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New search-and-rescue program should make Alaska aviation safer

Colleen Mondor
After two years of beta-testing, the FAA has approved new methods of pilot and plane tracking, in Alaska, to make search-and-rescue safer and quicker in the country's most remote state. Loren Holmes photo

A pilot program initiated by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the Alaska Airmen's Association (AAA) has resulted in a new and significant safety feature available to Alaska's general aviation flyers. For pilots forced down in remote locations, it could mean the difference between life and death.

The Enhanced Special Reporting Service (eSRS) was tested for two years in the state and has now, through a Letter to Airmen from the FAA, become a permanent option for pilots. Participation in the eSRS program will allow searchers to utilize pilots' own onboard satellite- tracking devices to quickly pinpoint where an aircraft goes down.

"For example," explains Allen Kenitzer, an FAA spokesman in Washington state, "if a pilot leaves Anchorage for Nome in a Cessna 172, it's about a 4 1/2-hour flight. Typically, the search would begin for the overdue pilot 30 minutes after they were to have arrived. With this technology, the search would begin when the plane stops moving and will more closely pinpoint the aircraft's location."

Immediate rescues, no Maryland message relay

The Rescue Coordination Center currently uses Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking (SARSAT) to find downed aircraft. SARSAT relies on distress signals from aircraft Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELT) uploaded to a network of ground stations and then transmitted to a control center on the East Coast, which analyzes and notifies area search and rescue. If an aircraft transmitter is faulty, there can be a delay until the aircraft is physically reported overdue. That's exactly what happened in the Rainy Pass accident during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

With eSRS, pilots can send an immediate message to a local Flight Service Station (FSS), launching an Alaska rescue without waiting for the message from SARSAT’s Maryland base. Pilots who wish to utilize the technology must:

  • Own and operate Spot or Spidertracks satellite-tracking devices; other devices will be added over time as they undergo testing.
  • File a Visual Flight Rules (VFR) flight plan.
  • Have a Master Flight Plan on file with Flight Service noting them as an "eSRS participant." Flight Service will provide them at the time of flight plan filing with information on setting up the tracking device to communicate directly with them in the event of an accident.

The FAA has made clear that it will not actively track eSRS aircraft. Coordinates will only be used for search and rescue.

SPOT and Spidertrack are similar to most handheld GPS devices and currently provide pilots with location information while also possessing the capacity to send out emergency signals if instructed. As explained to me recently by Tom George, the AOPA representative for the Alaska region who was involved with eSRS from the beginning:

SPOT provides a simple "Help" message, including the coordinates, that may be sent to the email or text message of your choice. The service also offers "SOS messaging," which goes to an international emergency response center and may also be sent to Flight Service. In both of these cases, the pilot (or a passenger) have to be able to press the respective button to summon help. 

Spidertracks employs a different feature called Spiderwatch. In this case when an aircraft accelerates through a certain speed (say 40 knots), a message is sent to a computer server that says, "this person is going flying" and a tracking feature starts, nominally providing a new location every two minutes. If the server fails to receive two updates in a row (nominally 5 minutes), the server automatically launches an "alert message" that again sends a text and/or email to a user-specified list of recipients. There is a little more to it than that, but the concept is that if the unit is destroyed in an accident, the lack of continued signals generates the alert. 

SPOT was first introduced to George by Adam White, then president of the Alaska Airmen's Association, who had used the technology for years while flying in Alaska's remote regions. Both men realized that while the device (as well as Spidertracks) could notify personal contacts when necessary, it was up to those contacts (who might not be readily available) to pass along information to the authorities. As the two men became more familiar with both devices, they contacted the Alaska Flight Service Station Program to discuss incorporating them into pilot flight plans.

Only in Alaska

Interestingly, according to George, the first hurdle with Flight Service was the requirement of having a cell phone in their operations area. (The devices send text messages to previously programmed phone numbers and in order to notify FSS, the cell phone was critical.) Once this requirement was approved, the testing moved forward and about a dozen pilots across the state served as beta-testers.

Currently, eSRS is only available in Alaska but according to George there are tests going on in the Lower 48 which should result in it being eventually offered Outside. As Kenitzer explains, the program's opportunities in Alaska are limitless, and it should reduce rescue time "exponentially. With this technology," he continues, the search could begin for a downed pilot almost immediately vs. starting the search when the flight plan was to have been completed and the pilot is overdue."

For more information see Tom George's article at AOPA

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com