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'Where's the Accident?' ALPA Calls for ELTs

Accident Survival Group

By Capt. Patrick Boyle (Alaska), Director, Accident Survival Group, ALPA Air Safety Structure
Air Line Pilot, May 2004, p.24

 In 1994, an airliner crashed during a go-around. The air traffic controllers in the tower could not determine the accident location because of restricted visibility. The drivers of aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) vehicles spent several minutes searching for the airplane.

 In 1997, an airliner crashed during a go-around in poor weather, with no tower on the field. No witnesses saw the accident occur, and aircraft damage prevented communications. Surviving passengers and crew members walked back to the runway, where the driver of an airport vehicle, searching for the airplane, found them.

 In 1998, an airliner approaching a major airport in fog crashed short of the runway. The tower controllers cleared the flight crew of two other aircraft to land before the driver of an operations truck alerted the controllers to the accident. The inbound ground controller was still unable to confirm that the accident had happened, 11 minutes and 47 seconds after the accident.

These are just a few examples of accidents on or near airports in which circumstances interfered with air traffic controllers and/or ground personnel confirming that an accident had occurred or locating the airplane involved, thus delaying timely emergency response. Experience shows that ATC tower personnel hesitate to declare an emergency if they do not directly observe an accident. Of course, at a nontowered airport, ground personnel may have even more difficulty in directly observing an accident because they are not as high above the airport surface as a tower cab would be.

To minimize the response time so that the airport’s ARFF crews can begin their primary task of rescuing survivors, the key prerequisites are (1) confirming that an accident has occurred, and (2) determining the location of the accident. In reduced visibility, ATC personnel need tools to perform both tasks. ALPA believes that a simple solution would address this danger—require modern emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) on all aircraft and equip towers with equipment to pinpoint their location. State-of-the-art ELTs broadcast on 121.5 MHz and 243 MHz ("traditional" ELT frequencies) but also broadcast a 406 MHz signal that has digitally encoded information containing aircraft identification and can include location. Canada already requires ELTs on air carrier airplanes in Canada.

The ALPA Air Safety Structure, through the Accident Analysis Group, has a project team working toward the goal of an FAA requirement for ELTs on airliners. Capt. Tom Phillips (US Airways) and I, plus ALPA staff, meet frequently with the FAA, the NTSB, and national search and rescue agencies to work toward a solution. Unfortunately, moving forward is complicated by the fact that the current FAA requirements for ELTs grew out of legislation passed 30 years ago.

In the early 1970s, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring the FAA to mandate ELT use. However, the law specifically exempted turbojet-powered aircraft and all aircraft engaged in scheduled flights by air carriers. The assumption was that these aircraft would always be under positive radar control and that therefore their position would always be known. Unfortunately, history has proven this assumption wrong.

In 1990, two airliners collided on the ground in fog at a major U.S. airport. The tower controllers suspected that a runway collision had occurred, but could not confirm it. ARFF crews had no idea where to go when they were called to respond. ALPA subsequently hosted a meeting to address emergency response issues. This eventually led to the FAA program to develop forward-looking infrared-vision systems (FLIR) for ARFF vehicles. This was a definite safety improvement for low-visibility operations, but it did little for the key tasks of confirming and locating the accident.

Recently, Congress passed more legislation affecting ELT installations. The law resulted in a rule change that went into effect on January 1, requiring ELTs on all turbojet-powered aircraft, except those "with a maximum payload capacity of more than 18,000 pounds when used in air transportation." The new law required ELTs on more aircraft, but because it supplements, rather than replaces, the earlier law, airplanes in air carrier service are still exempt.

Even while this most recent change in the law was in development, another air carrier accident occurred that again pointed to an advantage for ELT-equipped aircraft. An airliner ran off the runway and crashed on the airport in heavy rain. The controller made repeated calls in the blind to the accident aircraft, and the ARFF vehicles drove more than twice as far as necessary to find the crash site.

As a result of that accident, the NTSB recommended that the FAA "evaluate crash detection and location technologies, select the most promising candidate(s) for ensuring that emergency responders could expeditiously arrive at an accident scene, and implement a requirement to install and use the equipment." The FAA feels that the existing ATC procedures and ARFF vehicles with FLIR accomplish this—the NTSB disagrees. According to the FAA, Congress will have to act before the agency can even consider requiring ELTs on our aircraft. If new legislation is what is required to correct this safety deficiency, ALPA’s task is more difficult, but we will continue to work through all necessary channels to get ELTs on airliners.

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