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Features Safety
Seaman: Getting found when you are down


September 15, 2008
By Rob Seaman

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Flying around with a little box that directs rescuers to your location in the event of disaster is comforting. So the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) has an accepted place in our lives. But times change and the ELT of today may not be able to save your hide tomorrow.

In 2003 Transport Canada announced that in accordance with ICAO policy, January 2005 was target date for ELTs to have dual mode frequency capability – the traditional 121.5 MHz plus the newer 406 MHz. At the same time it proposed that aircraft in international travel should be equipped with 406-MHz ELTs but did not recommend this for the domestic fleet.

Now all of that is going to change. As of February 2009, the COSPAS satellite monitoring of frequency 121.5 will stop. That action will have a dramatic effect on many Canadian domestically operated aircraft. Like it or not, if you have an older 121.5-MHz ELT, you will have to change to something that can be monitored on the 406-MHz frequency. Transport Canada has issued the notice of proposed amendment to the appropriate CARs for this; the NPAs are 2007-031/032/033. These mandate that all Canadian-registered aircraft are to be equipped with UHF ELTs.  Older VHF ELTs will not be acceptable.

One rationalization for the change is that the newer frequency is optimized for accurate satellite location; it will provide a far better signal-to-noise ratio for the monitoring satellites. These new satellites can look at a lot more data and locate signals with far greater accuracy.

Each 406-MHz ELT comes with its own distinct digital code and owners must register that unique information into a general data base when they first install and activate the unit. When a satellite receives a transmission of the code, it relays the information back to the ground and those receiving it may then figure out the aircraft owner, type and registration.

Satellites are supposed to be able to locate a 406-MHz ELT within about two kilometres – far more accurate than the older 121.5 ELTs. In fact it is ten times more accurate and accordingly should cut down the search area by a factor of 100. This is significant!
So based upon all this and the fact that the old satellite is going to be dead to the 121.5 units, this all seems to make sense. Not so, says Kevin Psutka, president and CEO of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA).

He writes that the cost to Canadians for this transition is not justified. “ELTs fail to perform in the majority of accidents because antennas break off, the device becomes submerged in water or the wreckage masks the antenna. The new ELTs retain these problems and so the prospects of being found are not significantly improved with the move to the much more expensive 406-MHz ELTs. Our estimate of the cost to equip the fleet in Canada is between $80 million and $120 million.” 

On May 25, COPA stated that “Transport Canada has listened to COPA’s strong warning that there must be a transition period to ensure that there is an adequate supply of ELTs and personnel to install them. COPA’s research indicates that at least three years must be provided. However, Transport Canada believes this can be accomplished much sooner and also feels that there must be some incentive to convert earlier rather than have everyone wait until the end of the period and create a bottleneck. So they have chosen, against our advice, a two-year transition period and conditions that will require some, if not most owners, to equip much sooner.”

As for the new units, there are some options that come in at under $1,000. Installation is additional. But Psutka says one COPA member recently paid double the amount of the unit for installation. The final bill came to some $3,500 and he feels that such a figure is simply too much.

In reply, some would offer that if $3,500 is all that prevents you from updating and operating your aircraft safely, then perhaps you need to rethink the affordability of flying altogether. Add to that fact that the cost for SAR can and will be passed along at some point and in some manner to those who use the service, then $3,500 could be a cheap investment when compared to the time and cost of finding you without such mandatory equipment. Like all changes in aviation, this one is hard for some. But like it or not, the change is coming. As it stands today you can get onboard or stay on the ground.