martech 121.5- and 243-MHz ELT installed in the forward cabin, which was accessible to the crew. The flight department was told by the FSDO in Albany, N.Y., that the installation did not meet FAA approval, despite its being told by the Hartford, Conn. FSDO that the ELT installation was acceptable. Because this operator is on a Part 135 certificate based out of Hudson, N.Y., it was forced to accept the opinion of the Albany FSDO and had to remove that ELT.

The airplane flew until Dec. 31, 2003, after which the ELT was removed for replacement. Under FAR 91.207, an ELT can be taken out and remain out for 90 days until a new one is installed. This was approved by the FAA in Albany and the airplane continued to fly without an ELT until the operator installed a new one it obtained in January. Understandably, as far as the operator is concerned, the story does not have a happy conclusion since in the end it had to shell out $18,000 for a piece of equipment that can normally be had for around $2,000.