As the futile search for a single-engine floatplane missing with four aboard in remote Katmai National Park and Preserve drew to an end last week, many in Alaska were wondering if maybe there isn't a better way for locating downed aircraft in the far north.
National Transportation Safety Board Alaska director Jim Labelle noted the deHavilland Beaver -- owned by Branch River Air Service in King Salmon and missing since Aug. 21 -- was outfitted with an older model electronic locator transmitter instead of the new state-of-the-art 406Mhz ELT, but even he conceded there's no guarantee that a new ELT would have helped in the search.
An Otter owned by General Communications Inc. that went down just to the north of Katmai park on Aug. 9, killing former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, pilot Terry Smith, GCI executive Dana Tindall and two others, was equipped with such a transmitter, but it never sent out a signal strong enough to be detected by satellites passing overhead. As a result, four survivors of the wreck were left waiting more than four hours for help to arrive. NTSB investigators said the people who died in the crash perished on impact, so the delay did not contribute to their deaths. But there are no doubt circumstances that could arise in Alaska under which victims are likely to die because of stalled or unsuccessful searches -- something that might be prevented given new and better technology.
The ELT in the Stevens crash failed, investigators said, because it ripped loose form the antennae on the outside of the aircraft that would have broadly transmitted its location. The weak signal left coming from the ELT could only be detected by receivers in the immediate area.
But there is available technology that wouldn't have required a signal to be sent out at all -- technology that would have picked up where a signal stopped when the plane hit a mountainside in the Muklung Hills north of Dillingham.
For about $150, anyone can walk into a store these days and buy a SPOT II Satellite GPS Messenger that will track their position by satellite wherever they go in much of Alaska, and for under $500, they can buy any of a variety of durable, more powerful, all weather GPS transmitters that can be switched on in an emergency to guide help to within feet. Some pilots in Alaska admit they already carry such devices.
"SPOT has some shortcomings," Labelle said, "but there is some new technology out there we could be using."
At this point, of course, none of it is government approved. The government has rigorous standards for testing new aviation technology, said Adam White, president of the Alaska Airmen's Association. As a result, the process for approving new avionics moves almost as slowly as the process for approving new drugs.
"That is one of our frustrations," White said. "We are dealing the with government, and it moves slowly."
Then again, he added, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Rigorous testing procedures ensure that the gear the government finally mandates works. That testing has for years now focused on creation of an ELT that will survive crashes but avoid triggering on hard landings or turbulence, a big problem with early ELTs, which sent out thousands of false alarms.
Because of that problem, many pilots turned their ELTs off. Investigators who inspected the crash that killed highly experienced Alaska pilot John Graybill and his wife, Dolly, earlier this month northeast of McGrath found the ELT in the wreckage of their single-engine plane had been turned off. Some pilots probably figure it doesn't make much difference whether the government-required unit is on or off.
"Historically, most of the ELTs don't survive the crash anyway," said Gary Bennett, owner of Northern Lights Avionics. This is one of the reasons he now carries a personal locator beacon on his body when he flies. If he survives a crash, he wants to be sure he can signal for help.
But, Bennett noted, there might be an even better way of finding downed aircraft than waiting for a signal that they have crashed. The better way, he said, is "a flight following system."
The Federal Aviation Administration, in cooperation with the state of Alaska and the aviation industry, is now in the process of building a very sophisticated version of such a system, which it calls Next Gen. A follow up to the so-called Capstone project that experimented with tracking aircraft and supplying better weather information in Southwest Alaska, where air safety improved dramatically, Next Gen would equip airplanes to supply pilots with a real-time video display of the terrain, weather and aircraft ahead of them, while at the same time providing to FAA air traffic control a record of the airplane's position at all times.
Not only would Next Gen make planes easier to find if they went down, Labelle said, it would make flying safer. But the program is years away from completion, and the costs of retrofitting aircraft might discourage a lot of the private pilots who now go missing in Alaska only to become the subjects of long and costly searches.
