Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why Are You Surprised?

I have previously blogged about discontinued satellite monitoring of 121.5 MHz and the ever-retreating deadline for Canadians to switch to 406 MHz ELTs. In that entry I mentioned that Canada was hoping the Americans would require the new emergency beacons first, so that they would make cheap ones and we could afford them. A better reason is probably so that they wouldn't have to decide between making an exception to the rule for American tourists, or losing the tourist revenue when Americans refused to by a new piece of equipment just to overfly Canada.

Curiously, it isn't the FAA (the U.S. agency that regulates aviation) or the NTSB (the U.S. agency that investigates accidents and makes safety recommendations) that have made the move. It's the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that regulates "interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable." These are the guys that decide who gets to broadcast on what frequency, and the ones who spent hours scrutinizing television footage of Janet Jackson's naked breast. On June 1st the FCC released this document. The ELT ruling is in sections 16 to 19 starting on page ten. It says, in part:

After reviewing the comments, we conclude that we should prohibit the certification, manufacture, importation, sale or continued use of 121.5 MHz ELTs. We believe that if 121.5 MHz ELTs are no longer available, aircraft owners and operators will migrate to 406.0-406.1 MHz ELTs, and the advantages of 406.0-406.1 MHz ELTs will provide safety benefits for search and rescue teams as well as aircraft pilots, crew and passengers, while also preserving search and rescue resources for real emergencies.

The American Pilots and Owners Association immediately opposed the new rule, objecting to the sudden cost it would impose on their members. My reading is that the FCC didn't consider existing installations of ELTs to be use, and weren't actually intending to make it illegal to fly with an old ELT. If they really meant to forbid flight without a 406 MHz ELT, then why would they use words like "believe" and "migrate"? Remove the word "use" and I think it would be a pretty clever solution. You don't need to buy a new ELT until you need to buy a new ELT. And I think anyone who needed to buy a new ELT these days would most likely buy a 406 MHz one anyway. Wouldn't you?


Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Trix:

I am surprised not by the content of the ruling but by the abruptness and the lack of coordination among interested parties. Regulatory evolution doesn't usually work this way down here.

I put up a post on the subject HERE. You're right, the word "use" makes all the difference and the rule is either onerous or not depending on how one interprets that word.

If I flew where you do, I'd already have a 406 MHz device aboard N631S. Given my mission and operating area, I have better places to expend my aircraft upgrade budget.

But if the requirement is to be imposed, at least give me 'til the next annual to plan for implementation. That's what the uproar is really about.



Aluwings said...

"...prohibit the certification, manufacture, importation, sale or continued use of 121.5"

Pretty draconian ... does "certification" include the annual re-certification that pilots need have done in Canada? Not sure if it's the same in the US.

As for "would I buy a 406..." possibly NOT. COPA's lost battle with TC, produced research which showed that in a significant percentage of cases the ELT only provides advantages to search and rescue crews to find the dead bodies and wreckage sooner. In terms of actually being useful for recreational pilots, some of the personal locator beacons may be more useful. Still TBD in my books , but TC didn't ask me.

mattheww50 said...

It is impossible to actually ban the use of 121.5 Mhz. The reality is that as far as I can tell, EVERY 406 Mhz EPIRB and PLB also has a low power 121.5 Mhz transmitter as part of the package. It is used by authorities to actually locate the device inside the CEP area (which admittedly with a GPS equipped device is on the order of 100 meters, but absent GPS is on the order of 5km).

Also left unstated is that important infrastructure for 121.5MHz services (like COSPAS/SARSAT sat service) has already been turned off. The unpleasant reality is that a 121.5MHz ELT is unlikely to lead to a timely rescue since COSPAS/SARSAT service is no longer available.

By contrast a 406MHz device will raise an alarm via Geosynchronous Sat and identify the user within literally minutes of activation.

While the GA Aircraft I have flown since 2004 haven't had 406 MHz equipment, I believe in it to the extent that I have been carrying a 406MHz GPS equipped PLB with me since 2004.

Rob said...

In Australia we were all forced to migrate a year or so ago. The world kept on turning...

CeridianMN said...

I was totally going to come in here and referance Franks blog post on the matter as it appears the requirement is effectively to upgrade it before you transmit wth it, which would either be when an accident happened or during routine maintenance.

I think I need to to return to reading these from a web browser instead of an RSS reader. I feel like I catch the point but miss the conversation. Maybe I'll write a new RSS reader for myself...

Critical Alpha said...

I'm a firm believer in the improved benefits of 406Mhz devices compared to 121.5Mhz devices. Particularly since satellite monitoring of 121.5Mhz has been turned off.

I've been using 406Mhz devices since 2004 because of the benefits, despite the additional cost.

