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PLB: Is One In Your Future?

story by H. Dean Chamberlain
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

As a self-proclaimed survivalist, the title gives me a great excuse to buy unique outdoor-type equipment; I treated myself to a new piece of survival gear on December 31. The date was important because it allowed me to qualify for a $50 discount on my brand new, never out of the box, personal locator beacon (PLB). For those who may not follow the latest trends in locator beacons, a PLB is like the new kid on the beacon block. Using technology similar to the familiar emergency locator transmitter (ELT) in aircraft or an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) for boats, the new beacon family member of smaller and lighter PLBs was approved for use in the United States several years ago by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Using the same 406 MHz technologies as its older siblings, a PLB, when activated, transmits a coded 406 MHz signal to one of the overhead Cospas/Sarsat satellite receivers. Once a distress signal is received by one of the satellite receivers, a signal is down linked to one of the ground-based receivers located around the world. In the United States that information in processed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Mission Control Center (USMCC) located just outside of Washington, DC, in Maryland. The USMCC then coordinates the information with the appropriate search and rescue (SAR) organization. In the United States, the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for maritime SAR operations. The U.S. Air Force has responsibility for inland aviation-related SAR. Because of the unique nature of PLBs, which are designed primarily for hikers and similar types of outdoor activities, a U.S. PLB distress signal is for-warded by the USMCC to the U.S. Air Force, which coordinates with the appropriate state rescue organization.

So, you are asking yourself what does a PLB designed for such out-door activities as hiking have to do with aviation? Well, maybe nothing. Then again, it could be important. If that is not a professional wishy-washy Washingtonian answer, I don't know what is. But, then what kind of answer can you expect from a self-proclaimed outdoor gear geek who flies a Tripacer. Please let me explain. First, a PLB cannot replace an ELT. Period. Only an FAA-approved ELT meets the regulatory requirement of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations section91.207, Emergency locator transmitters. So, having said that, why am I excited about my new PLB?

I play and fly around water all the time. But my aircraft's ELT only transmits on 121.5 MHz. As we have re-ported in the past, the Cospas/Sarsat system is terminating its ability to receive 121.5 MHz signals in February2009. After that date, the satellite receivers will only be able to receive 406MHz distress signals. What that means is every 121.5 MHz ELT will only be able to be received by a nearby receiver capable of receiving121.5 MHz or an over-flying aircraft monitoring 121.5 MHz. Then some one has to notify an appropriate air traffic facility. Any pilot who wants satellite reception coverage will have to upgrade to a 406 MHz ELT. Like many pilots, I am waiting for the price of current 406 MHz ELTs to comedown. My current 121.5 MHz ELT cost less than $200. Will 406 MHz ELTs ever come down in price to that level? I don't know, but I am hoping. But I still want the significant safety benefits that a 406 MHz ELT provides users. So what can I do short of buying a 406 MHz ELT?  What if the aircraft I fly doesn't have an ELT?

ELT EXCEPTIONS

I fly more than one type of aircraft. I especially like to fly gliders. But to the best of my knowledge, none of the gliders I have flown have had an ELT onboard. No, I have not been violating the ELT carriage requirement. Gliders are not required to carry an ELT by regulation. ELTs are for airplanes. The ELT regulation even lists a number of conditions or flight operations that do not require an ELT on-board for airplanes. But the fact re-mains, if you have an accident in one of the exempted flight operations, it would be nice if you have some way to call for help. A cell-phone is one such means of calling for help if you are both able and within range of a cell-phone tower. A satellite-based telephone, if you can use it, would be even better in remote areas. But the best way in aviation to call for help is with an ELT. For those who may disagree, the following is a brief discussion about why an ELT is the best means of calling for help. An ELT is designed to activate upon a specific amount of impact force measured in equivalent levels or units of 'gravity' expressed in 'Gs.' The ELT 'G' switch is designed to function once a specified number of 'Gs' is 'felt' by the aircraft and its rigidly mounted ELT. As a crash-activated, self-contained, battery operated distress-signaling device, an ELT system (transmitter, switch, monitor, cable, and antenna) that survives the crash (not all do) will automatically activate with no pilot input. This self-activation, self-contained aspect is important in aviation because a pilot may become incapacitated because of the crash forces involved in an accident. But what can you do when you don't have an ELT installed in your aircraft? How can you get the benefits of a satellite-base alerting system that is monitored24 hours a day, every day without having an ELT?

WELCOME PLB

Since there are no non-mounted ELTs approved for aircraft use (yes, there are some portable ELTs, but they must be mounted in a rigidly attached mounting bracket to the airplane, and I am not including special manually activated emergency ELTs designed for life-raft use), I decided to buy a PLB. Remember, a PLB is not an ELT. For one thing, PLBs have only a 24-hour transmitting requirement. However, my PLB is relatively lightweight, relatively small, I wish it were smaller. It floats, it transmits on406 MHz, and, most importantly, it has a built-in GPS receiver to deter-mine latitude and longitude information (Lat-Long). The GPS Lat-Long information is then sent along with the unit's unique identification code to the satellites for relaying to an appropriate MCC. Not all PLBs have built-in GPS. Some units have no GPS capability. Others allow you to download GPS data from an external source.

