Let's Ditch ELTs

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There can be no question that aviation is the most important technological advance of the last 100 years. Yeah, computers are cool, too, and there's the telephone, not to mention the 1967 Charger, but for overall impact on humanity I don't think there's an argument.

So, it always amazes me how slow we are to adopt new technology that obviously works. Sure, we have to be careful about anything that goes in an airplane to make sure it doesn't affect the way it performs or the ability of the pilot to control it, but why would we be so defensive of an utterly passive device that hardly ever works the way it's intended to? The emergency locator transmitter was a marvel of technology when it was introduced but so was the ADF. If you still have an ADF, when was the last time you used it for anything other than to listen to the radio?

What's worse with ELTs is that governments all over the world are mandating their use with the full knowledge that better, more effective devices that would save lives starting tomorrow not only exist but are probably cheaper to make and easier to manage than ELTs. That heavy maintenance-needy box in the tail of your aircraft provides a false sense of security. I've been following a few accidents over the last month or so and in all of them (the Ted Stevens crash included) the ELT might as well have been a brick strapped to a bulkhead. The reliance on an external antenna is usually what does them in, although in the Stevens crash the antenna was fine but the ELT ripped from its mount, taking the antenna connection with it. Truth is, ELTs are like the semiautomatic transmission. Once the real deal came along, why would anyone bother with the intermediate solution?

The right technology for finding crashed airplanes is satellite monitoring of aircraft movement. It's been possible for 20 years and it's absurdly easy and cheap now. Trucking companies use it to monitor their rigs on the road, making sure the drivers don't speed, take any unauthorized excursions or drive longer than labor regulations allow. The more progressive have systems monitoring technology on board so they can track the inevitable costs of moving things down the road.

A lot of airlines and charter services do the same and there are several companies that offer devices that can provide second-by-second tracking of aircraft in hundreds of parameters. Some operators take advantage of the technology but most don't because it's not required and it's costly because of the limited demand. At the GA level, we can already glimpse the possibilities with consumer devices like Spot and Spider Tracks, personal trackers that have already helped save dozens of lives and made rescues much more efficient.

The authorities are now in the throes of regulating a frequency change from 121.5 to 406 MHz in ELTs that won't work any better under water, upside down or embedded in the back of the pilot's head than the old ones will. What's really needed is a certification requirement to install a satellite-based tracking device in every new airplane and the phased -in requirement for equipage in the existing fleet. Why? Because they work better. They have to.

Instead of trying to trigger a signal when the airplane crashes, the device would have the simple task of failing at that moment, the precise location of its demise duly noted electronically, which would be enough. But perhaps it could even soldier on to provide an uplink for survivors to report their condition or advise of hazards awaiting rescue crews.

It means every flight would have to be tracked but that doesn't have to mean Big Brother will necessarily be watching if you sneak off fishing for the weekend. There's enough bandwidth, radio waves and server space available to have the data from the millions of flights that go without a hitch stored for a reasonable length of time but hidden from public view. The resulting database would allow search and rescue personnel to find the specific signal track they need and see where it goes black. After making a phone call to the number stored on that transmitter's unique signature, rescuers could make the decision to go directly to the scene of the problem rather than set up command posts and fly grid searches.

The technology is available and active in your cell phone, your computer, your GPS and even in some of the stuff you buy at the supermarket. How tough could it be to put it where it could do some real good?

Comments (34)

You claim “The technology is available and active in your cell phone, your computer, your GPS and even in some of the stuff you buy at the supermarket.”

Let’s analyze that a bit.

Cell Phone trackers depend on cell phone coverage. It is great in big cities and along big interstates, but nonexistent 10 miles west of Atchison KS, or over 60% of the CONUS. Don’t crash your plane there!

Yeah, my computer has a wired cable connection to the Internet. My laptop has a wi-fi with a range of about 100 feet. Don’t crash your plane farther away than that!

My GPS has electronics only to receive (and process) microwave signals. My GPS has no transmitter. There’s no way I know to talk back to a GPS satellite from other than someplace like NORAD.

