For Those Left Behind

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When a prominent pilot goes missing, as happened last week when Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis were lost during the Gordon Bennett balloon race, it reveals the limits of our technology in unexpected ways. The failure of the balloon system, given that the team encountered thunderstorms while flying over water, is not hard to understand. But it seems tragic that with all the gear they had on board, not one piece of technology has succeeded in leading searchers to the crash site.

The balloon was equipped with an ELT, the race organizers said, along with various types of communications gear and a tracking device that would report the team's location every few minutes, via satellite. Given that the latest official information shows that the balloon was heading for the water at a rate of 50 mph, it appears that none of that gear survived the impact.

The tragedy, in cases like this, is multiplied. Two capable pilots are lost, and that's sad enough, but we can assume that they were aware of the risks and had accepted them willingly. The victims are those left behind, the families and friends, who need confirmation of their loss, but maybe even more so, assurance that the pilots didn't await rescue in vain. It's a story told too many times, from Amelia Earhart, to Steve Fossett, and now to Abruzzo and Davis.

I don't know of any kind of tracking device out there that would have survived the theoretical crash into the sea plus the subsequent immersion in salt water. But I hope if it exists, it will be required equipment for future races, and if it doesn't exist, I hope somebody is working on it.

Comments (25)

In the case of gas balloons,my understanding is,and reinforced by the pictures on the Gordon Bennet web site,these balloons carry sandbags and water ballast, strapped to the basket. Could it be that the ELT was secured to this weighted basket rather than Richard or Carol, and might be deeply submerged rather than destroyed?

Posted by: richard greaves | October 4, 2010 4:34 AM    Report this comment

Why invest in a technology that only finds your carcass? Tracking technology would not "help" Amelia Earhart nor would it help Steve Fosset. It is not hard to understand the demise of such airmen and developing new technologies that only work in finding your remains is a bit pointless for the aviator.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 4, 2010 7:19 AM    Report this comment

It may be pointless for the aviator, but what about those who are searching? they have a stake in this too.

Posted by: Mary Grady | October 4, 2010 8:40 AM    Report this comment

Well, large scale searching for "adventurers" has always seemed silly. If you take a balloon trip over the ocean and go down hard, it's not really the responsibility of the world to track you down...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 4, 2010 10:00 AM    Report this comment

I have been a pilot since 1969. Despite that, I can understand the sentiments expressed by both Mark Fraser and Mary Grandy. I have always wondered myself why the FAA requires an ELT on all aircraft - seems to me a case could be made for leaving this up to the aircraft owner/pilot. No ELT - no findee! Looking ahead, however, hopefully technology like SPOT, PLBs, phone apps, and ADS-B would allow for shorter searches (translating to less expensive) and a higher frequency of successful finds, including more saved lives (time is everything in these searches).

Posted by: Rich Macrafic | October 4, 2010 10:23 AM    Report this comment

Responding to Rich about FAA ELT requirements: for single-seat aircraft I tend to agree - the PIC knows the risks. But for any aircraft with more than one seat implies an unknowing passenger. It is for them that we have ELTs. Well, actually, unknowing congressmen....

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | October 4, 2010 11:59 AM    Report this comment

Regarding rescue efforts for adventurers: who decides what is a save-worthy risk? Balloon race, no; balloon festival, yes? Is any balloon flight really necessary? And if not, should any rescue money be spent on unnecessary flights?

Getting down to earth (literally), what about when one presses the OnStar button to summon help after a car accident. If the driver was on their way to work, is that more save-worthy than someone on their way to the movies?

Reminds me of the old WWII posters: "Is this trip really necessary?"

Posted by: Kirk Wennerstrom | October 4, 2010 12:15 PM    Report this comment

But regardless of whether you think the search is worthwhile or not... if we had decent tracking devices, the search would consist of simply driving (or flying or boating) to the site.

Posted by: Mary Grady | October 4, 2010 12:46 PM    Report this comment

The "Is this trip really necessary?" best describes recovery efforts that are waged just so that there is a burial on land. Private stunts over the ocean should not result in public expense (IMO).

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 4, 2010 12:53 PM    Report this comment

I just heard they called off the search...I'm not one to determine for others what is 'necessary' or not in their lives when it comes to their personal goals, but aren't we closing off maybe important clues and understandings to the reasons why the crash happened by not even attempting to recover anything from the site, whether carcass or equipment?

Maybe these violent crashes leave nothing to study or locate to, but if it was my loved one out there, I would at least want available services used within reason to try and find them. With so much wasted taxpayer monies IMHO, this is a small but important use of it.

Posted by: Dave Miller | October 4, 2010 2:33 PM    Report this comment

Mary, you do have a point in there somewhere, but please don't tell congress. They'll implement 50mph bumpers, front airbags, side airbags, 55mph speed limits, breathalyzer interlocks, etc, until your average C172 weighs just under 12,500. It will never crash (except while taxiing) because it will never get off the ground, even with four giant RATO bottles on a crisp 10 below day. Then congress can say "see? It worked!"

