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Distress Beacons - What You Need to Know!

It is a legal requirement for an aircraft with more than 1 seat to be equipped with an emergency beacon for flights beyond 50nm, but when was the last time you checked your equipment? Are your registration details up to date? And do you have the most up to date technology for this potentially life-saving piece of equipment? With most RAAus aircraft using personal locator beacons (PLBs) we take a look at some of the considerations you should review in relation to your distress beacon! 


WHY GPS-ENABLED PLB/EPIRBS ARE BEST
 

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) recommends Global Positioning System (GPS) beacons as they have the quickest and most accurate alerts.

GPS enabled beacons can provide location accuracy within 120 metres.  Non GPS enabled beacons provide location accuracy to within 5 kilometres, potentially delaying search efforts when time may be critical!

You must also check your beacon to ensure that this is a 406MHz beacon as 121.5MHz beacons are no longer detectable via satellite.

CARRY YOUR PLB/EPIRB ON YOUR PERSON AS OPPOSED TO STOWED/SECURED IN THE AIRCRAFT

Research into the effectiveness of portable ELT’s (PLB/EPIRB) has revealed that they are most beneficial to safety when carried upon the person. Depending on the circumstances of an accident, the beacon (or you) may be thrown clear of the aircraft. Unlike ELT’s fixed into aircraft, Portable ELT’s do not have sensors that detect impact and are required to be activated manually. 

PLB’s are designed to be carried on your person while EPIRB’s are designed for use in marine applications. You can legally use EPIRBS in aircraft and they will still work for land applications. However, bear in mind their design is optimised for marine use and they are physically bulkier. 

MAINTAIN REGISTRATION OF YOUR PLB

A registered beacon allows AMSA Search and Rescue to phone your emergency contacts and look up important information to initiate a response as soon as possible. An unregistered beacon or contact details of someone unlikely to know your planned flight can cause a delay in the response.

Registration is valid for only two years after date of issue and must be renewed before its expiry date – Is your registration and emergency contact information up to date?

If your distress beacon is going to be disposed of, this should be notified for update on the AMSA beacon resgister


BATTERIES ON PLB/EPIRB NEED TO BE CURRENT

Separate to ongoing registration requirements, the battery packs on PLB/EPIRB’s are installed by the manufacturer and have an expiry date.  Once the batteries expire the PLB/EPIRB no longer meets the relevant Australian standards (4280.1/2) and therefore does not meet the requirement for carriage in an aircraft.  Beacons must be returned to the manufacturer or a manufacturer’s approved service centre when repairs or battery replacement are required to comply.  Some manufacturers have a policy of not refurbishing EPIRB/PLB’s that have battery packs that have expired for more than two years.    

PLB’s operation and battery effective life can be affected by hot temperatures.  Do not store your beacon in hot environments (such as cockpit dashboards in the summer sun).  

SELF TESTING OF PLB/EPIRB

Consumer function testing procedures of PLB/EPIRBS vary between manufacturers and models, however it’s important to check functionality from time to time.  Generally, it’s recommended that some function tests are limited to no more than once per month (or as specified by manufacturer) as continued tests consume excessive battery power.  Some models have a range of function tests that vary from battery checks to satellite acquisition function tests.  These advanced tests consume additional battery life and on some models these tests can only be performed a certain amount of times during one battery life cycle.     

PURCHASE A PLB/EPIRB THAT CONFORMS TO AUSTRALIAN STANDARDS.  BEWARE WHEN BUYING FROM OVERSEAS. 

When purchasing a beacon from overseas for use in Australia, ensure that it meets Australian Standards and Class Licence requirements.  If you buy a distress beacon overseas, it will be programmed to that country and cannot be registered in Australia unless it is reprogrammed by the manufacturer.  Beacons purchased from Canada or the USA do not meet the Australian Standards.  


LIMITATIONS FOR PLB/EPIRB

Beacons deliver best performance with a clear view of the sky.  Deploying a beacon inside an enclosure, such as an aircraft will reduce the signal strength and may mean that it cannot be detected by satellites or rescue aircraft. Similar limitations exist if you deploy a beacon in a narrow valley.  Depending on the terrain, you may need to relocate to higher ground with an unobstructed view of the sky.   

Deploy the beacon in an upright position with the wire antenna vertical and, when possible, well clear of obstructions such as tress and rocks. Once the beacon has been activated, leave it switched on. A continuous signal is needed for rescue authorities to determine your location.  If in water remember that PLB’s, unlike EPIRBS, do not float vertically in the water.  You need to keep them upright and out of the water.  


DISTRESS BEACONS ARE ONLY 1 COMPONENT OF A RESCUE SYSTEM 

Once your beacon activation is received, search and rescue operations can commence.  If your beacon is registered your emergency contacts with be called.  If your contacts are aware of your trip details search focussed search and rescue operations can commence sooner.  Ideally, pilots should lodge flight plans using the NAIP’s system to assist in this regard.

The time it takes for search and rescue to reach you depends on a number of factors, including the weather, if it's day or night, the terrain, available assets and accessibility of your location.  In some cases it has taken days to reach a person in need of rescue. Carriage and use of a rescue beacon should not be relied upon, by itself, for rescue in all circumstances. Carefully assess your intended flight. Ask yourself if you have the equipment and knowledge for survival in the case of an emergency. Do you know how to render first aid to yourself and your passenger? Do you have sufficient food and water and warmth to sustain yourself and your passenger for a reasonable time until help arrives?  

Ultimately, the carriage and use of an emergency beacon is a great rescue tool, however, it should be considered as part of a comprehensive rescue toolkit, mostly driven around careful preparation and planning on the part of the pilot, before the flight!

Emergency equipment in use following an accident within an RAAus aircraft