As far as I'm concerned Darwinism should be allowed to effect change here - let users use 121.5 devices if they wish. The inability of searchers to find those users will reduce the use of 121.5 devices over time :-)

Anonymous said...

Breitling has the Emergency watch with an inbuilt 121.5 ELT beacon. This is great backup survival gear, would be bad to make it illegal.

Anonymous said...

Breitling has the Emergency watch with an inbuilt 121.5 ELT beacon. This is great backup survival gear, would be bad to make it illegal.

Sarah said...

Sure, anonymous. Calm yourself, there is an exemption in the NPRM specifically for Breitling. They must have one of the really good lobbyists.

Supposedly the rule targets TSO'd ( US Aviation certificated devices ), not 121.5 in general. The real surprise was the threat of no "use", whatever that means, after August 2010. I think FCC is having to backpedal a bit.

John said...

I know that the FCC backs off of rules with a lot of negative NPRM feedback. I suspect there will be an alteration of the final rule which either eliminates "continued use of" or sets a date further in the future.

What really surprises me is that the FCC hasn't negatively responded to another agency playing in their sandbox.

D.B. said...

I know that ATC and many aircraft monitor 121.5 MHz as a matter of course. I am not sure if anyone other than satellites and SAR monitor 406 MHz, so while 406 might help find the wreckage, I am not sure that it is substantially better in terms of getting help quickly. I am sure that it is substantially more expensive, than to continue with my existing 121.5 ELT.

The FCC and FAA can use a regulatory stick to force the change, but in terms of using a carrot to encourage voluntary participation, they have a way to go.

Aviatrix said...

D.B. I think you're overestimating the benefit of some people flying around monitoring 121.5 and/or underestimating the value of 406. I monitor it when I have a radio spare, and I think of it, but there are usually lots of different frequencies that it is more useful for me to monitor, so it's a low priority. If I'm getting irritating static on 121.5 I turn it off. Sixty miles out of busy airspace I'm setting all my frequencies up for the arrival, so no more 121.5.

Say I hear some tones on 121.5. I note where I am and how strong it was, fly until I'm in range of some ATS unit and report what I heard. SAR is not dispatched on one pilot's "I think I heard an ELT" report, when no one is overdue on a flight plan in that area, but they'll make a note of it and later in the day when it turns out you're missing the "pilot reported possible ELT activation while crossing the Alaskan range" may be considered.

With 406 the ELT signal is picked up by satellites within about 45 minutes, and the signal includes identifying information so that they know it's you, and better positional infomation. You could conceivably be rescued before your flight plan/itinerary SAR time had even elapsed.

Here's a comparison chart for the two types.

It is reasonably when society is footing the bill for SAR that society make laws requiring you to use technology that reduces SAR costs considerably.

Think there's any chance that the FCC did it to get the publicity, so as to get everyone's attention and then have you think it's more reasonable when they "back down" to their real position of a two year implementation date?

Aluwings said...


RE: "It is reasonably (sic) when society is footing the bill for SAR that society make laws requiring you to use technology that reduces SAR costs considerably."

This is a "slippery slope" ... always a difficult call. In Canada "society" pays for most health care - so does the Minister of Health get to regulate what I eat and how much? Do 'they' also regulate how risky my activities can be? No more roller blading? No more mountain biking? No more skiing -- No more flying, that's for sure! -- heck no more anything!

Fear seems to be our major driving force as a society of late ... Since 9/11 'security' is being used to justify way too many changes to how we live. We could all do well to recall the last line of the American national anthem -- land of the free and home of the brave. There's a strong hint there.

This drive to regulate ELTs on all pilots regardless of where, when, how and what we fly is another example of how 'they' are making our lives better. Be circumspect...

Anonymous said...

What we should REALLY be afraid of - Interesting Poster

Anonymous said...

I'm confused. I thought the Americans were waiting for the Canadians to require 406 ELT's (so the price would come down).

Aviatrix said...

Why would Canadians mandating 406 MHz ELTs bring the price down? There's so few of us.

D.B. said...

From AOPA:

"In addition to the unnecessary cost, this ruling also raises the question of the legality of the 406 MHz ELTs because they also transmit a low-power signal on 121.5 MHz to allow the search-and-rescue community to home as part of the rescue process."

OOpps.. No legal ELTs in the USA (sounds like the title of a bad 70s rock song).

steve said...

Aviatrix said...

Why would Canadians mandating 406 MHz ELTs bring the price down? There's so few of us.
Maybe they're hoping that someone else will swallow the development/debugging/tooling costs ,so then an enterprising American Avionics Co. can just take over a ready geared-up production facility.

What? -me cynical? ;-)