If it were so easy to have reliable inexpensive trackers, we would already have them.

Just about the cheapest way to leave a pretty good breadcrumb trail is to study up and get your $15 amateur radio license (10 year) and one of the new and tiny $600 handheld radios with built-in GPS and APRS reporting. That's pretty much how the lawnchair balloonist was tracked leaving Oshkosh. It doesn't have to survive a crash, because rescuers can start looking where the trail ended, and head in the same direction. However, even these depend on there being monitoring stations within line of sight, so these aren't for trans-oceanic flights, or for cropdusting.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | October 4, 2010 2:45 PM    Report this comment

My condolences to the friends and family of the pilots lost.Did the tracking technology actually fail? If the balloon was known to be heading at the water at 50mph wasn't the equipment functioning? Is the difficulty locating them possibly due to the fact that they are submerged? Adventurer rescues can be extremely costly even if a search isn't required. I believe two Blackhawk helicopters have been lost recently, rescuing mountain climbers or back country skiers. I witnessed the Canadian coast guard rescuing a yacht that ran out of gas in the middle of Lake Huron. The coast guard workers were not happy to be providing a free service to people who were careless. The fuel bill was five figures, and the boat was diverted from other tasks. I think if you can afford to be an adventurer, you should factor in the rescue costs, and shouldn't depend on tax payers to bail you out when your hobby gets you in trouble. If the backcountry skiers had to pay for even the operating costs of the rescue helicopters, perhaps they would rethink their hobby, and mitigate the risks involved. I do understand the wish to know what happened when someone is lost, but what cost is reasonable, and what cost would the affected people be willing to bear?

Posted by: Joe Evans | October 4, 2010 7:16 PM    Report this comment

'The coast guard workers were not happy to be providing a free service to people who were careless.'

That's an awful thing for them to say, how haughty. The boat people weren't taxpayers? Maybe big contributors to the Coast Guard but humble about it? We need a new mindset on civil and personal responsibility today.

My city wants me to put a brick in my toilet to save water, yet they built a man-made lake in the hot desert sun for recreation that evaporates 350,000 gallons of water each day. $206 million goes for a gov't study to see how sheep behave in close confinement. And of course, the monster under the bed - $7 billion every month to destroy backward countries abroad. And the C.G. boys were a bit displeased?

These occasional rescues can be costly yes, but our sense of balance about the Almighty Taxpayer Dollar is so far askew from sensibility it looks downright stupid sometimes to me.

Posted by: Dave Miller | October 4, 2010 8:43 PM    Report this comment

Mary, Was it not the Italian ground radar that provided rate of descent info? The tracking system, I belive, was strapped to the balloon envelope,which was possibly struck by lightening. The hydrogen filled balloon along with the tracking equipment may have 'ceased to exist' at that moment.As to ELT's, it would be interesting to know how many folks have been found purely due to the fact that they had an ELT, and would it be better to strap it to the pilot than an airframe. If the pilot is found alive maybe the cause of the crash will be known, if the circumstances are different, there can be closure for relatives.Don't fellow human beings come first, and the airframe a distant second?

Posted by: richard greaves | October 5, 2010 5:33 AM    Report this comment

Being realistic, nothing can be "learned" from recovering a hydrogen filled balloon that failed in a thunderstorm. You just have to accept the fact that it's gone. All the ELT/GPS/SatComm gear is instantly irrelevant. My heart goes out to the families for their loss.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 5, 2010 7:22 AM    Report this comment

@Kirk - "And if not, should any rescue money be spent on unnecessary flights?"

And just who is left in charge of deciding what's "necessary" and what's not? That would leave a lot of people open to being effectively murdered because someone didn't like them and had the power to decide their trip wasn't "necessary" and so rescue services are withheld.

Also, if this expense is really such a big deal then I'd imagine that rescue insurance (5 seconds to go to Google turned up this: http://www.mazamas.org/your/adventure/starts-here/C41/ ) would be the more sensible solution than having government bureaucrats deciding the fate of someone that needs rescuing.

AZ has their "Stupid Motorist Law" fining people that drive into flooded roads posted “Do Not Enter When Flooded” as well as requiring them to pay for their rescue. If you want something like that on a national level for those rescues requiring the Coast Guard or National Guard to effect, I'm OK with that. But not with some .gov employee deciding whether or not I'm worthy of rescue based on who I am and whether my trip was "necessary".

Posted by: Andrew Upson | October 5, 2010 2:23 PM    Report this comment

"Why invest in a technology that only finds your carcass?" - um - that'd be because not all plane crashes are fatal for everyone on board, but not being found by rescuers generally is.

Posted by: Michael Gordon | October 6, 2010 3:11 AM    Report this comment

If you go to the Gordon Bennett 2010 website and click on "Competition Rules", you will see that each balloon already had a "Transponder Mode S" (which allowed the radar site to determine that they were descending at 50 mph) and an "Emergency Locator Transmitter (EPERB)". They also had a competition tracking device which sent back their location to competition HQ at 15 minute intervals.