Possibly the best known of these searchers on the national level involved former Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Steve Fossett, who in 2002 became the first person to solo the globe non-stop in a balloon and three years later became the first person to accomplish the same feat in a fixed wing aircraft. Two years later, he took off in a single-engine airplane from near Carson City, Nev. and disappeared. The plane was outfitted with an ELT, but no signal was ever heard. An aggressive search for the missing plane went on for more than two weeks. When airplanes and helicopters scouring a remote area near the Nevada-California border found nothing, high-tech satellite imagery was employed. It didn't find anything either. The intensive search was eventually scaled back, but searches continued off and on for a year and ended up costing an estimated $1.6 million.
Searchers didn't find the wreck of Fossett's plane; it wasn't discovered until the fall of 2008 when a hiker in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California stumbled on some identification cards and $100 bills at an elevation of near 10,000 feet. After the cards were identified as Fossett's, a search of the area was begun, and the wreckage of the plane was eventually located. The problem in the Fossett case was much the same as in so many cases of missing planes in Alaska: Search organizers didn't know where to start the hunt, and thus they had to scour a huge area looking for a small object. As John Quinley, the regional spokesman for the National Park Service, described the Katmai search: "It's like looking for a missing bus in an area the size of Connecticut."
Better aircraft tracking could change that. The Spider Tracks S2 Aircraft Tracking System, Bennett said, now makes it possible to satellite-track an aircraft almost anywhere using the Iridium satellite network already familiar to many in Alaska, where Iridium satellite phones are in wide use.
"That unit is constantly reporting to a flight following system," Bennett said, "so you basically know where to start looking" if someone goes missing, or in the case of the Stevens crash, is reported overdue. Labelle said some of the aircraft flown by the Department of the Interior in Alaska already employ a flight tracking system, and the agency is examining portable units that could allow their employees to carry this tracking capability with them in any aircraft. Requiring real-time tracking in all aircraft, however, is not something the NTSB or the FAA has been willing to propose, even though costs would appear no higher than for the 406 ELTs required in all new ELT installations. Labelle said Spider Tracks hasn't been thoroughly tested to work at all times in all conditions, but there's more to it than that.
A lot of Alaskan pilots have reservations about the government mandating a constant tracking system, said White.
"They don't want Big Brother looking over their shoulder," he said, "and the government is thankfully sensitive to that."
Not that this reservation about over-the-shoulder monitoring is universal.
"I personally carry a flight tracker in my aircraft," admitted Smith. He also packs a satellite phone and, like Bennett, a PLB, and notes that carrying the latter is not all that unusual anymore.
"There are over 9,000 personal locator beacons registered nationwide" these days to people who cite the main use as aviation related, he said. Some of those are even registered to the NTSB. Labelle said it is now an Alaska NTSB requirement that if accident investigators plan to get on a plane not yet equipped with a 406 ELT, they must carry a 406 PLB and a satellite phone just in case.
For a guy who has devoted almost three decades of his life to aviation safety, Labelle said, there is a simple reason for this: "Look at the other people you are putting at risk if they have to go looking for you."
Search and rescue is a dangerous business, as was demonstrated in Alaska just weeks ago. On Aug. 10, an Alaska Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed on Knik Glacier while trying to help rescue five people who went down in a small plane on sightseeing trip. Amazingly, thanks in large part to the efforts of troops from the fabled Alaska Air National Guard's 211th Rescue Squadron, everyone -- the five people from the small plane and seven Army and Air Force personnel who ended up trapped on the glacier in a raging blizzard -- came back alive, But the near miss well illustrated the dangers of what the people in the business abbreviate as SAR.
Out at Katmai National Park, the dangers were weighing heavily on the minds of many on Friday. The Park Service said it was scaling back the search for the floatplane missing since Aug. 21. Nearly 60,000 flight miles -- far enough to fly around the earth two and half times -- were logged by search aircraft scouring the mountainous terrain for signs of the plane. Just over $1 million was spent through the combined efforts of NPS and military search teams.
"The longer we have aircraft in the air, the more risk we run of injuring someone in an aviation accident," NPS Ranger Adrienne Freeman said Friday.
Better technology would make things better for everyone, but White said, "there's not a perfect solution that can be mandated by the feds. The technology is just not there."
It is, however, temptingly close.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.