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Getting Found--How to Communicate from Backcountry

Michael T Vivion  | Published on 9/18/2021

Backcountry Report

Getting Found: 

            Anybody Can Get Lost

 

Years ago, my employer installed mountain top radio repeaters in the Upper Yukon Valley, that connect to a base station in Fort Yukon.  The base station in turn has a radio-telephone interconnect, which permits anyone with an FM radio (and the right frequencies and codes) to make a telephone call from an airplane or a handheld radio.  Six years later, during a conversation with my boss (who really needed to get in touch with me later that day on a matter of bureaucratic importance) I suggested that he simply call me in the airplane over the radio telephone.  His response caused me to wince: “You mean I can call you on that thing?”.  Oops! 

 

When it comes to backcountry flying, most of us would normally prefer not to be in contact with other humans, or at least with a very select few, and infrequently at that.  An accident, a mechanical problem or a medical emergency can quickly change that attitude, though.  The key is to be able to communicate selectively, when and if it suits us. 

 

There are many forms of communication, so let’s look at a few that span the range of technologies, and see how they might apply to a “problem” that may arise in the backcountry.

 

ELT’s and PLB’s

 

Let’s start with a device that has been installed in our aircraft for years: The Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT).  While ELT’s have saved many lives, the technology is not 100% reliable.  Many searches have been initiated unnecessarily due to inadvertent activation of an ELT.  There have been accidents that should have activated the ELT via the inertial switch, but didn’t.  Still, the ELT is one of the best emergency signaling devices we have, so it’s important to understand its capability.

 

First, some terminology: The aircraft mounted ELT is equipped with an inertial switch that activates the transmitter if the unit experiences a sudden deceleration in a particular direction (e.g. during a crash). 

 

A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a similar device, but is carried on one’s person.  Generally, PLB’s are smaller than ELT’s, they have a manual switch, and they have shorter battery life than ELT’s do.

 

Both units transmit a signal on an emergency frequency.  This signal will be detected by one of several satellites, and relayed to the appropriate Rescue Coordination Center.  Another pilot who is monitoring the emergency frequency can also hear a conventional ELT signal.

 

The frequencies historically used by ELT/PLBs are 121.5 MHz and 243.0 MHz.  The next generation rescue beacon currently in production operates on frequency 406.0 MHz, although most still also transmit a signal on 121.5. 

 

But, since 2009, the only frequency monitored by the search and rescue satellite system is 406 MHz.  The 121.5/243.0 MHz frequencies are no longer monitored by the satellite system, but they may still be used by search aircraft to locate downed aircraft.

 

What are the advantages of the 406 MHz beacons?  First, they transmit a full five watt signal, which is more reliably detected by the satellites than the 0.1 watt signal of the traditional 121.5 beacons. 

 

Since a 406 MHz transmission can be detected by both a geosynchronous satellite, and a constellation of polar orbiting satellites, the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) is alerted almost instantaneously of a beacon activation. 

 

The 406 MHZ beacon’s emergency signal contains an identification code that references the registration information for that beacon.  When you purchase a 406 MHz transmitter, you are SUPPOSED to fill out a registration form; with personal information and contact telephone numbers for responsible individuals. If RCC detects a signal from my 406 MHz beacon, they can use the transmitted code to find my contact information in their database.  They can then call the telephone number I listed, and if my wife tells them I’m out flying, they would have a good clue that this is indeed an emergency, not an inadvertent activation.  Since false alerts are reduced, response times are shorter.

 

If you purchase an airplane, you need to re-register that plane’s ELT with your contact information.  A short while ago, I received a call from the Rescue Coordination Center telling me that the beacon in my Piper PA-11 was activated….I pointed out to the nice Major at RCC that I sold that plane three years ago…..grrrr.  As it happened, I had a phone number of a friend of mine, who was the new owner’s flight instructor. I gave that number to RCC.  Turned out the ELT was activated inadvertently, fortunately. 

 

Position locations based on triangulation from the 406 MHz beacons are also much more precise than those previously derived from a 121.5 beacon, and the 406 location is derived much faster as well.

 

Finally, some 406 MHz beacons can dock to a GPS unit, permitting precise latitude/longitude coordinates to be relayed on the first “hit”.  Talk about increasing search efficiency!

 

For a side-by-side comparison of the two systems, visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s web site at www.sarsat.noaa.gov/emerbcns.html.   

 

Several manufacturers produce 406 MHz PLBs, and new units are in development.  ACR Electronics, Inc. offers a unit called the “ResQ Link, which offers on-board GPS capability in the I/O model, and is compact (approximately 6 x 3 x 1.75 in.) and light (12 oz).  The GPS-equipped unit lists for about $300. 