Since a gas balloon still in the air would have to have sand bag ballast left onboard, there is a good chance that when the basket hit the water it would not float. So if the ELT/EPERB would not transmit under water, it would cease transmitting.

European gas balloonists have been flying with hydrogen for years. It is generally safe, but not around thunderstorms. (For those who like to bring up the Hindenburg, it should be noted the majority of those on board the Hindenburg actually survived.)

Unfortunately, the world supply of helium is getting depleted and the already expensive price is going up, so it is unlikely the Gordon Bennett (which will again be flown out of Europe next time)will change to helium.

Posted by: James E. Ellis | October 6, 2010 6:54 AM    Report this comment

If you go to the Gordon Bennett 2010 website and click on "Competition Rules", you will see that each balloon already had a "Transponder Mode S" (which allowed the radar site to determine that they were descending at 50 mph) and an "Emergency Locator Transmitter (EPERB)". They also had a competition tracking device which sent back their location to competition HQ at 15 minute intervals.

Since a gas balloon still in the air would have to have sand bag ballast left onboard, there is a good chance that when the basket hit the water it would not float. So if the ELT/EPERB would not transmit under water, it would cease transmitting.

European gas balloonists have been flying with hydrogen for years. It is generally safe, but not around thunderstorms. (For those who like to bring up the Hindenburg, it should be noted the majority of those on board the Hindenburg actually survived.)

Unfortunately, the world supply of helium is getting depleted and the already expensive price is going up, so it is unlikely the Gordon Bennett (which will again be flown out of Europe next time)will change to helium.

Posted by: James E. Ellis | October 6, 2010 6:54 AM    Report this comment

".because not all plane crashes are fatal...some .gov employee deciding whether or not I'm worthy of rescue"

It's not "effectively murder" by being reasonable about a situation and stopping a search when it's obvious. If people are unreasonable and start implying murder then governments would STOP all air races just to avoid possible expenses and litigation. That may very well be coming because of whiners.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 6, 2010 7:29 AM    Report this comment

It's "effectivly murder" when you refuse to conduct a search AT ALL becuase the trip was "not necessary" according to whoever is empowered to make that call in Kirk's plan. When you have searched for as long as a survivor could reasonably be expected to survive the elements, and then call off the search, you've done all you can and if they died from lack of rescue then that's just their bad luck. It's a risk that, especially in the race from the OP, the participants signed up for. They were lost in spite of the technology to help find them and a good faith effort to do just that.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | October 6, 2010 1:17 PM    Report this comment

When WHO refuses to conduct a search? In open ocean there is no responsibility for any country to assist. Limit the "effective murder" for family and event organizers who don't look for their people who end up lost when traversing wild areas in the most fragile of systems in the worst weather. Blaming Argentina or Greece or China for not caring to search is a bit over the top.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 6, 2010 1:53 PM    Report this comment

In Kirk's post he advocated limiting rescues to trips that were necessary. Given that the .gov is generally the ones that initiate those searches (sherriff's dept, CAP, Coast Guard, etc) they would be the ones, in Kirk's world, deciding on whether or not you were worthy of rescue. Let's leave the histrionics about who to blame for a lack of SAR attempts when a plane disappears over international waters out of this.

If you're doing a transoceanic flight in a single engine plane (or even multiengine, or whatever) you are taking the real risk of disappearing with no liklihood of rescue, even if you survive the initial crisis uninjured. Not for political reasons, but logistical ones. Helicopters and fixed wing search planes can only go so far off shore, and the ocean is a big haystack to search for needles. If you want any hope of rescue should you ditch on such a trip then fly near shipping lanes, have some way for others to track you (Spidertracks, SPOT, whatever), and have HF radios (and maybe a sat phone) that actually works. Not to mention a good lift raft with an EPIRB/PLB.

Do that and most any country that values human life will attempt to rescue you if they have the capability to do so and receive notification of your distress. At least, they will so long as ideas like only rescuing people in distress during necessary trips hasn't infected them.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | October 6, 2010 3:19 PM    Report this comment

Having flown over the Adriatic Sea I know that, while large in a sense, isn't *that* big. A quick Google search shows it's about 51,000 square miles. 31 of the 50 states are bigger than the Adriatic, and I'm sure there was a general idea of a smaller sub-section of where the aircraft was. So we're probably talking about searching the area the size of several dozen counties. As a pilot who has flown over the Great lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean, the Aegean, and the Adriatic, I'd sure hope someone would come searching for me if I went down without researching whether my flight was for an "adventure" or for business. Sheesh.

Posted by: Timothy Holloway | October 7, 2010 12:16 AM    Report this comment

This reminds me of the news item the other day about the fire department that watched a man's home burn to the ground. He hadn't paid his fee to the city.

Posted by: Richard Montague | October 8, 2010 2:34 PM    Report this comment

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