How to Find a Missing Airplane

Airplanes can vanish without a trace. Why is effective tracking technology being ignored?

When a Super Cub ran out of fuel and had to land on uninhabited Kayak lsland in Alaska in May 2011, the pilot and passenger tried both low- and high-tech alerts. In addition to the “SOS,” they activated a SPOT beacon, and were rescued by the Coast Guard. (USCG/LT. Jon Bartel)
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But when ELTs transmit improperly—and that’s the majority of the time—the result is a lot of wasted labor.

I’m standing next to Dan Conley, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center’s chief of operations, inside Tyndall’s Air Operations Center. At the front of the room is a $3.5 million data wall—a 90-foot-long assembly of 16 screens that displays a real-time map of U.S. airspace, extending several hundred miles into Canada and Mexico and over international waters. I’m here to learn how the AFRCC handles an incoming ELT distress alert.

Since aviation accidents are rare, I’m not expecting much activity. But the two AFRCC controllers on duty are frenetically making phone calls, sending e-mails, scribbling notes, and tapping on keyboards. It’s 11 a.m. and already there are seven ELT distress signals. A Learjet is sending a 406 alert. A call to the phone number associated with the ELT’s registration reveals that the airplane was sold after the unit was installed and the new owners never bothered to update the contact information. Another 406 ping arrives, lacking any registration data whatsoever. A commercial jetliner cruising at 33,000 feet over Washington state reports hearing a 121.5 signal but cannot get a fix on its location. The controller in charge of the case employs a computer program to plot a potential search area, which encompasses Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of British Columbia.

AFRCC controllers field endless ELT distress calls. They meticulously log the details of each incident, then begin investigating to determine whether they’re dealing with an actual emergency. Since its inception in 1975, the AFRCC has saved more than 15,000 lives. But it has also had to spend a hefty part of its budget chasing phantoms: 97 percent of ELT activations are false alarms, usually caused by a hard landing or a careless mechanic. The units can also be triggered while they are still on the delivery truck, on the way to the purchaser. So to avoid wasting resources, the AFRCC has taken drastic measures. When the organization receives 121.5 distress reports, it ignores them for at least 18 hours after they are first reported. Air traffic control monitors the frequency, but disregards 121.5 alerts for the same reason the AFRCC does: The signal-to-noise ratio is untenable. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called an air traffic control center and told them to turn the volume up on 121.5,” says Conley. “I’ve had a guy tell me it had been going off for two hours and it was driving him crazy, so he ignored it and turned down the sound.”

Investigators do succeed in tracing 406 devices to their owners (who sometimes have no idea their ELT is chirping). But 60 percent of pilots who have purchased the newer beacons have never bothered to register them, and of the units that have been, the information in the registration database is sometimes out of date, and investigators then have to track down the new owner. “It’s garbage in and garbage out,” says Conley.

COLONEL EDWARD PHELKA is the wing commander for the Civil Air Patrol in Colorado. He has been with CAP for 24 years, participating in dozens of searches for airplanes in seven states. But he hasn’t had much experience with breadcrumb devices. When I meet him at the Boulder Municipal Airport, it’s the first time he has seen a Spider. I’ve brought along the S3, a newer, smaller model that runs about $1,000. Our goal is to test the tracker’s performance.

It’s early March, and the winter sun is strong—“perfect flying weather,” declares Phelka. He completes his preflight of our Cessna 182 Turbo Skylane and we get airborne. There’s barely a jostle as we climb and then bank north along the Rocky Mountain foothills, flanking snowbound summits that pierce 12,000 feet. Stacks of saucer-shaped plumes hover above the Continental Divide. “Lenticular clouds,” notes Phelka. “A sign of turbulent air. We’ll keep our distance.”

Before departing, I had logged onto the Spidertracks Web site and entered my brother and wife as emergency contacts. (Users can add local first responders, who then get notified along with your loved ones that your aircraft has had an emergency.) My brother and wife are in on the experiment, but they have no clue when and where I will manually set off the Spider’s SOS. They have been told that if they receive an alert, they should phone my mobile number.

A few miles north of Horsetooth Lake, I activate the SOS. Within a minute, my phone rings. It’s my brother, in Seattle. He received my SOS, along with a URL that linked him to a Google Map showing our exact location. “You’re near Fort Collins,” he informs me. Another incoming call: my wife. She dittos the data.

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.”

About Michael Behar

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Michael Behar ( writes about aerospace, adventure travel, science, and the environment.

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