FAA approves GPS device to improve emergency response
April 24, 2014
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  • The Federal Aviation Administration has expanded options for pilots wishing to participate in an Alaska-specific emergency response program.

    Mapping company DeLorme’s inReach GPS is now an approved device for use in the Enhanced Special Reporting Service, according to FAA’s Alaska Flight Services office.

    Along with the SPOT Global Phone and Spidertracks devices, pilots with an inReach can sign up for the service, which allows them to contact emergency responders outside of cell phone and radar range — most of Alaska.

    The Enhanced Special Reporting Service, or eSRS, was launched in February 2013 with the SPOT and Spidertracks as approved GPS units, Alaska Airmen Association spokesman Adam White said.

    White sat on a working group formed by the FAA in 2011 to develop the service. It allows the FAA to expound on the flight plan-radio program, he said.

    Traditionally, pilots file a flight plan and radio to an airport when they reached a designated checkpoint.

    “If you missed a check-in point the assumption was something bad has happened and we need to scramble search and rescue,” White said. “The thing with radio — same thing as radar coverage — radio coverage is not always the best here.”

    Pilots that sign up for the voluntary program are forwarded an FAA email address and text message phone number to add to their contacts for their GPS devices. In the event that a checkpoint is missed or a flight plan isn’t closed, the service can call someone in the pilot’s emergency contact list to reach the hopefully safe pilot.

    “Once you (sign up) the first time, you’re good to go. I know a lot of folks who have mentioned to me the peace of mind the program gives them,” White said.

    The Enhanced Special Reporting Service vets the flight plan. White said the working group really wanted to cut down on “false alarms.”

    He emphasized that the FAA does not actively follow aircraft with the devices.

    “The FAA does not want access to your tracking points. The whole problem with security and keeping your information on the secure side of their computer system, they just don’t want to deal with that, which I appreciate,” he said. “I don’t want big brother tracking me anymore than the next guy.”

    As of April 22, White said Alaska Flight Services officials told him more than 1,000 flights had been flown utilizing the service and one “S.O.S.” had been issued with a GPS.

    FAA Alaska Region spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the agency preferred to not comment for this story.

    “Pilots and aircraft owners are encouraged to participate in this program while operating within the state of Alaska,” Alaska Flight Services Manager James M. Miller said in a March 27 DeLorme release. “Once an alert is generated, the position of the aircraft is transmitted to Flight Service either directly or through the International Emergency Response Coordination Center.”

    The service allows rescue operations to go directly to the potentially downed aircraft’s location, rather than searching the entire route when a flight is overdue, according to Miller.

    The Enhanced Special Reporting Service is exclusive to Alaska because the Lower 48 has the necessary radar coverage.

    While the GPS technology service helps rescue crews locate an aircraft after a flight plan has expired, it’s extremely helpful for those flying to a remote cabin or hunting or fishing camp when a flight plan can’t be closed, White said.

    If a pilot flying to such a location files a 14-day flight “round robin” plan and crashes, White said he or she may be stranded for days because there is no indication to responders that an emergency is ongoing.

    “Let’s say I crash 30 minutes after takeoff…good luck,” he said.

    The inReach is a “game changer” for the service because it allows for two-way, 160-character text messages with 100 percent coverage, White said. The most the other devices are capable of is short, outgoing texts. They also have had coverage issues in some extremely far north locations where satellite signals can be affected by the curvature of the earth.

    NextGen ADS-B recently completed

    The FAA announced April 14 completion of the nationwide Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast radio network, or ADS-B.

    Completion of the network will enable air traffic controllers to better track aircraft and give pilots more information as well, according to an agency release.

    “This upgrade is an important step in laying the foundation for the (next generation) system, which provides controllers a much more precise view of the airspace, gives pilots much more awareness and information, and as a result strengthens the safety and efficiency of our system. This state-of-the-art satellite system is already providing controllers with visibility in places not previously covered by radar,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a formal statement.

    The broadcast network, or ADS-B supports a satellite system that tracks aircraft with the aide of GPS more accurately than radar.

    Of 230 air traffic facilities in the country, 100 are currently using ADS-B to sort air traffic. The FAA plans to have all facilities using ADS-B by 2019, the agency has said.

    Jane Dale, a government and regulatory affairs representative for the Alaska Air Carriers Association said ADS-B ground stations have been installed across Western Alaska and the North Slope, but areas of the Interior near the Canadian border lack coverage.

    If infrastructure installation is complete, Dale said she wonders if those areas will receive coverage.

    All aircraft operating in controlled airspace will be required to have ADS-B Out technology by Jan. 1, 2020, in accordance with FAA requirements.

    Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.