The supermarket employs Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) strips. Great little privacy invaders that set off exit door security every few minutes because something forgot to update their database that some expensive item was actually paid for at checkout. The range on these RFID strips is typically less than 40 feet. Don’t crash your plane farther away than that!

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | September 6, 2010 10:11 PM    Report this comment

You also wrote “There's enough bandwidth, radio waves and server space available to have the data from the millions of flights…” .

Let’s analyze that a bit.

Server space, yes.

Bandwidth and radio waves really refer to the same limited resource, known as spectrum. We all had to switch to digital TVs so that the public service and Cell Phone carriers could invade what had previously been allocated as analog TV frequencies. Sorry, but no, there is no surplus of Radio Frequency Spectrum. There may be some currently unallocated millimeter wavelength frequencies, but then, absorption is higher at those wavelengths. Further, the cost of building continuous-duty transmitters to operate reliably at those extreme high frequencies in the extremes of aircraft operating environments is hardly chump change.

Many aviators have begun using Automated Packet Reporting Systems in the Amateur radio 2 meter band, many without a license. Illegal operation means risking a $10,000 fine. Better to study up, pony up $15 for the test, and become a legitimate ham radio operator. Still, below 1000’ AGL, there’s fairy poor coverage outside of large metropolitan areas.

I agree with your theoretical goals. I just disagree about how hard it is.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | September 6, 2010 10:11 PM    Report this comment

Almost took a flight a couple weeks ago where I would have had to taken an ADF approach (RAIM outage predicted in our area, and VOR check was out of currency with no place on the ground to do the check). I ultimately decided not to take the flight, but it pointed out the fact that sometimes the new stuff fails and it's good to have the old for backup!

Posted by: Brian Knoblauch | September 7, 2010 10:16 AM    Report this comment

Bandwidth use is contentious but it really isn't that scarce. If you wanted to create a low-bitrate position monitoring system and were willing to reclaim spectrum used by existing obsolete technologies (such as ADF or LORAN) then bandwith is less of an issue than satellite monitoring.

Agree satellite is the only way to go -- the planes that we have trouble finding tend to crash far away from established infrastructure. Don't need an ELT to find a aircraft down on highway 101.

Posted by: Guy Hutchison | September 7, 2010 2:18 PM    Report this comment

The frequencies used by LORAN and NDBs are unsuitable for tracking aircraft because the required antennas would be too large for anything smaller than the Hindenberg. However DME could be replaced by GPS and the frequencies used by DME would be ideal for a ADS-B driven satellite flight tracking network.

One problem: How to distinguish a crash from a normal landing ("controlled crash").

Posted by: Chuck Forsberg | September 8, 2010 3:24 AM    Report this comment

Tracking via satellite is a viable option, however not without an ongoing cost for the service. For say a Cessna 172, reports at 1 minute intervals will produce the same area of location uncertainty as a non GPS equipped 406MHz ELT. Automatic alerting based on missed reports or no movement, is also available. Properly implemented, tracking has the advantage that the system is continuously monitored unlike an ELT which may silently fail between mandatory checks. Because an ELT system must survive the crash to be effective it is much more difficult to ensure operation. Indeed the failure rate of ELT systems (including ELT, antenna, mounting, "G" switch)is well above that desirable for a safety system (including 406 MHz ELTs). For some aircraft an improvement could be made by removing an unnecessary restriction on antenna orientation but as this would require a rule change it is doubtful anything will be done. For anyone who considers that an ELT could be useful, I suggest that they fit a tracking system and treat the ELT as just another regulatory cost associated with owning an aircraft.

Posted by: Keith James | September 8, 2010 7:02 AM    Report this comment

I have to agree that ELT's are no longer necessary. There are currently 406 MHz personal devices that can be carried on your person that are much less expensive, and, since they stay with you, can be activated and tracked if the need to leave the aircraft arises. Some can even be programmed to have your loved ones track your flight enroute. I feel MUCH safer with these devices than I ever would with my ELT.

