By Earl Weener
When I tell people about my work, I’m frequently asked about airline safety. Many recall major NTSB investigations, such as the TWA Flight 800 crash off Long Island, the American Airlines Flight 587 crash in New York City, or more recently, the Continental Flight 3407 accident outside Buffalo. Such tragedies — with their large loss of life — leave lasting impressions. Yet, most of the hundreds of aviation-related deaths each year occur in general aviation (GA) accidents.
GA is the term for flying that is neither airlines nor military. It includes a wide variety of aircraft, such as single-engine planes, floatplanes, helicopters, and business jets and turboprops. These usually smaller aircraft are often used for leisure trips, business trips, sightseeing, agricultural applications, emergency medical purposes, flight training, search and rescue, traffic reporting and many other uses. The pilots range from professionals earning a living flying to individuals with simply a passion for flying.
Yesterday, the NTSB concluded its investigations of two fatal GA accidents. The first accident involved a floatplane transporting vacationers to a private fishing camp in Alaska. It crashed into mountainous, tree-covered terrain near Aleknagik. The second was a helicopter on a search and rescue mission that crashed into mountainous, rocky terrain near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Both the floatplane and helicopter were equipped with an emergency locator transmitter (ELT), a device which helps locate aircraft in distress.
Within 65 minutes of the helicopter crash, the location of the distress signal generated by its 406 MHz ELT was determined, and search and rescue began immediately. Although the floatplane’s ELT activated when the plane crashed, because its transmitter was dislodged and separated from its antenna the signal was not received by the satellites. The plane was not reported missing for four hours and locating it took another hour after it was discovered to be missing. By then, the weather conditions had deteriorated, it was soon dark, and victims could not be evacuated until the next day. Had the floatplane’s ELT transmitted, providing more timely notification of the accident and information on its whereabouts, it’s possible that the injured survivors would not have had to spend the night on a cold Alaska mountain.
GA has become safer over the years. Yet, it’s important to plan for contingencies. We’ve investigated many accidents where timely search and rescue was a critical survival factor. A functioning ELT, especially a 406 MHz unit, can make the difference between life and death.
Earl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010. Dr. Weener is a licensed pilot and flight instructor who has dedicated his entire career to the field of aviation safety.