 

If your airplane is still equipped with a 121.5 mHz ELT, I strongly encourage you to upgrade that at your next scheduled maintenance with a modern 406 beacon.  Your mechanic or avionics shop can make recommendations of brand and model that will best suit your needs.

 

Tracking Devices:

 

There are now several devices which provide both tracking and satellite communications.  The most common of these devices are the Garmin In Reach, the SPOT Locators, and Spider Tracks. 

 

I carry a Garmin In Reach with me when I’m flying, as well as on hikes in the back country, or back country camping.  The In Reach has three basic capabilities:  Tracking, Emergency signaling, and “text-like” communications. 

 

Tracking:  In tracking mode, the device sends a signal via the Iridium satellite system to a website, where a user with appropriate access can view the track points as they’re transmitted.  The person carrying the device selects the track interval, ranging from once per minute to one point every ten minutes.  As I depart on a flight, I activate the track feature.  Anyone I’ve provided access to my data can log onto the website and view my progress.  Or, if I were to be involved in an accident, the web link would provide an approximate location of where to find me. Bonus tip:  If you have a Master Flight Plan with Leidos Flight Service (the contractor for the FAA’s Flight Service System), you can add the URL for your In Reach to that flight plan.  Now, if you fail to close a flight plan, the FSS folks can quickly look at your track display, and if the tracks stop in the middle of the Bob Marshall Wilderness…or at Cut Bank Airport, for example, the briefer will have a pretty good idea what steps to take next.

 

Emergency:  In a life-threatening emergency, there is an “SOS” button on the In Reach.  Activate that button, and the device sends a signal, with your identification and location, to the company which manages this system.  Based on the location transmitted by the device, that company notifies the agency or entity which has search and rescue responsibility for that area….typically the local sheriff’s office.  Obviously, as with the ELT, you should never activate this feature unless you really do have a serious problem.

 

Communication: The In Reach has the ability to send SMS type messages via satellite to a telephone.  If you pair a cellular phone to the In Reach, you can use the phone to compose and transmit routine messages through the In Reach.  The device also has the capability to send brief “pre-programmed” text messages to selected friends/family.  These “canned” messages in my device are things like:  “I’m taking off now” or I’ve landed and parked for the day.  “All is well”, etc.  So, when I land at a remote site, I can quickly send a message to my wife, letting her know I’m fine and parked for the day.
But, if my airplane suffers a break down, I can send a text, via satellite system, to my mechanic with questions or a request for assistance, including my location.

 

As I noted, I use an In Reach Mini, which is a very compact device.  There are larger versions of the In Reach as well.  Any of them will pair with a smart phone.  SPOT manufactures devices with somewhat similar features, though their system isnt’ as feature rich as In Reach’s.  The SPOT devices communicate over the Globalstar satellite system, which may be less reliable than the Iridium system used by In Reach. 

 

These devices are just as useful when hiking in the back country, by the way.

 

Finally, in this category, a system called Spider Tracks has a similar but somewhat more feature rich tracking system.  These devices, however, require aircraft power to function, whereas In Reach and SPOT both contain internal batteries. 

 

Telephones:

 

Cellular and satellite technology have made voice telephone communication possible where we never dreamed possible just a few years ago.  Conventional cellular service covers a significant portion of the country, but the real deal these days for true backcountry operation is the satellite systems now available. 

 

The two systems that have gained the most popularity in recent years are the Iridium and Globalstar systems.  Both utilize low earth orbit satellites, which act as space-based repeaters.  When you connect with one of these units, it sends a signal to a satellite that is in view at the moment, which in turn sends the signal to a station somewhere on the surface.  Either of these systems can experience “hiccups” as a satellite in use passes over the horizon, dropping a signal.  When that happens, the user simply redials the number, connecting through another satellite in the system. 

 

Globalstar service may be the slightly more economical of the two, but it does not function well at high latitudes.  If you never plan to venture north of about the 60th parallel, the Globalstar system may work for you.  Coverage maps for this system can be found at www.globalstar.com.

 

On the other hand, if you spend a significant portion of your time in the far north, or if you are expecting a future trip to Nepal, the Iridium system may be the better bet, since its coverage is worldwide.  www.iridium.com.

