When you get in my airplane, part of your safety briefing includes me telling you where in aircraft the Emergency Locator Transmitter is installed. (It's in the vertical stabilizer, marked on the outside with a sticker, and can be reached by tearing off a panel. You don't need tools to get it off if you're willing to destroy it in the process, and if you need it it's an emergency, so you should be). You shouldn't need to physically reach it anyway, as it's supposed to start transmitting automatically in the case of a crash, advising the world of the need for rescue and the location of the accident. ELTs are required by law to be in almost all aircraft operating in Canada. (There are a few exceptions for things like balloons, skydiving operators, and delays in repairs). The problem is, the law no longer requires the ELT to transmit on the most useful frequency. It's not that the law changed, it's that the useful frequency changed and the law didn't. Satellite monitoring of 121.5 was turned off over a year ago, leaving only the new 406 MHz frequency.
Below is an informative Transport Canada video on the advantages of the 406 MHz units, made somewhat entertaining by its "historical" character. Watch for the old-style green CFS in the tower. I love that the "typical Canadian pilot" is a while male in a Skyhawk. About right, really. The point of the video is to encourage Canadians to embrace the new 406 MHz ELT technology, because they are monitored by satellite and send information on the registered owner of the ELT. Without satellite monitoring, the old ELTs that transmit only on 121.5 MHz are useful only for informing people monitoring that frequency that there may be an airplane crashed in their approximate vicinity. Or maybe just a faulty microwave oven.
Embedding this video seems to crash some people's browsers, so click the check mark in the two-line table on this page.
The unchanged law wasn't an oversight. It was supposed to change years ago, calling for the minimum legal ELTs to transmit on 406. There were handbills and videos and stickers and probably mousepads and t-shirts too, all promoting the new standard. But there affordable general aviation ELTs didn't exist. Canadian advocacy groups said, "Hey, wait, these exceed 20% of the cost of some of our members' airplanes!" Transport Canada funded a 2008 study into reducing the cost of 406 MHz ELTs. Aviation supplies are expensive enough to start with, but usually Canadians can rely on getting the best possible prices as a result of the competitive American market. There are so many GA pilots in the US, that anything they want to buy is available from multiple competing suppliers and innovation plus economies of scale bring the price down. But in this case Canada was mandating equipment that was not required by and was not particularly useful to most US pilots. Alaska is like most of Canada, but flying in the rest of the US being out of radar contact while enroute is so rare that the controllers point it out to you with some concern. Not only were the Americans not going to sell us cheap ELTs, but they were opposed to the regulation.
This US pilot group discussion typifies their concerns, back when Feb 2009 was the deadline. US pilots have three understandable objections.
- They don't want to buy 406 MHz ELTs just to legally cross the border, but the regulation effectively imposes a three thousand dollar per aircraft fee for operating in Canada.
- The discussion demonstrates a national difference in philosophy with "If I waive Search and Rescue service, I shouldn't have to pay for an ELT." I think this is likely the same difference that makes people on opposite sides of the border feel differently about government-funded healthcare. Canadian SAR looks for everyone who is known to be missing, no matter how poorly prepared they are, so we don't consider it out of line to require a level of preparation that will save all taxpayers a lot of money on UNSAR. And of course Americans can't be expected to care about Canadian taxes.
- The pilots believe that having flown in the US, which is itself huge and has some areas of low population density, that they understand the barrenness of Canada. The latter has less than a tenth of the average population density of the former, and the population we do have is more asymmetrically distributed.
Government kept pushing the effective date of the new regulation forward into the future. A requirement to carry a 406 MHz ELT is still not in the current rules. They haven't forgotten about it, but it's dropped off the front page. The only FAQ question about ELTs on the TC site is about the angle you can put the antenna on, on a helicopter. It's still pending.
Meanwhile there's nothing to prevent Canadians from replacing the old ELTs with modern units that broadcast on 121.5 and 406 MHz. Relying on the 121.5 broadcast means hoping that someone hears it and can home in on it by reports of where the signal is audible at what strength.