The Need for ELTs in Transport-Category Aircraft

Air Line Pilot, January 2001, page 24
By First Officer Jennifer D. Muellner (US Airways)

As airline pilots, we assume that if we crash, someone will know that the crash has occurred and will know exactly where we are. Many line pilots don’t realize that nothing is on board our airplanes to positively identify our location if we crash.

We need to have an emergency locator transmitter (ELT), or something like it, on board our airplane in case we crash so that airport rescue and firefighting (ARFF) services will be able to find us.

Roughly 40–50 percent of the pilots I have talked to are unaware that nothing is required by regulation or law—yes, there is a difference—to be on board our airplanes to quickly locate a crash site on an airport during low-visibility conditions.

Civil turbojet-powered Part 121 transport-category airplanes (that are not certified for extended overwater use) are exempt from a mandatory ELT requirement.

Accidents that needed ELTs

Requiring a piece of equipment to be either on board an aircraft or in an ATC facility for accident notification seems redundant or unnecessary in the positive-control ATC environment, but several notable accidents dramatically illustrate the need for ELTs:

The Aloha Airlines ELT

Aloha Airlines recently chose to buy its new Boeing 737s with state-of-the-art ELTs that operate on the latest designated satellite-aided search and rescue (SATSAR) frequency of 406 MHz, and also have a 121.5 MHz homing beacon. The 406 MHz transmitter encodes the beacon serial number, the country code, and the ELT manufacturer. It can also encode a lat/long from a GPS input; however, this feature is not currently enabled in the Aloha Airlines fleet.

SATSAR teams can use the 406 MHz ELT system to determine an ELT-equipped airplane’s position to within 3 km of the target. The 121.5 MHz ELT gives a location accuracy of about 20 km. The ELT displays a status on the flight deck and, when activated, sets off the master warning and illuminates a warning light. The ELT, which can be easily reset from the flight deck, is powered by four D-size lithium manganese dioxide cells.

• In July 1994, a USAir DC-9 crashed after the pilots tried to go around when they encountered windshear in heavy rain during final approach. The airplane crashed into a house less than ½ mile from the airport boundary. ARFF received initial notification of the accident through the Charlotte 911 telephone system, whose dispatchers knew that an accident had occurred before controllers in the Charlotte control tower did. During dispatch, ATC advised the airport ARFF units only that they had lost an aircraft on radar.

• In August 1997, a Korean Air Lines B-747 hit a ridge 3 miles short of the Guam airport. More than 18 minutes elapsed before ATC could confirm the accident and notify emergency services; almost 27 minutes elapsed before the location was determined. By the time ARFF units responded, few people who had been on the airplane still survived.

• In February 1998, an American B-727 landed short of the runway and slid off to the side at Chicago O’Hare in fog. Because air traffic controllers were unaware of the accident, the next flight sequenced for approach and landing actually landed on the same runway, and a third flight tried to land but went around. A driver of an airport operations vehicle notified the tower of the accident and its location.

• In June 1999, an American MD-82 ran off the runway in Little Rock, Ark., hitting the approach lights, in ½-mile visibility, hail, and strong winds. The tower controller, unable to see the airplane in reduced visibility, asked the ARFF units to search for the MD-82. Emergency services took 14 minutes to locate the crash and 20 minutes to reach it—they first drove to the wrong end of the airport and saw nothing, then went back the other way until they found the airplane.

False sense of security

While the flight crews of most transport aircraft are in close contact and communication with ATC, we don’t often think beyond the false sense of security this gives us.

These accidents illustrate very clearly that although we are in close radio contact with ATC, the connection can easily be broken. For example, unless the controller sees our target disappear off the radar screen or loses communication with us in midsentence, we depend on the eyesight and binoculars of the tower controller to start the process that determines if an accident has occurred and to locate the accident site. In a reduced-visibility environment, that method may fail. Frightening? Yes, even more so considering that controllers are human and lack any tools to help their eyesight penetrate walls of fog, heavy rain, or snow. A crash-activated ELT on board our airplanes and a position-indicating system in control towers could reduce the response time of emergency services and help them provide timely rescue.

ELTs are such simple and inexpensive pieces of equipment—so why don’t we have them? In 1970, the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 was amended to, among other things, require most civil airplanes of U.S. registry to install ELTs, but with a few major exceptions. The original law—Title 49, Subpart VII, Part A—Air Commerce and Safety, Section 44712—discusses the requirements of the ELT, the purpose of which is to provide notification and position information regarding an aircraft accident. Section 44712(a) states: "…an emergency locator transmitter must be installed on a fixed-wing powered civil aircraft for use in air commerce." However, Section 44712(b) states that (a) does not apply to "aircraft when used in scheduled flights by scheduled air carriers holding certificates issued by the Secretary of Transportation…."

