Guest Commentary—Equipping Transport Aircraft with ELTs

Air Line Pilot, March 2001, p. 5
By F/O Charles Scott Williams (Continental)

I completely agree with the author of "The Need for ELTs in Transport Category Aircraft," January, that all transport category aircraft should be equipped with an emergency locator transmitter (ELT). I’ve been involved with the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) since 1974 in search-and-rescue operations and know how to track an ELT with a hand-held direction finder (DF) unit as well as from an aircraft.

The key to quickly locating a downed aircraft is that the aircraft be equipped with an ELT and that rescue personnel be equipped with DF equipment. What would work would be for the FAA ATC towers to have DF units in the tower cab. The tower is elevated, and the DF unit will point toward the direction of a transmitting ELT in seconds. In the USAir accident at Charlotte and the American Airlines accident at Little Rock, the DF unit could have pointed rescue personnel in the right direction immediately. The tower controllers should monitor 121.5 VHF, and if they hear an ELT corresponding with an aircraft lost on radar, they should use the DF unit to point in the direction of the transmitting ELT.

Activating rescue personnel through normal channels takes quite a bit of time. First, tower controllers report an aircraft overdue based on estimated time of arrival. Flight Service Station personnel, trying to find the aircraft, make phone calls to local airports. Eventually, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center is notified and starts calling on CAP squadrons in the area of the missing aircraft. Remember, CAP is a volunteer organization, and members must be called from work, etc. This all takes time.

In an aircraft accident, time often means the difference between life and death. Search and rescue satellite (SARSAT) position data are fantastic for locating an ELT, but if local ATC personnel can’t correlate SARSAT latitude/longitude position data with their local area, the data are useless. The time to obtain SARSAT data may be short, but the satellite must make an overhead pass to report the data.

The solution is simple—equip transport category aircraft with an ELT, equip ATC towers with hand-held DF units, and train tower personnel to use these units. Also train tower personnel how to plot latitude/longitude coordinates on a sectional aeronautical chart so they can correlate SARSAT ELT position data with the local area. This allows SARSAT data/ELT transmissions to be used immediately to point rescue personnel in the right direction.

The FAA’s excuse is that it doesn’t have personnel for the task and that DF equipment is outside its budget. The answer may be to use assistant air traffic controllers or clearance delivery personnel. These individuals are not actively controlling traffic and could be spared from clearance-delivery activities for the short time that it takes to activate the DF unit and get rescue personnel headed in the right direction. A DF unit is inexpensive and is advertised for sale in the CAP national newspaper. To save money, the FAA tower can share a DF unit with a local CAP squadron. Sharing costs the FAA nothing. Training on how to use a DF unit can be obtained, for free, from a local CAP squadron and will take as little as 30 minutes.

Trade-a-Plane shows the cost of an ELT on the high end of the price list as $392. The ELT battery is another $43. The cost of $435 per aircraft is an extremely inexpensive way to save priceless human lives. As for equipping transport category aircraft with ELTs, I say, "MAKE IT SO!"

F/O Charles Scott Williams (Continental) is a former air traffic controller and a member of the Civil Air Patrol. He was an ALPA member when he flew for CCAir (before 1987).