Buyers Guide: Personal Locator Beacons
One of the universal attractions of flying is the personal freedom it gives us to get out and explore the world. Whether we’re headed to a favorite camping spot deep in the woods of Maine, want to bask on an island in the turquoise-blue waters of the Caribbean or are planning an adventure somewhere in the snow-covered mountains of Idaho, a light airplane can take us places other travelers can only imagine.
But planning a flight far from the bustle of civilization poses additional risks, even for the most experienced of outdoor explorers. Steve Fossett is a prime example. The famed serial adventurer made five nonstop circumnavigations of the Earth — as a balloonist, a sailor and, in 2005 at the controls of the Burt Rutan-designed Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, a pilot. While it’s true Fossett owned a Swiss Breitling Emergency watch with a built-in satellite distress transmitter, he wasn’t wearing it when he crashed in a Bellanca Super Decathalon high in the Sierra Nevada in September 2007.
There’s no way of knowing whether Fossett could have survived the crash, but investigators believe that his Decathlon’s emergency locator transmitter (an older ELT with a reputation for failing to activate on impact) never transmitted a distress signal. Without his trusty Breitling strapped to his wrist, there’s little chance Fossett could have found help in the rugged and remote terrain, which rose to an elevation of around 10,000 feet. Had he lived through the initial crash wearing his emergency watch, rescuers might have reached his location the same day.
Personal locator beacons have been around for decades, but only in the last 10 years have satellite-based PLBs been approved for public use in the United States. Operating on a frequency of 406 MHz (the same as the latest satellite-based ELTs), PLBs transmit distress signals to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center on the Florida Panhandle through the international COSPAS-SARSAT satellite network. Not only will your signal alert rescuers that you are in trouble, but it will also tell them where to look — anywhere on the globe.
The great news is that the latest PLBs are smaller, lighter and less expensive than ever. These days, rescuers will also probably arrive at your location calling you by name. That’s because when you buy a PLB, you must register it with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. When you do so, NOAA links your personal information to a unique 15-digit identification number. This way, not only will search-and-rescue personnel know who you are, they’ll also have important information about you, such as any medical conditions.
Once activated, a standard PLB sends out two signals. One is the 406 MHz signal received by the satellites overhead. This will allow rescuers to get within about two miles of your location. The searchers can then home in on your exact position by listening for your PLB’s 121.5 MHz signal (which, as you probably know, is the same signal transmitted by older-style ELTs). Using these two techniques, the average time for rescue personnel to determine your location should average about 45 minutes.
For a much faster response, a PLB with an internal GPS interface can guide rescuers to within feet of your position. Best of all, they’ll know exactly where you are within a few minutes of receiving your distress signal. Many PLBs also include built-in LED lights and sirens to help you signal rescuers headed to your location.
When researching which PLB to buy, there’s no reason to choose an aviation-specific model. In fact, there’s really no such thing. You’re better off selecting a unit based on features and battery life. COSPAS-SARSAT rules require all approved PLBs to operate for a minimum of 24 hours after activation, but there are two battery classes. Class 1 heavy-duty batteries must be able to transmit for 24 hours at -40 degrees Fahrenheit while Class 2 batteries must transmit for 24 hours at -20 degrees Fahrenheit. The good news is that at warmer temperatures (say, 70 degrees), a PLB’s long-lasting lithium batteries will likely perform for twice as long. And some top models include batteries that are designed to transmit continuously for five days or more.
As far as features, there are a surprising number of extra capabilities available in the newest satellite locators, including the ability in some units to send text messages. You’ll pay additional subscription and airtime fees for these services, but it can be great to be able to send a message to loved ones letting them know you’re OK. Also keep in mind that your satellite locator, unlike an approved PLB, must be in line of sight with the commercial provider’s satellites for these units to work. All PLBs are designed to be waterproof, but keep in mind that they don’t all float. If you’ll be flying over water, you might want to invest in a marine distress beacon, which will automatically float in an upright position and activate on coming into contact with water. You can also connect a standard PLB to a life vest or raft and transmit an appropriate distress signal, even if the device is under water. Several PLB models float, but be sure to check the specifications before you buy.