 

Each system has several service providers but similar fee structures.  In general, the customer purchases a telephone of the appropriate type, and chooses a service provider, much like conventional cellular service.  The provider usually charges an activation fee and a monthly service fee.  There will also be a per minute fee for calls (ranging from $.99  to $1.50 per minute of air time).   There are other service options available; for example some providers offer a “calling card” option, in which you pre-purchase a specified number of minutes of call time at a discounted per minute rate, and no monthly fee. 

 

Whichever system you choose, satellite telephone service is pretty much the ultimate in communication capability when you operate in remote areas.  Kits are available to use these telephones while in flight. 

 

Satellite telephone service may be expensive, but it can be cheap insurance when the chips are down.  You simply can’t believe how comforting it is to call your mechanic directly to discuss a little engine problem, and a solution is achieved quickly.  Other alternatives might be to wait for your flight plan to expire and for help to arrive, and then ask them to send a mechanic. Worse, you could fly back to town with an ailing aircraft. 

 

If you plan to depart on your return to civilization from a remote camp site, it’s comforting to find out what the weather is on your proposed route of flight before you take those wing covers off and pre heat the engine.    

 

Aircraft Radios

 

Suppose you just had a little oops on a remote airstrip in mid winter, and you are now literally up to your ears in snow.  The airplane isn’t broken, you’re not hurt, you’ve got camping gear (and are a competent winter camper), but you are on a flight plan, and it will expire prior to you shoveling your way out of this deal.  A situation such as this doesn’t warrant activating an ELT, since it’s not really an emergency. 

 

Santa wasn’t as gratuitous as he might have been last Christmas, having failed to deliver the #1 item on your wish list—a satellite phone.  And, try as you may, your conventional cellular phone just can’t make a connection from here.  Now what? 

 

Remember the communications equipment most aircraft are equipped with; the one used on virtually every flight: the communications transceiver.  I know; you’re about to say these things only provide line of sight capability, and you can’t see an air traffic control facility from here.  Most of us forget that, day in and day out, there are airliners up there in the flight levels, and each of those airliners has at least two pilots up front.  I’ve never met a pilot who wouldn’t help another pilot in distress.  So, how do we communicate with those folks? 

 

Most airliners flying over North America (there are some exceptions in the far north) are required to monitor an air traffic control frequency at all times.  And, many of them also monitor the emergency frequency:  121.5 MHz.    

 

I’ve taken this tack several times when jammed up by weather and it worked well.  When I parked a Cessna 185 on a mountainside after a crankshaft failure in 1996, my call on the emergency frequency resulted in an immediate answer: “November 185 Charlie Alpha, this is Japan Air 102 Heavy.  How may we help you, sir?”.  A relay of my situation and location to ATC facilitated my rescue, as JAL 102 continued westbound. 

 

A handheld VHF radio could also serve as a backup to the aircraft’s radio. 

 

So don’t forget what is arguably the most common piece of “emergency” equipment in airplanes today.  Even though you may not be able to communicate with a ground station directly, use it to communicate with those other pilots who are out there at all hours of the day and night. 

 

Primitive Signals:

 

Let’s suppose that the worst has happened:  A distraction just prior to landing prevented you from noting the position of the landing gear on your new amphibious floats.  The water landing was much more abrupt than you were anticipating, but when your brain re-engaged, you and your passenger were able to egress from the inverted and sinking seaplane.  Fortunately, you chose to land close to shore, and you both were wearing floatation devices, so you made it to shore safely.  That’s the good news. 

 

Now the bad news: you are both getting badly chilled. The airplane’s ELT is still in the plane, and the antenna for it is on top of the plane, which is upside down and underwater, likely precluding a signal from reaching RCC.  Your survival kit is also in the back of the plane, which is now sinking.

 

During the last airshow you attended, you looked at PLBs but decided that the price was too steep, and after all, prices will come down soon, right?  You applied the same logic to the purchase of a satellite phone and service, even though you regularly visit some very remote areas in your aircraft.  Now, if you just had one of those new PLBs with the built in GPS…..

 

What signaling devices are left to the person who must survive in an electronic desert?  Hopefully you filed a flight plan, and you followed your route of flight closely, so a search will be initiated upon expiration of your flight plan, and the searchers will have some idea where to look.  As the one who is “lost” it is important for you to understand how the search will progress.  This will help you decide what signals will be most effective, and when they should be deployed. 

 

There are short duration and long duration signals.  A signal flare is an example of a  short duration signal.  An SOS stamped in the sand of a large open sand bar is a long duration signal.  A long duration signal can work for you all day long, any time an aircraft flies past.  Both types of signal could be important in the scenario I’ve just described.

