March 13, 2014

For the want of an Epirb . . .

IF MALAYSIA AIRLINES Flight 370 had been carrying a commonly available radio beacon that costs less than $1,000, the navies and rescue aircraft of the world wouldn’t be spending millions of dollars searching for signs of the missing airliner.

I would wager that almost all sailboats crossing an ocean these days carry with them a 406-MHz emergency position-indicating radio beacon, known to us all as an Epirb.  It’s a compact, battery-driven radio and GPS combined that broadcasts to orbiting satellites when it’s activated. It tells the satellite who you are, how to contact your family, and exactly where you are, to within a few yards.

Epirbs can be activated manually or they can be supplied with an automatic hydrostatic release, so that they will float off, transmitting all the while, if your ship sinks under you. The most expensive Epirb listed in last year’s Defender catalog is priced at $950, and many others come a lot cheaper.

Why on earth wouldn’t commercial jetliners be supplied with one or more Epirbs that could be jettisoned on parachutes over the ocean in times of emergency?  Obviously, each airliner would have to be fitted with a means of dropping them overboard, but the extra cost of that would be minimal, compared with the price of the plane.

Airlines know full well that their aircraft disappear from radar screens when they cross oceans. Radar beams travel in straight lines, and do not bounce back to the receiver when the plane rides beyond the curvature of the earth.

It’s only once in a blue moon, of course that a plane disappears as mysteriously as Flight 370, but history records that it can, and does, happen. That means it will probably happen again.

Many lives have been saved at sea by Epirbs and the ground control systems they link to. The system has been in operation for many years. It’s not as if the airlines haven’t heard of it.  If humble sailboats can afford emergency beacons that pinpoint their position at sea, then surely airlines can make arrangements to use this technology, too. I wonder how long it will be before they are shamed into adopting it?

Today’s Thought
Who can hope to be safe? who sufficiently cautious?
Guard himself as he may, every moment’s an ambush.

— Horace, Odes

"May I print a kiss on your lips?" I said, And she nodded her full permission: So we went to press and I rather guess
We printed a full edition. — Joseph Lilientha

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Anonymous said...

Small aircraft are required to have ELTs that use similar 406mhz technology and transmit a beacon on 121.5. They activate manually or automatically if a crash is detected (I think it uses G-force to determine that).

Why airliners don't have them, I don't know. It's probably because an event involving such a large aircraft is unlikely to go unnoticed or make finding the airplane difficult, although recent events have shown otherwise. I thought that the black boxes had location beacons though?

It's also worth noting that the likelihood of small aircraft going missing and never being found is highly likely, I've heard of 40+ year old, unsolved accidents being found by hikers in mountains. That may be why small aircraft are required to have ELTs and airliners aren't.

It also assumes that a catastrophic event happened that would trigger the ELT, which may not be the case here. In an event where the pilot was incapacitated (hypoxia, attack, etc) or intentionally diverting the aircraft, the ELT wouldn't do any good.

Anonymous said...

Larger planes also have them. 787 recently burned because of some faulty wiring. Mounted inside though.

Matthew Marsh said...

A big part of the mystery here is that a 777, like most airliners, is supposed to continuously transmit pretty much the same data that a marine EPIRB transmits when activated. That transmission only cuts off if the plane crashes (in which case the crash position is known), if there's a complete electrical failure (in which case the plane ain't getting very far from its last known position), or if someone overrides it by cutting power to the transponder.

This plane appears to have kept going for something like four hours with its transponder off... at 490 knots. That's twelve million square (nautical) miles where it could have gone.

Lucky said...

I already sent a message to the FAA that planes need to carry EPIRBS. The pilot could take it on board.
OR maintenence crew could hide it in the storage compartment. Less that $500.00
Low cost and automatic if they come out of their bracket on impact.
It floats to the surface.

No need to spend millions looking for a plane!