Lost in America
Airplanes that go missing are often untraceable. Why is effective tracking technology being ignored?
- By Michael Behar
- Air & Space magazine, November 2011
USCG/LT. Jon Bartel
(Page 3 of 4)
Time elapsed from sending the signal to receiving both calls: 57 seconds.
“Amazing, absolutely amazing,” Phelka says, then asks where he can buy one.
CURRENT FAA RULES STATE that pilots must carry an ELT or “other equipment approved by the secretary [of transportation].” To gain that approval, the equipment must have undergone testing that meets an established standard. The standard applied to breadcrumb trackers is the one used to certify ELTs; it requires stress tests that simulate what can occur during an impact. But a breadcrumb tracker’s performance is predicated on the device not surviving an impact. Unlike ELTs, breadcrumb trackers don’t have to weather a crash. In fact, that’s their strength. It’s when they stop tracking your location that your emergency is revealed.
The senior FAA official I interviewed, who asked not to be quoted, said that for the agency to consider breadcrumb trackers acceptable emergency transmitters, the manufacturers would have to devise appropriate standards, then persuade Congress to modify the existing legislation.
Presently, the FAA touts a technology called ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast), currently under development, as “bringing the precision and reliability of satellite-based surveillance to the nation’s skies.” ADS-B satellites capture positional data from aircraft, then relay it to other flights in the vicinity, or to ground receivers, which forward it to air traffic control. ADS-B gives pilots a three-dimensional awareness of their airspace, a view once available only to air traffic controllers. But ADS-B is designed primarily as a tool for managing scheduled commercial-flight traffic, and requires an onboard avionics suite that can total more than $12,000, a cost many general aviation pilots would find prohibitive. More importantly, it is not meant to hunt for missing aircraft. Says AFRCC program manager David Fuhrmann, the principal intermediary between his agency and Cospas-Sarsat: “The problem with ADS-B is it still uses a radio signal…. You can still have terrain masking. There are not going to be towers all over the U.S. So in remote areas, it won’t work. It will work at altitude, but if you descend, you could go many miles before crashing, and may not ever be visible by ADS-B.”
In an e-mail, FAA public affairs spokeswoman Alison Duquette, who agreed to speak on the record, says: “The FAA is investing in the infrastructure for ADS-B, which serves the entire U.S. aviation community. The FAA requires ELTs for general aviation airplanes. While breadcrumb tracking may have some applications for aviation, it is not a substitute for ELTs or ADS-B.”
Duquette’s assertion that ADS-B “serves the entire U.S. aviation community” is true only if the nation’s general aviation pilots pay for the pricey avionics needed to get the ADS-B’s full benefits. Without a breadcrumb tracker on board, the average private pilot whose airplane goes down in a remote area will remain at significant risk of going undiscovered.
I ask Duquette: “Can you tell me what specifically can ADS-B and ELTs do that breadcrumb tracking cannot?”
She answers: “We’ve already provided you an interview on the subject. I think we’re done.”
FROM A PRELIMINARY NTSB REPORT:
“On August 13, 2011, about 1940 [7:40 p.m.]…a Cessna 207 airplane, N91099, impacted mountainous, brush-covered terrain, about 37 miles west of McGrath, Alaska. Of the six people aboard, the pilot and one passenger died at the scene, and four passengers received serious injuries…. During a hospital room interview with the National Transportation Safety Board investigator-in-charge, on August 16, a passenger related that the purpose of the flight was to transport a group of school teachers to Anvik…. His wife and two children were also aboard the accident airplane.
“The passenger stated that he was seated in the front, right seat, next to the pilot. He said that about 20 minutes after leaving McGrath…low clouds, rain and fog restricted visibility. At one point the pilot told the passenger, in part: ‘This is getting pretty bad.’ The passenger said that the pilot then descended and flew the airplane very close to the ground, then climbed the airplane, and then it descended again. Moments later the passenger said that the airplane entered “whiteout conditions.” The next thing the passenger recalled was looking out the front windscreen, and just before impact, seeing the mountainside suddenly appear out of the fog. He said that all of the survivors lost consciousness during the impact, and he was the first to regain consciousness.