Posted by: Art Ahrens | September 8, 2010 9:38 AM    Report this comment

Quick finds after an accident are no without cost. Perfect information is supposed to come in a few years with ADS/B for only $20,000 per aircraft. Equipping all of the 250,000 US aircraft with a new $20K box will be... VERY expensive. Anyone for another "Stimulus" package to be paid for immediately and only by aircraft owners? Automated Flight Following (AFF) required by the Feds for contract aircraft doesn't give "instant" loctions. Pings are every 2 minutes. Even a modest single engine aircraft will fly miles between hits. SPOT gets a satellite hit every ten minutes. That's helpful, but not "exact ". AFF costs $2.00 per MINUTE to operate. Plus equipment and overhead. Spot is less expensive (about $100 per year, plus the cost of equipment). SPOT adds about $1.00 per hour to typical GA fixed operating costs (about 5% of the amortized engine replacement cost). It's the exception, not the rule when folks suffer fatal consequences of a crash landing and subsequent ELT equipment failure. Far more "finds" occur from 406 panel mount technology than Russ (and the media) would have us believe based on a few very high profile accidents. Is the cost of souped up, "instant" (but not really) tracking worth the benefit of some speculatively added reliability? I don't think so. Face it, life ain't "safe". At least, not perfectly safe.

Posted by: John Townsley | September 8, 2010 9:58 AM    Report this comment

I fly C-150 & C-172 within radar coverage areas, and have Mode C transponder. I don't understand why this is not adequate to locate me, if I crash ? (as long as I stay in radar coverage areas). It would be even easier if all transponders had a unique broadcast code tied to the registration. I agree that ELTs have horrible failure rates, about 50% according to some reports. Push-button remote switch, mounted on instrument panel, to turn on ELT at first sign of distress in flight, can help. If & when we get ADS-B, then ELT will be completely superfluous as far as I can see.

Posted by: David Lye | September 8, 2010 10:42 AM    Report this comment

Two separate studies in Australia & New Zealand showed two alarming facts. 406 is no "safer" than 121.5 and the combined record for ELTs functioning in the "hour of need" was between 12% and 66%! Pathetic! And worse, totally false confidence! So why does the FAA promote ELT and refuse to get on board with satellite breadcrumb tracking? Instead of focusing on why new technology won't do the job, let's focus on building on the "no brainer" concepts! I have had SPOT for 2 years and it works almost flawlessly! Also, let's note the secondary value of such units, namely the social aspects of your loved-ones being able to gain comfort and practical value from tracking you in near-real-time all across the flight arena. Russ Niles is 100% correct! Please get practical experience and research the facts before drawing conclusions.

Posted by: JIM HERD | September 8, 2010 10:46 AM    Report this comment

The next time a large airliner disappears over the Atlantic there will be a big push for a real time satellite based flight data recorder system.

Posted by: Chuck Forsberg | September 8, 2010 11:02 AM    Report this comment

In New Zealand CAA mandated changing to 406 ELTs. It has been a big cost for the aviation community, yet already, the results are no better. Success rate about 20%, failure rate about 80%. The problem with ELTs is not the circuitry in them, its the fire, the impact, the sinking. These wipe out the 406s just the same as the 121s. Trackers such as spidertracks are made for aviation, are very affordable, and have an operation cost of 1 or 2 dollars per flight hour. Also, they deliver other benefits that come with real-time tracking and online logbooks. We're at the threshhold now of the new technology. The regulators need to act.

Posted by: Zeke Bartley | September 8, 2010 11:40 AM    Report this comment

That "marvel of technology" you speak of had a 99% false alarm rate right from its inception. Ask Civil Air Patrol how many times they've found one on a parked aircraft or in someone's garage or boat. (I had one activate inflight during straight-and-level, 1G, smooth air conditions.) The current false activation rate is still in the high 90's (About 97-98%). And, as other respondents have already mentioned, too many crashes have occurred with NO activation, or signal reception. If computers and cell phones had the reliability rate of 121.5/243.0 MHz ELTs, very few people would utilize those technologies.