The most recent amendment, in 1994, required ELTs to be installed on powered civil airplanes used in air commerce. However, the law still exempted turbojet-powered aircraft and aircraft used in scheduled flights by scheduled air carriers holding certificates issued by the Secretary of Transportation. The law does not exempt aircraft certified for extended overwater operation, but ELTs required for extended overwater operations are activated manually or by immersion in water, not by impact.

The fact that if you fly a turbojet aircraft domestically for a Part 121 carrier, you don’t have to have an ELT on board is appalling, but equally appalling is learning that aircraft have been delivered with ELTs installed and then carriers have them removed. One U.S. air carrier accepted delivery of Canadair Regional Jets with ELTs installed. With no requirement or incentive to keep ELTs, the carrier immediately deactivated them and, as time permitted, had them removed. Boeing airplanes delivered to European air carriers are equipped with state-of-the-art 406 MHz ELTs. Airplanes delivered to U.S. and Canadian carriers could just as easily be similarly equipped.

Why can’t we fix this?

This issue seems like it would be easy to fix: go tell someone that ELTs are needed in aircraft and voilà—there you have it. However, this is a more complex process. As early as 1974, ALPA recommended that ELTs be installed on all air carrier aircraft and that direction-finding instruments be installed in airport emergency equipment. ALPA pursued this to no avail.

In 1992, in reaction to several accidents, including the crash of a MarkAir B-737 7.5 miles short of a non-towered airport in Unalakleet, Alaska, in 1990, the NTSB recommended to the FAA that it change the current ELT requirements. The FAA’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee reviewed the ELT carriage requirements and concluded that the exemptions remained valid.

The FAA said, "Because of the significantly greater use of flight-following services (i.e., dispatch, IFR flight plan use) and the radar environment of the ATC system utilized by turbojet operators, aircraft can be quickly located after an accident. Any deviation from the flight plan in terms of routes taken or time schedules is almost immediately apparent."

As the accidents listed previously demonstrate, this is obviously not the case. The number of recent accidents has emphasized the need for such equipment. Capt. Tom Phillips (US Airways), director of ALPA’s Accident Survival Projects, is leading an effort to rectify this problem. ALPA is educating and working with the U.S. government, several trade groups, and various labor organizations, such as the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the Association of Flight Attendants, to change current requirements.

Options for accident notification

In recent meetings with the FAA, ALPA suggested several options for how to determine that an accident has occurred and where the aircraft is located in light of the existing exemption. The first option that ALPA suggested was for the FAA to not permit air carriers to engage in low-visibility operations unless their aircraft have a means of being identified in the event of an accident (e.g., an ELT). The second option was to develop an alternative device (i.e., non-ELT) that would notify ATC that an accident has occurred in low visibility. These meetings have produced no sign of progress. The FAA, though sympathetic, has been reluctant to pursue any options while the law currently specifically exempts air carrier aircraft from carrying ELTs.

The process of making the need for crash-activated ELTs a mandatory requirement is long and drawn out. The difference between a law and regulation, while seemingly transparent to us as line pilots, is this: an act of Congress is needed to change this requirement. After years of patience, perseverance, and effort, ALPA hopes that this deficiency will soon be rectified without additional undue loss of life.

Proposed ELT Requirements/Recommendations

Proposed ICAO Requirement

6.12—Emergency locator transmitter (ELT)
6.12.1—Except as provided for in 6.12.2, until 1 January 2005, all aeroplanes operated on extended flights over water as described in 6.3.3 (b) and when operated on flights over designated land areas as described in 6.4 shall be equipped with one ELT.
6.12.2—All aeroplanes for which the individual certificate of airworthiness is first issued after 1 January 2002, operated on extended flights over water as described in 6.3.3 (b) and when operated on flights over designated land areas as described in 6.4, shall be equipped with one automatic ELT.
6.12.3—From 1 January 2005, all aeroplanes operated on extended flights over water as described in 6.3.3 (b) and when operated on flights over designated land areas as described in 6.4 shall be equipped with one automatic ELT.
All aeroplanes should carry an automatic ELT.

Transport Canada Notice of Proposed Amendment

In response to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada recommendation 98004, paragraph 605.38(3)(b) is being eliminated. This will require turbojet aircraft larger than 5,700 kg MGTOW to carry an ELT.

ALPA Policy—Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELT)

ALPA recommends that ELTs be installed on all aircraft and that necessary direction-finding equipment be adopted as a standard requirement on all airport emergency equipment. Source—Board 1968; Amended—Executive Board May 1974