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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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.”


“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.

“The passenger noted that while boarding the airplane in McGrath, he happened to notice a SPOT satellite personal tracker clipped to the pilot’s sun visor. He said that after the accident, he was able to find the SPOT device in the wreckage, and began pushing the emergency SOS button.…About 2030 family members in Wasilla, Alaska, the pilot’s hometown, received an emergency SOS message from the pilot’s SPOT device. A family member then immediately called the operator in Aniak to alert them of the distress message.”

The author of this report, NTSB senior air safety investigator Clint Johnson, says that the Cessna was carrying a functioning 121.5 ELT. However, it could only lead Alaska Air National Guard pilots to within five miles of the aircraft, and cloud cover prevented the rescuers from finding the site that day. The next morning, an HH-60G helicopter from the Air National Guard’s 210th Air Rescue Squadron located the crash site, landed, and evacuated everyone. The breadcrumb tracker’s GPS data took rescuers “right to the doorstep of the accident,” says Johnson.

The same week, Johnson was assigned to five other aviation accidents. “Out of those,” he says, “more than half involved SPOTs—that’s how they found them.”

“We have a situation,” says NTSB survival factors investigator Jason Fedok, “where you have the most technologically advanced country in the world that is basically allowing a large segment of the pilot population to fly unprotected by any sort of real technology. It’s patently ridiculous.”

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Michael Behar ( writes about aerospace, adventure travel, science, and the environment. A frequent contributor, his last feature, “Cold Case,” appeared in August 2010.

About Michael Behar

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

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