Will the 406 MHz technology really work at its intended mission? Only time will tell, but I don't want to wager any of my money it'll be much more reliable.

Something many pilots have forgotten, or never knew to begin with, is that the requirement for ELTs was a law passed by Congress in response to an accident where a properly functioning ELT could have resulted in the saving of 3 lives in a crash that the occupants survived, only to die of starvation and exposure. The law was pasted in haste, and put into force very quickly.

Posted by: Don Eck | September 8, 2010 12:55 PM    Report this comment

Hi. Rachel from spidertracks here. Great blog Russ. You're right the technology is here - it's just a matter of convincing the regulators that pilots' lives are important enough to embrace it!
Just a couple of additional comments that might assist the discussion. We believe tracking via satellite is the answer - guaranteed cover unlike cell or radio frequency. The SOS is sent via the system - so isn't reliant on the box in the aircraft surviving the crash. You have a flight path bread crumb trail so, even if the last report was over a minute from the crash scene, your direction, altitude, speed etc can all be used to give a very accurate location of the aircraft. Data for the US shows ELTs fail in over 75% of accidents - not good enough if you ask me. With satellite there is an ongoing cost - but its only about $2 per hour (not per minute!) and you get all the additional, social benefits of having your family know where you are and when you'll be home etc. A small price to pay for their peace of mind and your life. There's plenty of server space to store your flights - and they're yours to delete or keep forever as you see fit.
At the end of the day it's pilots' lives that are being lost and could be saved with this new technology. We shouldn't accept that should we?

Posted by: rachel donald | September 8, 2010 6:06 PM    Report this comment

I know nobody else uses ADF's, but in Alaska very often that's the only ground based signal that's available for giant portions of the trip.

Posted by: Dirk Bowen | September 8, 2010 10:17 PM    Report this comment

At first thought, elt's seem like a good idea to me. After reading this, though, I can think of a number of minimal or no cost substitutes. Automatic activation just seems like body recovery for me. If you survive, even if injured, a 406 mhz PLB should do just as adequate of a job - and if the aircraft catches fire - it's a much better option because it should be attached to the pilot - not buried in the tail of the aircraft. Even a good handheld radio would allow a pilot to summon help via relay from overflying aircraft. I like the Canadian idea of either a flight plan for every flight - or (and I like this better) a responsible person who will notify law enforcement if the flight doesn't arrive. Or possibly leave a completed flight plan form in an obvious place in your hangar or the FBO when you depart, so if you disappear someone at least has some idea where you're going (would have been way more useful than an elt in the Steve Fossett crash). Spidertracks and Spot are probably the best options, but I think we can do better than we are now with just a pen and paper.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | September 9, 2010 8:58 AM    Report this comment

Perhaps I have been lead to believe otherwise but where are these 90% failure rate statistics several people have indicated coming from? Would the world and various aviation agencies really invest in and promote a system with such great inefficiency? Something is missing from this discussion.

Posted by: Joe Braddock | September 9, 2010 9:07 AM    Report this comment

ELT's have been a failure, and I suspect that the 406 version will not be much better. However, I am not interested in having "big brother" track me wherever I fly. PLB's are a reasonable compromise.

Posted by: Dan MacDonald | September 9, 2010 9:44 AM    Report this comment

Last month I flew the Missouri River from St. Louis to Idaho. There's some pretty remote country in Montana, let me tell you! Using a SPOT, friends and family tracked my progress -- logged every 10 minutes -- on a map over the internet. The mandatory ELT was just useless weight.

Posted by: Bill Cloughley | September 9, 2010 10:58 AM    Report this comment

I refer to ELTs as ballast. Unfortunately, that is about all they are good for. I was involved with CAP for years, and have been on many search missions. On all the missions I was on, a crashed aircraft never had an ELT activate. The only benefit of 406 ELTs is that if it is registered, it will save the CAP search team time trying to find the false activation. EPIRBs and PBRs actually work for their intended purposes, it is just the forces involved in a crash that make ELTs useless.

