New ELT rules from ICAO

 - May 2, 2008, 5:27 AM
For the second time in three years the international requirements for ELT equipage are changing, but this time the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) promises that while the new rules will ensnare more airplanes than previous requirements, implementing them will be easier than before.

Starting on the rule’s effective date of July 1, private and commercial airplanes operating internationally (outside the U.S.) will need to carry at least one 406-MHz emergency locator transmitter, according to recently adopted ICAO standards. The rule also states that beginning on July 1 one “automatic” 406-MHz ELT must be carried on all international flights by commercial airplanes authorized to carry 19 passengers or fewer and private airplanes of any number of passenger seats that obtain their certificates of airworthiness after July 1. International operations of commercial airplanes authorized to carry more than 19 passengers and issued certificates of airworthiness after July 1 would have to be equipped with at least two 406-MHz ELTs, one of which must be automatic.

Previous ICAO standards called for ELTs only on airplanes operating on extended over-water flights and on flights over designated land areas where search-and-rescue operations pose a special challenge. In essence, the new guidance (ICAO Annex 6, Part II, 6.12) simplifies the rules, first by eliminating language pertaining to over-water or remote-area flights and second by allowing business jet operators to satisfy the requirements by carrying only  a single survival 406-MHz ELT, which can be stowed in the cockpit or galley within easy reach of the crew.

The ICAO rules do not supersede FAA requirements for ELTs, which require the installation of one fixed automatic ELT that transmits its distress signals on 121.5 or 406 MHz. The 2004 mandate for ELTs in U.S.-registered transport airplanes resulted from an act of Congress in response to the fatal crash of a Learjet 35 in IMC on approach to Lebanon Municipal Airport in New Hampshire in 1996. Searchers gave up trying to locate the wreckage, which eventually was found by a park ranger on a routine patrol more than two years after the accident.

One problem with the U.S. rule centers on the fact that Cospass-Sarsat, the international satellite monitoring agency, will no longer listen for distress signals on 121.5 MHz starting next February, in part because of a high number of false signals. So, if you’re flying with a 121.5-MHz ELT after July 1, at the very least you’ll need to have a survival-type 406-MHz ELT to fly internationally, and after next February your 121.5-MHz ELT’s effectiveness will be greatly reduced, warn Cospass-Sarsat officials.

There are three types of 406-MHz ELT for aviation use that are applicable to the new ICAO standards. The first is a survival ELT, which is removable from the aircraft and must be “stowed so as to facilitate its ready use in an emergency and manual activation by survivors,” according to the International Business Aviation Council. The other two types of ELT are installed in the airplane, one of which is fitted permanently in the tail (automatic fixed) and the other in a bracket on board (automatic portable) that permits the ELT to be removed in an emergency (for instance, after ditching when the airplane is sinking).

Survival and automatic fixed/ portable 406-MHz ELTs can be purchased from a number of manufacturers starting at around $800 and rising in price to about $5,000. The survival-style units typically are attached to a cockpit wall or stored in a galley drawer, meaning there is no cost associated with installation of these units, said a salesman at Elta, a French ELT maker. A 406-MHz personal locator beacon like those that can be purchased at outdoors stores does not meet the requirements, nor do the 406-MHz ELTs that are included in life rafts. If the airplane already has a fixed automatic 406-MHz ELT installed, it satisfies the new rules and no further action is required.

The second part of the ICAO rule covers airplanes with airworthiness certificates issued after July 1, 2008, differentiated by number of passengers for commercial operations. New airplanes with 19 or fewer passengers and operated under Part 135 or Part 121 need one automatic 406 ELT, either an installed fixed/portable unit or a survival unit stowed in or near the cockpit. New airplanes carrying more than 19 passengers need at least one automatic fixed 406 ELT and a second 406 ELT of any approved type. As a result, U.S. airlines have been adding a survival ELT to long-haul airplanes that fly internationally, the Elta salesman said.

If you install a 406-MHz ELT or buy an aircraft with one already installed, remember that it must be registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Immediate registration and updating can be done online at Upon registration, you will receive a 15-digit unique ID code. Note that you are required to re-register the beacon every two years.