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121.5 MHz Satellite Alerting Going Away

121.5 MHz Satellite Alerting ENDING in:
Equipped To SurviveHave you gotten your 406 MHz PLB or ELT yet?

As ETS has noted previously, 121.5 MHz (and 243 MHz - military use only) distress signals will no longer be processed by the COSPAS-SARSAT satellites, effective February 1, 2009.

The Coast Guard in 2003 made the sale and manufacture of 121.5 MHz EPRIBs illegal and in 2006 it became illegal to use these beacons on vessels.

The legal situation with ELTs in aircraft is a bit more up in the air. In the U.S., AOPA and other aviation organizations continue to fight mandatory 406 MHz ELTs for light General Aviation, primarily because of the cost. As a result, there has been no mandatory replacement of 121.5 MHz ELTs for light aircraft.

The first question that comes to mind is, should you run out and change out your 121.5 MHz ELT for a 406 MHz model? If your sole concern is meeting regulatory requirements and 121.5 is still legal for your use, then the answer is probably no.

However, thre more important question is, does this make sense? With satellite alerting going away, should you replace your 121.5 MHZ ELT with a 406 MHz ELT?

Click here to see a table that compares 121.5 to 406 MHz beacons.

Good question, and here's our take. In the first place, ELTs are not some magic bullet. They often don't work in a crash. How often they don't is subject to considerable debate, but by some estimates it is as high a 70%. Even if it is as low as 30%, the point is, in many cases the ELT is useless. The disappearance of Steve Fossett with no ELT signal is more typical than not.

Right now the typical 406 MHz ELT designed for GA costs about $900 to $1000 and installation can run nearly as much in many cases. In some cases, installation is simple and almost a direct replacement, but this is only for a very small minority of generally later model GA aircraft.

One alternative that's been the subject of considerable discussion in the SAR world and among those involved in 406 MHz beacon industry, standards development and regulation has been to require, or at least strongly encourage, use of a 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). Some would like to see it approved as a legal alternative to the required 121.5 MHz ELT.

In 2006 I participated in a meeting convened during COSPAS-SARSAT Joint Committee Meeting in Montreal at the request of ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) that looked at these issues. A paper summarizing that meeting was presented at the next ICAO/IMO Joint Working Group on Harmonization of Aeronautical and Maritime Search And Rescue and this report covers most of the issues.

Aviation has already developed into a prime market for PLBs as GA pilots become knowledgeable about the benefits of 406 MHz alerting. PLBs are much less expensive than ELTs to begin with and prices are trending down in an increasingly competitive market. You can get a perfectly adequate PLB today for around $450 and top of the line PLBs are about $650.

By and large, as long as the pilot survives the crash, and the PLB is at hand, they would likely be able to activate it. However, mandating PLB carriage is itself fraught with issues since it is a portable device and can and will be also used for other activities, one reason it is appealing to many. OTOH, there are those aircraft owners who fly around without mandated or at least, functional ELTs. There will always be those too cheap or too anti-authority.

However, in the long run, I think it would likely save as many or more pilots as requiring 406 MHz ELTs, and being less expensive, would be an easier pill for AOPA to swallow. Mind you, I won't hold my breath for that either.

So, we will continue to encourage pilots to get a PLB. It's the simple and reasonably affordable solution and it could well save your life. From our point of view, an unreliable ELT is backup to a PLB, not the other way around. If you're unconscious or immobile and the ELT works, that's great.

If I had a plane of my own, there's no question I would install a 406 MHz ELT. I also think that the FAA should require all new aircraft to come with a 406 MHz ELT (many if not most do, but it isn't required). But, at the least, please get a 406 MHz PLB and carry it within reach on every flight.

For more information on 406 MHz PLBs, please see: The Ultimate PLB FAQ on ETS.

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Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
Email: Doug Ritter
First Published: March 23, 2008

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