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NTSB to FAA: Require 406 MHz ELTs

In a Safety Recommendation released yesterday, the NTSB has once again recommended that the FAA require all aircraft have 406 MHz ELTs (Emergency Locator Transmitters – 121.5 MHz ELTs are currently required). They first recommended this back in 2000 and after vigorous opposition by AOPA, the FAA declined to do so. This latest recommendation comes in large part as a reaction to the upcoming cessation of 121.5 MHz satellite alerting on February 1, 2009 and is supported by an analysis in the report that looks at two recent accidents, one with a 121.5 MHz ELT and one with a 406 MHz ELT.

As you might expect, in the accident involving the 121.5 MHz ELT rescue was delayed. It took 16 hours to locate the crash and the pilot died as a result of hypothermia (3 died in the crash, 3 others survived). Mind you, part of the delay was due to adverse weather conditions. In the contrasting example, the aircraft with a 406 MHz ELTwas located in less than an hour despite the aircraft being destroyed in a post crash fire (all aboard died in the crash).

Beyond recommending that all aircraft be retrofitted with a 406 MHz ELT, the NTSB also recommends that this be required to be done by the February 1, 2009 end of 121.5 MHz satellite alerting.

Don’t hold your breath. It would be virtually impossible to retrofit the entire General Aviation (GA) fleet of NTSB estimated 180,000 aircraft by that date, even if the FAA jumped on it immediately and by some magic issued such a requirement tomorrow. That isn’t going to happen.

So, the question becomes, is this a good idea? Would replacing all 121.5 MHz ELTs with 406 MHZ save enough lives to justify the considerable expense?

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

Good question, and I’m not aware of any well founded study that’s really looked at this question. My gut inclination would be that it would save more lives, but not a large number. Let me explain and also consider the alternatives.

In th 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 it is useless. The disappearance of Steve Fossett this week on a flight with no ELT signal is more typical than not.

Right now the typical 406 MHz ELT designed for GA cost 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. Mind you, should the FAA mandate installation of 406 MHz ELTs on a more reasonable timetable, it is possible that the cost would drop due to competition, eventually. But as was seen when the EU required that airlines and others install 406 MHz ELTs, the shortage due to the requirement compared to production capacity actually drove the cost up in the short run. Ramping up production would take a while and require a significant investment and developing new ELTs would take a couple years with all the testing an approvals required. So, lowered cost isn’t a slam dunk, but I feel it would eventually come down.

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, at least in the short term, I don’t expect much to happen. I have been and 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 my 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).

So, the bottom line is that the FAA is unlikely to follow the NTSB recommendation, but that doesn’t stop any aircraft owner from doing so. It couldn’t hurt. But, at the least, please get a 406 MHz PLB and carry it within reach on every flight.