The Magic Switch So Many Pilots Know So Little About

 - August 20, 2018, 7:00 AM

For six years I surveyed pilots to see what they knew about search and rescue…the results were not good. I asked more than 300 pilots a simple question, and only two gave me the answer I was looking for. The training shortfall involves a small "magic switch" in every cockpit that pilots never touch and most pilots do not know much about.

My primary flight instruction was in the late 1970s, and training regarding emergency locator transmitter (ELT) use has changed very little in 40-plus years. The early 121.5/243 MHz system was riddled with problems. Some installations had battery issues. Wreckage could block or funnel the signal in a direction that would confuse location pointers and rescue forces. Sometimes the antenna would be separated from the transmitter. Some transmitters were so damaged they could not emit any signal. History is full of downed or lost aircraft that were never found. Pilots learned to mistrust the ELT system.

All that changed in 2009, but too many pilots have not updated their ELT training. The emergency locator network is now a satellite-based system that has greatly improved safety, security, and locating capability. With the updated 406 MHz satellite system, everyone from backpackers to seafarers to airborne pilots can be assured their obscure location can quickly be pinpointed by experts monitoring the search and rescue (SAR) net.

Since my book Blue Water Ditching was published in 2012, I have interviewed hundreds of pilots and asked this question. “If you lose engine power in a non-radar environment, what can you do to greatly increase your odds of a timely rescue?” Two pilots answered correctly. Granted there are a dozen checklist items, commonsense procedures, engine re-start sequences, and survival items to perform post haste. But we would do well to instill in current and future pilots that the simple act of turning on the ELT can save lives. With the aircraft's 406 MHz ELT "turned on and pinging the system," the following sequence goes into motion:

  1. SAR receiver/transmitters activate aboard six low earth orbit (LEO) satellites (1,200 miles up) and about 45 medium earth orbit (MEO) satellites, (12,000 miles up). The LEOs orbit the earth about every 100 minutes. MEOs orbit the earth between two and 24 hours. If either hears the 406 MHz ping, it relays the signal down to receivers all around the world. These receivers are called local user terminals. The ping then goes via landline to mission control centers.
  2. Mission control centers display the ping on a computer terminal or wall-mounted screen. As it is highlighted via mouse or pointer, the aircraft owner/operator/registrant is revealed.
  3. Within minutes, control centers reach out via contact numbers to determine whether it's appropriate to launch SAR actions. Rescue control centers are alerted as needed. The SAR operation has begun.
  4. When the system is activated in an aircraft, it bypasses all the middlemen. Sure, you could relay your lat/long, heading, and airspeed to other aircraft passing overhead, which you can update every few minutes while you are doing 15 other tasks. Or, you could just flip the switch and continue your efforts to resolve the emergency.

In the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, all operators trained for offshore ditching and off-airport landings in detail. The reason they trained was…because it happened! Thankfully, as aviation evolved over the ensuing decades, aircraft have become 1,000 percent safer. Today we have engines that seemingly never quit, electrical systems with redundant and very reliable grids, fire-resistant cabin interiors, fuel tanks that don’t leak, and pressurization systems that work as advertised. In other words, the risk factor of an off-airport landing has become extremely small. And if something does go wrong, there's a good chance the pilot will be able to land safely. So there is a reluctance to activate the ELT for fear of generating a "false alarm" and facing unpleasant consequences. Lt. Col. Gene Manner, director of operations for the U.S. Air Force Rescue Coordination Center stressed that the system is there to be used. "If a pilot thinks they might be distressed," he said, "they are distressed! SAR is one of those things you don’t care about—until you need it. Everyone must have a plan." And the truth is, if the aircraft reaches an airfield, lands safely, and needs no further help…what happens? Absolutely nothing.

I play the what-if game because it is so important. In July 2014 a father and son were making an around-the-world trip in a single-engine aircraft. They ditched on July 22 off Pago Pago, American Samoa. An open ocean search ensued. The son was found next day drowned in his life vest. The father and aircraft were never found. So, what if, after engine failure and in the drift down they had activated the 406 MHz ELT? The satellite signal would have pinpointed the location and SAR could have been initiated immediately. Would the result have been different? That's why turning it on while airborne is so important.

Some think ADS-B will solve this problem. The FAA website says ADS-B will improve "last reported position," which will take the "search" out of search and rescue. And, "air traffic controllers have better information about an aircraft’s last position, thereby reducing the critical window of time involved in a search and rescue operation." While worldwide ADS-B promises many great leaps forward in the future for aviation, remember there is an ELT switch on your flight deck today, tomorrow, and next year. The earlier it is switched on the better.

If you are floating in the water or standing next to the airplane after the off-airport landing, would you rather be relying on the ADS-B signal interpretation by en route controllers (with the difficulties of hardware, language, jurisdictions, customs, and locations) as they communicate with a mission control center, or would you rather know that the process is already in action…meaning help might reach you minutes or hours earlier?

Consider yourself trained. Now go and train three other pilots. And if you run into a CFI, an FAA employee, or an EASA official, train them too.