The negative side of the equation for a PLB is the PLB is not automatically activated. In fact, it requires a very conscious activation procedure to reduce inadvertent activation. My model PLB's blade antenna must be released and unwrapped from around the body of the unit. The antenna must be properly positioned and, if possible, kept out of any water. The front cover of the unit must be raised to gain access to the activation keypads. The final step requires that two keypads be pressed simultaneously for at least one second to activate the unit. If you want to ensure the on-board GPS functions properly, the built-in GPS antenna must be correctly orientated to the sky for a clear line of sight to the GPS satellites in orbit, which among other satellites, carry the Cospas/Sarsat receivers. The process is deliberate. If you are injured in an accident and cannot reach or properly position and active you're PLB, it is just an expensive paperweight.

Unless your non-ELT equipped aircraft or canoe or kayak or all-terrain vehicle or hi-tech hiking shoes has one of the automotive-style onboard calling systems that activates upon deployment of your 'airbag system,' I think a PLB is a good device to have within reach. Is it the ideal system? It depends upon what you are doing. If you are hiking alone and suffer a life-threatening fall, the PLB may be your last chance of rescue. If you are flying across the Pacific Ocean in your single-engine family flyer, I think a separate PLB attached to each person on-board is a good way to go into the water if you lose your engine and have to ditch at sea. I would also want a good quality EPIRB with me in the water or in my life raft.

Why an EPIRB? PLBs don't have the same transmitting endurance of ELTs and EPIRBs. Plus, my PLB's operating instructions say to keep it out the water, if possible. EPIRB's are de-signed to operate in water, and ELTs tend to sink with their ditched aircraft. Although PLBs require specific activation, some EPIRBs are water activated while other EPIRBs are manually activated. A water-activated EPRIB re-quires one less step when you are about to ditch. At the very least, you just throw it out of the aircraft as you exit with hopefully some type of survival kit. A quick survival safety note: Remember, never inflate an inflatable personal flotation device (PFD) inside an aircraft, nor wear any type of non-inflatable PFD inside an aircraft. The buoyancy of an inflated PFD or of anon-inflatable PFD could trap you in-side the aircraft and prevent your escape. You need to wait until you are clear of the aircraft interior before inflating your PFD. You also don't want to puncture your inflatable PFD while climbing out of the aircraft. It pays to be careful and prepared.

PBLs ARE MULTIPURPOSE

The good news about a PLB is that it can serve many purposes. It can be carried in any type aircraft as a back up to an ELT. In aircraft not required to have an ELT, it can serve as your primary manually operated satellite-based distress beacon. It can be carried on your person to provide you a means to call for help and rescue when you are beyond range of your cell phone. As the device of last means, my PLB instructions say it is to be used only in case of loss of life, eyesight, or significant loss of property'a PLB is not something to be used to call for a pizza to be delivered. But as one of the newest survival tools to take along on your next adventure in the air, on land, or sea, it has its place. But, like any tool, it is only as good as the person using it. The key to any type of survival is the skill and knowledge of the person using it. APLB, like any type of electronic battery-operated device, can fail. Also, aviation has it own unique accident risks. An aircraft crash can subject such devices, which are not designed to aviation standards, to very high 'G' loadings that may damage such de-vices beyond their means to function. Boats normally sink. Aircraft crash. But like the 10 essential items that many experts suggest should be carried on every person going out of sight of the nearest boutique coffee shop, a PLB might just be considered item number 11. Just remember to properly register your PLB or 406 ELT with NOAA, as outlined in your equipment instructions. For more information about PLBs, ELTs, EPIRBs, the Cospas/Sarsat system, NOAA's USMCC, and the role the major agencies involved in search and rescue in the United States play in search and rescue operations, you can check the NOAA's Internet Website at http://www.sarsat.noaa.gov. The Web site explains every aspect of the satellite-based search and rescue system. To register your406 MHz unit with NOAA, you can do it on line at the NOAA site.

The FCC's Web site is http://www.fcc.gov. The applicable FCC regulation for PLBs is Title 47 Code of Federal Regulations, part 95, Personal Radio Services, subpart K, Personal Locator Beacons (PLB). Section95.1400, Basis and purpose, explains in part, 'The rules in this subpart are intended to provide individuals in re-mote areas a means to alert others of an emergency situation and to aid search and rescue personnel locate those in distress.' The FCC rules mandates that 406 MHz PLB owners register their PLB with NOAA and that the information is kept up-to-date. Section 95.1402, Special requirements for 406 MHz PLBs says in part, 'Owners shall advise NOAA in writing upon change of PLB ownership, or any other change in registration information. NOAA will provide registrants with proof of registration and change of registration postcards.'

The final comment about PLBs is that section 95.1402 requires that the121.5 MHz homing signal in the 406MHz PLB transmit a unique identifier code to identify the signal as a PLB. That identifier code is the Morse code 'P.' So if you hear 'dit-dah-dah-dit' when listening to 121.5 MHz, you have just received a PLB distress alert. As with an ELT distress alert, you should contact the nearest air traffic facility after noting the time and your position and altitude when the signal was first heard, last heard, and position at maximum signal strength. If you have homing capability, you should try to determine the signal's bearing from your position either based upon your GPS position or in relation to a navigational aid. Now the self-proclaimed survivalist in me is wondering just how much a satellite telephone costs?