Posted by: John Clear | September 9, 2010 11:10 AM    Report this comment

Based on the anecdotal evidence presented here, ELTs provide only false hope to pilots and their passengers. So why bother with them or any other tracking device as a mandate? I suggest we remove the requirement and let those who travel over hostile terrain determine for themselves what kind of tracking they prefer to use.

Posted by: Unknown | September 9, 2010 11:31 AM    Report this comment


What he said. The last thing we need is another mandate for todays technology that will still be mandated long after it's obsolete.

And the idea of big brother tracking me is just creepy. For noncommercial GA why? I can head off into the wilderness by boat, foot, snowmobile, atv etc without telling anyone anything but in an airplane I have to send updates on where I am every minute to the feds? NFW.

It might be smart to carry a spot or equivalent, but let the people that will suffer the consequences decide their own fate.

Also my understanding is the 406 all require a panel activation switch; seems like checklists/training should be updated to emphasize immediate activation in an emergency.

Posted by: BYRON WARD | September 9, 2010 1:08 PM    Report this comment

The whole mess has long been solved in the form of marine EPIRBS. Built tough as nails and no stupid remote antennas that can render one ineffective. A 406 mhz. ELT is essentially the same thing, just not as good. The FAA should get out of the business of mandating emergency location technology. The Coast Guard does not,and the result has been superior technology solutions for boaters.

Posted by: Bob Newman | September 9, 2010 8:12 PM    Report this comment

Our company mandates that each pilot have a "Spot" turned on and in the aircraft when it is flying. It has saved us a lot of grief and worry. Only once has a pilot had to push the "help" button and it worked to perfection. Although not perfect it gives us a better idea and smaller search area should on of our aircraft not make it home. We trust it a lot more than an ELT.

Posted by: Duane Hallman | September 9, 2010 11:25 PM    Report this comment

In every search I have been on or read about, radar and the loss of an echo on radar has been the best resource for finding the general area of the crash. 121.5 still works well once you are in the general area, since satellite coverage of 121.5 is no more.

Posted by: Stephen Alexander | September 10, 2010 6:24 AM    Report this comment

One more comment: if we can design iPhones that sense how they are tilted and millions of airbag sensors that deploy accurately only in a crash, there is no excuse for an ELT design that will not arm on a high G crash.

Posted by: Stephen Alexander | September 10, 2010 6:26 AM    Report this comment

>>diverted SR-71 aircraft to the search

Posted by: Josh Johnson | September 10, 2010 7:45 AM    Report this comment

Once the ADS-B network is in place, there should be little need for an ELT, especially on a non-commercial flight. Those who want extra coverage could buy something better as they are already doing today.

Posted by: Jim Ward | September 10, 2010 8:19 AM    Report this comment

Failed ELT antennas seem to be a common theme, as is destruction by fire. The Boeing E-3 AWACS (707 airframe) has an ejectable and bouyant ELT that automatically falls out of the stab when sensors in the wheel well are submerged. They've bailed out on their own a few times, so it's an issue. It seems quite possible to configure a similar device for GA that could be ejected out of the airframe as a complete transmitter/antenna assembly on impact, possibly avoiding the fire and damaged antenna issue. From this discussion it appears that active tracking is the preferred alternative so at this stage it is just a curiosity. I'm just pointing out that there is a known survival mode for active transmitters and somewhere there is a database of their reliability. Deep thinkers might also see an option for Spot/Spider too.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | September 10, 2010 1:29 PM    Report this comment

Here's a topic I'd like to see on Avweb: How do pilots manage their Spot Messenger messages? Sending Oks and tracks to friends who reciprocate and are in the SAR business might save your bacon in a wreck in Eastern Montana. But sending messages with lat/long to friends or deputies with no clue what a lat/long it seems as useless as an ELT is a crap shoot. Maybe I'm the only one who's uneasy about the device and service, but Spot's instructions are not all that useful, and their web site is not as user friendly as it could be. In fact it is better designed to take you to the 'buy spot' page than to figure out where your buddy is.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | September 10, 2010 2:09 PM    Report this comment

