Summer 2008 Issue

Homing In

Hams Help Fliers, Boaters, and Hikers
One ELT at a Time

By Joe Moell, KØOV

Photo 3. Jerry Eifert, KB7WDR, worked with KE7JFQ to pinpoint the location of the ELT false alarm at Roseburg Airport. He has also tracked down several other activated ELTs and EPIRBs in recent months. (Photo courtesy of KB7WDR)

Kerry “Hutch” Hutcheson, KE7JFQ, was almost asleep as his wife drove along Interstate 5 near Roseburg, Oregon on June 7. As they crested a hill, the car was suddenly filled with a siren-like sound. At first they thought the Highway Patrol was behind them. Then they realized that it was the audio of an aircraft Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) on Hutch’s mobile transceiver, which was tuned to 121.5 MHz.

Knowing that this transmission would soon be picked up by USA’s SARSAT and Russia’s COSPAS satellites, and an alert by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center would follow, KE7JFQ went into action. Following his Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) training, he reported the situation to the Roseburg 911 dispatcher. Then he called his friend and fellow ARES member Jerry Eifert, KB7WDR. Together they tracked the signal and soon found themselves at the Roseburg Regional Airport hangar (photos 2 and 3).

KB7WDR picks up the story: “I took the antenna off my hand-held and walked around the metal building. By one door there was an opening in the metal and the meter went crazy. Farther down from that door was a workbench where the unit turned out to be. It was strong even through the metal there.

“Nobody was in the hangar, so we found an airport employee who came up with a list of the tenants. I called the owner and got an answering machine. I left a message that this was Search and Rescue (SAR) from the Douglas County Sheriff’s office and there was a squawking ELT in his hangar. It had to be shut off, so if I didn’t get a call back from him soon, we were going to break the lock. Within five minutes sheriff’s dispatch called to say he was on the way.

“The owner was a 70-year-old guy. He had crashed his experimental plane through a fence into a Motel 6 parking lot a few days before. Then he had picked up all the pieces and put them in this hangar. Some friends were helping him clean up, and one of them saw this little ‘radio-looking’ thing and picked it up. He flipped the switch to ON and when it didn’t make any sound, he set it down on the bench and left it.”

Emergency Beacons as an ARES Mission

There are well over a half-million aircraft ELTs, maritime Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs), and Part 95H Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) in the hands of pilots, boaters, and outdoors enthusiasts. When activated manually or by an impact sensor, they transmit continuously on 121.5 and 243.0 MHz AM until the batteries fail or they are turned off. The newest ones also send a registration number and GPS coordinates digitally on 460.025 MHz.

Even though the nationwide percentage of “false alarm” activations is in the high 90s, the authorities consider any ELT, EPIRB, or PLB signal to be an emergency until proven otherwise. Even if there is no threat to life, a squawking beacon must be turned off as soon as possible because it is being heard and reported by commercial aircraft passing overhead. What’s worse, the false alarm might cover up a weaker, but genuine distress signal.

“It’s good that we got it shut off before the Air Force triggered a mission,” Jerry explained. “Our own sheriff’s dispatchers didn’t understand the seriousness until they relayed the call to Oregon Emergency Response up in Salem. Those people got really hot about it. They said, ‘We want it off right now! We also want the tail number of the plane and the serial number of the ELT.’”

In southern California, where I live, most ELT activations are investigated by Civil Air Patrol staff and volunteers. That’s true in many other locations, but not central Oregon. “There isn’t a big CAP presence to cover Oregon,” says Wayne Stinson, Emergency Services Coordinator for Douglas County. “It could take quite a while to get a CAP representative or team in from another area. We just take the task and run with it, as do many county sheriffs in the state.

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