 

An incredible story of survival took place in the Yukon Territory in 1963.  Ralph Flores and Helen Klaben were flying from Fairbanks, Alaska to California in a Howard DGA 15 on February 3rd when they encountered bad weather near Watson Lake.  Disoriented, they impacted a hillside in near whiteout conditions.  Neither of them was an experienced outdoor type, and both suffered injuries in the crash.  Nonetheless, they were rescued 49 days later, having survived with virtually no food, and at temperatures that hovered around –40. 

 

They stayed with the airplane, which is generally the best strategy for getting found.  Unfortunately, in this case, the plane rested in very dense timber, which prevented search aircraft from seeing it.

 

Forty days into the ordeal, Flores decided to walk out, even though he didn’t know where “out” was.  He soon emerged into an open meadow, and realized why they hadn’t been seen by search aircraft.  He stamped out a large SOS in the snow of the meadow, with an arrow pointing to the wreck.  He then returned to get Klaben, who had a broken ankle.  As they arrived back at the meadow, with Klaben on an improvised sled, a passing aircraft found them.   

 

Early in a survival episode, a priority should be to prepare signals of both short and long duration.  Make as large a signal as possible on the ground, such as branches laid out or an SOS in sand or snow.  Build a fire, preferably a big one.  If you have anything that can make a prodigious amount of smoke, such as smoke canisters, have them ready in case you hear an airplane.  The same goes for flares.  In the summer, aerial fire patrols are conducted over much of the country.  If you light the country on fire, you’ll get to meet some nice smokejumpers, so use fire intelligently.  In some cases, a fire can be a survival necessity, as well as a signaling device. 

 

The outdoorsman’s secret weapon is the signal mirror.  The lowly signal mirror is without doubt one of the most effective basic signaling devices around.  It fits in a pocket, has no moving parts, requires no batteries, and needs only a modicum of skill to operate. 

 

It takes a bit of practice to learn to use a signal mirror, but once you’ve mastered the technique, you’ll have an excellent daytime signaling device that’s inexpensive and easily carried.  Effective range of a signal mirror is many miles, and pilots of aircraft in the flight levels can see the flash of a signal mirror. 

 

Flares are a short term signaling device that work well at night, but not as well during daylight.  I remember an instance in Kodiak where I flew over some folks who were trying to get my attention several times, until they eventually decided to try to shoot me down with the last of their flares.  One across the bow definitely got my attention, but personally, I don’t recommend the “shoot down” approach to getting a pilot’s attention. 

 

Take care of your equipment, particularly your survival equipment.  Verify that your ELT/PLB has current batteries.  Next time you are at the airport, crawl into the back of your airplane and verify that in fact the switch on the ELT is turned to the “Arm” position. You’d be amazed at how many ELT’s are turned off at one point or another, and never turned back to the armed position, or the external antenna cable is disconnected for some reason.  

 

Well, there you have it:  a compendium of my favorite signaling devices.  There is no doubt that readers will have lots of ideas of their own on signals, and these may be quite useful.  Make certain you choose the devices that work best in your environment. 

 

Finally, as one of my mentors, Ray Tremblay, emphasized in his survival classes, “Survival gear is the stuff you’ve got in your pockets when you go out the door of the airplane.  The stuff in that bag in the back of the plane is camping gear, not survival gear.” 

 

Try to carry your PLB and some basic survival gear on your person, not with the rest of your gear in the back of the plane.

 

Fly safe, fly smart, and return home safe and sound. 

 

 

Personal Survival Items:  My Preferences to carry on my person

 

  1. A good knife.It doesn’t need to be something Crocodile Dundee would be proud to own, but it should be substantial, sharp, have a portion of the blade serrated, and if a folder, the blade must lock open.
  2. Signaling devices:As described in the accompanying article.A 406 MHz PLB is probably the best unit for carrying on one’s person.In addition, I carry a couple of small smoke canisters, a flashlight, and of course, a signal mirror.
  3. Some basic first aid items.We’re talking trauma stuff here, folks, not bandaids, so think blood stopper bandages, triangular bandages, coagulants, as well as some aspirin.Don’t forget the iodine tabs for purifying drinking water.
  4. At least two different means to start a fire.I carry at least one match safe with strike anywhere kitchen matches, a butane lighter, and a Blast Match or Strike Force fire starter.Okay-three different tools to start a fire.
  5. Some sort of shelter material.A tube tent may work.A couple of gores of parachute material can form a basis for a shelter, and fold up pretty tight, or a Space Blanket may be an alternative.Something to provide a basis for a shelter is what you are looking for, as well as something that’ll fit in your survival gear.