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NTSB urges inspections of emergency transmitters
January 12, 2011
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  • By Joan Lowy

    January 6, 2011

    Federal safety officials investigating the Alaska plane crash that killed former Sen. Ted Stevens called for the inspection of emergency locator transmitters on planes to ensure they are properly mounted and will function after a crash.

    The National Transportation Safety Board’s Deborah Hersman said in a letter Wednesday to Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randy Babbitt that the transmitter aboard the plane carrying Stevens, several friends and their children last Aug. 9 failed to function after the single-engine float plane slammed into a remote southwest Alaska mountainside.

    Stevens and four others were killed. Among the four survivors was former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe.

    The transmitters are designed to transmit a plane’s identification and location upon impact. But the transmitter on the Stevens party’s de Havilland Dash-3T became dislodged from its mounting tray and its antenna broke off, Hersman said.

    It was nearly five hours after the accident before airborne searchers located the crash site, which was only 19 miles from where the plane originated, Hersman said.

    The flight was on its way from a corporate-owned lodge on Lake Nerka near Dillingham to a sport fishing camp on the Nushagak River. Poor weather and darkness prevented the removal of survivors until the next morning.

    Rescuers found the Artex 406 megahertz emergency transmitter on the floor of the plane, where it apparently fell during the crash. It was switched on but wasn’t transmitting a signal. The transmitters are supposed to send a radio signal that is picked up by satellites and relayed to search-and-rescue organizations and should be able to be heard by other aircraft in the area.

    A strap that was supposed to hold the transmitter in place was in the wrong position, the board said. It’s possible the transmitter was installed improperly, although an inspection three months before the accident didn’t note a problem with its position, the board said.

    Had the transmitter remained attached to the mounting tray, it is likely that the signal would have been detected soon after the accident, and rescue personnel dispatched directly to the crash site hours earlier, Hersman said.

    “This vital, life-saving technology won’t do anyone any good if it doesn’t stay connected to the antenna,” she said in a statement.

    Hersman expressed concern that since many other transmitters use similar means to secure them to mountings that others could also come loose in a crash and fail. She urged FAA to require detailed inspections of all emergency locator transmitters during annual aircraft inspections of “general aviation” aircraft.

    There are about 300,000 planes that FAA classifies as “general aviation,” said Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the agency. General aviation planes range from small, single-engine propeller planes used by recreational fliers to multiengine private jets. It’s unclear how many general aviation planes have emergency locator transmitters since they aren’t required.

    The recommendation doesn’t apply to airlines, charters or planes for hire that transport passengers.

    NTSB also recommended FAA reevaluate the design and certification of the means by which transmitters are held in place.

    FAA will review the recommendations and respond within 90 days, Brown said.