I think a separate discussion devoted to it's use might be in order. Specifically, how do you format the canned emails? When do you plan to use the 'SOS/911' option, the 'send help' option and the 'Ok' option. What instructions have you given the recipients? Do they really know what to do and who to call? Since 'track' is an extra cost option, how many get it and of those who don't, how do you manage the remaining message options? Spot sells SAR insurance. has anyone actually had to use it, and if so, how did that work for you? Finally, AFRCC looks for confirming data before authorizing a CAP search, such as an overdue aircraft or mai dai on a freq plus an ELT plus a position. With 406 the latter two arrive pretty at the same time. How do they handle Spot calls for help? I'm guessing, but without confirming data they will probably notify the Sheriff and put CAP on standby. Does your sheriff understand lat/long and the difference between DDMMSS and DDMM.mm? Many pilots don't, so don't be surprised if deputy dawg doesn't either.

Posted by: Thomas Connor | September 10, 2010 2:09 PM    Report this comment

SAR likes 406 ELTs not because they are better at locating a lost aircraft, but because they transmit the owners information when they go off. The costs associated with high number of false alarms that occurred with 121.5 ELTs could be brought under control. Owners could be identified & contacted before SAR operations begin. That's the reasoning behind Canada's unreasonable new 406 ELT law, driven soley by the Canadian military which operates our SAR services.

The bottom line however, is that studies have confirmed ELTs fail in over 80% of crashes. In all 406 and 121.5 units, antennae break, or simply can't transmit if they end up under the wreckage. Fire and submersion in water render them useless. So ELTs are almost entirely a waste of time and money in the real world of crashed airplanes. I know my ELT is a weighty, expensive decoration, and I carry a SPOT personal locator that leaves a bread-crumb trail on each flight. I file a flight plan on every flight. It would be irresponsible not to do so. In Canada, flight plans or itineraries are mandatory on flights over 25 nm from home base. This is as it should be. I may be in no shape to hit the SOS button on my SPOT after a crash, but between filing a flight plan, making a position reports to flight service, or flying IFR where they always know where I am anyway - an ELT is redundant.

Shame on our Canadian government for not thinking this through, and forcing this wasteful expense on us!

Posted by: Robert Kisin | September 11, 2010 3:24 PM    Report this comment

Love the idea of the SPOT but as some of the posts mentioned -- How do pilots manage their Spot Messenger messages?

I've been using a much better system: Solaradata.com -- its more pricey than the Spot but it has 2 way messaging, uses the Iridium signal and is built solid. The coolest thing is that I have friends that have set down their float plane in the middle of nowhere, sent a message to the base telling them they've set down, and asked about weather, which they send back. They were able to track the flight the whole way and communicate. MUCH better than anything else out there!

Check out their site www.solaradata.com (and no I don't work for these guys, but I would recommend their product any day!).

Posted by: Joel Wisneski | September 11, 2010 3:47 PM    Report this comment

I posted earlier that I have used a SPOT since June, and have used it on 3 flights to Las Cruces, NM, from Sacramento,CA, a 950 nm flight. It is able to pinpoint the 10 minute locations to within 30 ft. I know this because after the flights I am able to load the tracking into Google Earth, and it puts an arrow within 30 ft of where I was parked on the ramp during the 3 refuel stops.
The 'OK' and 'Help' message is written on a webpage for your device and the user specifies the email, phone, and text message numbers to have the message sent to.
The '911' button sends an alert to their Emergency Response Center, who notifies SAR, Highway Patrol, or Coast Guard, depending on the location of the emergency message. they will also contact the emergency contacts you have listed.
I also bought the $17 emergency evacuation policy which provides $100,000 in emergency service payments.
Besides using it in an aircraft, I use it in my car, on trips, and while hiking in remote areas..
It is cheap insurance for $190 a year and $89 to buy the unit.
also, the unit will operate for 14 days in track mode and 7 days i '911' mode, a LOT better than any ELT.!

Posted by: JAMES HUGHES | September 11, 2010 5:19 PM    Report this comment

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