Update: The ELT is back and recertified with a new battery, but the forecast tomorrow calls for cloud and ice from about hilltop level to 9,000 ft, so the Hope Air flight is canceled.
UNSAR is the Transport Canada acronym for an UnNecessary Search And Rescue alert. In addition to publicising the problem in a newsletter article, they have produced a poster that’s shown in most FBOs and flying clubs with rescue aircraft circling a delivery van, a (perfectly OK) float plane, etc., while in the bottom right panel a real crash goes unattended.
I was on my way home from a family breakfast Sunday morning when I noticed a message on my cell phone. The SAR centre picked up an ELT signal from the vicinity of Rockcliffe Airport, and after a line check, they determined that it was coming from my plane. I was out there within 45 minutes, and determined that
- The signal was coming from my plane (strong enough that it spilled over onto other frequencies).
- The cockpit ELT switch was set to “arm”, not “on”.
- Turning the switch to “off” stopped the ELT for a minute or so, then it started again.
It would have been better, of course, if I’d been in the habit of turning the cockpit switch to “off” whenever I parked the plane, but in this case, it wouldn’t have helped — after a couple of weeks of constant rain, my guess is that some moisture got into the side panels and shorted the switch, since the ELT was intermittently activating with the switch in any position. With freezing, fumbling fingers, I grabbed a Phillips screwdriver (always keep a multi-head screwdriver in your plane), opened the access panel in the tailcone, shoved my hands through the tiny, sharp-edged access hole (we don’t pay mechanics enough), turned the main switch on the ELT unit from “arm” to “off”, disconnected the antenna and wires, and figured out how to remove the unit.
Just as I was finishing, a SAR person walked up to the airplane to talk to me. He was very friendly and reassuring about the whole thing as he copied down the details from my ELT box (recertified May 2006) and confirmed the time that I shut down the unit, so that the SAR centre could close the file on the activation. I also learned a couple of interesting tidbits:
- In the case of an UNSAR, standard procedure (if the owner or pilot couldn’t be located fast) used to be to get access to the plane as fast as possible causing as little damage as possible, but after complaints, SOP is now simply to wait for the battery to die.
- Further to the first point, the equipment used by the SAR satellite monitoring centre is now good enough to distinguish the idiosyncracies of the crystal used in each specific radio, so that one ELT signal won’t prevent them from distinguishing another one (though it must make it no fun for airliners, and FSS and ATC units that have to monitor 121.5 continuously).
It also turns out that this weekend there was a survival training camp at Rockcliffe hosted by the SAR people, so my UNSAR gave them a chance to practice homing in on a real ELT signal on 121.5 (usually they have to use separate training frequencies). While I’m very sorry for all the hassle caused to so many people, I’m glad that some tiny good came out of it.
Today I’m taking my ELT unit into the avionics shop to have it reinspected (I expect that it’s fine) and to have the battery tested, since I don’t know how much it drained during the activation. After that, I’ll reinstall it in the plane, but won’t reconnect the cockpit switch until I can have it inspected as well (I’ll placard that the script is U/S and will write a snag in my Journey Log to cover the legal bases). I’m also going to remove the pilot-side panels to see if there is water getting in there somehow.
I could legally fly the plane for 30 days without an ELT as long as I put a placard in the panel, but I have a Hope Air flight coming up across hundreds of miles of nothing (the kind of area where every building is shown on the map, and there’s enough room for a small U.S. state in-between them). The ELT activation was an accident, but flying across wilderness in winter weather with no ELT would be just stupid.
So, for those of you considering becoming aircraft owners, are you still interested? Even with a simple plane like a Cherokee or 172, you can expect 2-to-5 unexpected minor crises like this every year, though most don’t involve anyone but you.