All Aviation Articles By Sarina Houston

Should We Keep 121.5 Alive?


Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0

Pilots are trained to use the radio frequency 121.5 in the event of an emergency. Emergency locator transmitters (ELTs) broadcast over 121.5 to notify search and rescue of a downed aircraft. FAA radio facilities, Civil Air Patrol, and often pilots monitor 121.5 as a way to receive distress signals. So why does the FCC, and subsequently the FAA and NTSB, want to ban something simple that could potentially save lives?

The answer lies in the advancement of modern technology – the increased use of the more accurate satellite-based 406 MHz ELT, and the decision of major search and rescue company COSPAS-SARSAT to cease monitoring 121.5 in 2009. But does the introduction of a more reliable system mean that everyone should be required to use it? And should we go so far as to ban the use of an emergency frequency so commonly known to help pilots?

Since 1973, the FAA has required almost all aircraft to have an emergency locator transmitter (ELT) on board. ELTs are small transmitters that emit a signal and provide a way for search and rescue (SAR) to locate a downed airplane, increasing the survival odds for a pilot and passengers. They can transmit on either 121. MHz or 406.025 MHz. It’s commonly known that the 406 MHz ELTs are much more accurate, but a good portion of the general aviation fleet still uses 121.5 MHz ELTs.

121.5 ELTs
Many ELTs commonly used in aviation are designed to transmit an analog signal over the frequency 121.5 when activated, allowing anyone that is monitoring the frequency to hear the distress signal and notify appropriate search and rescue teams. These 121.5 ELTs are inexpensive and simple to use, but they aren’t without their problems.

If an ELT is in the ‘armed’ mode, it will become activated during a crash and transmit a noisy alarm over the frequency 121.5. But sometimes a hard landing will set it off, or it can be accidentally activated during ground operations. More often than not, ELTs are activated in non-emergency situations, and ATC and operators spend a lot of time tracking down false ELT signals. In addition, finding the signal requires homing in to the strength of the signal – a difficult and inaccurate task when the signal accuracy is only limited to about 10 miles.

406 MHz
A 406 MHz ELT transmit a digital signal, which allows for a code to be transmitted along with the distress signal. This code has details about the aircraft, including its registration number and a point of contact.

406 MHz ELTs are more accurate, pinpointing the location of a downed aircraft to within one to three miles, decreasing the potential search area drastically from the of a 121.5 transmitter. And false alerts are less of a problem with 406 MHz ELTs, too, meaning authorities can act immediately upon receipt of a distress signal, instead of spending their time trying to determine if it’s a fake signal or not.

Why Ban 121.5?
It’s easy to see why the 406 MHz ELT is better. What’s less obvious is why we should ban the use of 121.5

The NTSB thinks that the use or 406 MHz ELTs should be mandated. In a 2007 Safety Recommendation letter, the NTSB described the downfall of 121.5 emergency locator transmitters and recommended that the FAA mandate the installation and use of 406 MHz transmitters in all aircraft before major search and rescue organizations COSPAS-SARSAT ceased its monitoring. They NTSB believes that without a mandate, pilots will refuse to upgrade to the 406 MHz units, making it more difficult on search and rescue and possibly creating undue risk.

The FAA agrees, but finds it more difficult to mandate. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has stood strong against the 121.5 ban, saying that it’s too costly for the approximately 200,000 general aviation pilots to upgrade, and that the decision regarding which ELT to use should rest with the pilots themselves.

In the meantime, the FCC is also considering a ban on 121.5 ELTs. In 2013, they opened up a comment period regarding the banning of 121.5 ELTs, and again AOPA opposed in this letter, stating that the FCC needs to leave aviation safety matters to the FAA. It remains to be known if the ban will come into play, but pilots should expect it to happen eventually, and more importantly, for their own safety, pilots should probably just upgrade to the 406 MHz ELT of they haven’t already.

Could - or should - the ban of 121.5 ELTs mean the death of the 121.5 frequency altogether? After all, the frequency is used for more than just ELTs. It’s an emergency frequency in which a pilot can declare an emergency, and it’s still monitiored by FAA facilities, Flight service stations and the civil air patrol. And many pilots still monitor it, which can be helpful to other pilots and ATC if they do hear something on that frequency. And pilots are taught to switch to 121.5 if they’re intercepted for some reason, such as inadvertent flight through a prohibited area.

What do you think? Should we just accept that new technology is better than the old and move on? Or should we fight to keep 121.5 alive?

What’s in Your Airplane Emergency Kit?

Have you ever looked at the contents of your aircraft survival kit? Have you thought about what might actually be useful in an emergency, and what just takes up space and adds weight?

Most pilots probably don’t give much thought to the contents of their survival kit. It’s there in the back of the airplane – we check during the preflight - and that’s good enough, right? Maybe, but if you're actually stuck in the wilderness after a plane crash, you might wish you'd have given it more thought.

Not all commercially packed survival kits are created equal. And while those that we buy from the store are convenient, chances are good that if you were to find yourself out in the woods, you might find that the contents of these ready-made kits are often cheap and sometimes useless when it comes to actually surviving. Some of them come with a lot of fluff that you don’t need (tongue depressors?) and also lack critical items that you’d clearly want, like a good knife.

Next time you’re stuck on the ground due to icy weather this winter, make good use of your down time by reviewing the contents of your survival kit. Make sure the contents haven’t expired. Change out the batteries in flashlights and check that the ELT is operational and is in compliance with the FARs. Update your kit for any changes in flying habits you’ve made, making sure you take into account the routes you fly most often, as well as the other passengers you might be flying around. Just like your smoke detectors in your house, your aircraft emergency kit should be evaluated often.

Your aircraft survival kit should be tailored to you and your flying needs. You might need to consider weight, including only the very critical elements. You might need to consider water survival gear if you frequently overfly lakes. And if you’re flying in the Alaskan wilderness, your needs will be different than they would be if your flights were within 30 miles of your home airport in the Midwest. Think about your personal needs when putting together your survival kit. Here are a few of the basics that you’ll need.

ELT/PLB
The ELT and PLB are so important that they get their own category here. In the case of a plane crash, your chances of being located increase drastically if you have a working ELT (emergency locator transmitter) and/or a PLB (personal locator beacon). If you’re still flying with an old ELT that transmit on 121.5 MHz, consider getting a 406 MHz ELT. They don’t have the false alarm problem that the 121.5 MHz ELTs are known for, and they increase your chances of being found by a significant amount.

The aircraft you’re flying likely has an ELT installed, but it doesn’t hurt to fly with a PLB, too, which comes in handy if you want to leave the area on foot to try to find help. (It’s usually best to stay with the wreckage after an aircraft accident, by the way, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain and area.) PLBs can be activated manually, and transmit on both 121.5 MHz and 406 MHz frequencies. These days, you can get a really good PLB for a couple hundred dollars – a small price to pay for a chance at survival.

In addition to an ELT, you’ll want to have these items in your emergency kit:

Survival Gear

  • Emergency Blanket
  • Canopy
  • Flares (or, better yet, and emergency strobe)
  • Duct tape
  • Knife
  • Firesticks
  • Rope

Food and Water

  • Food rations and other high-calorie protein snacks
  • Water bottles
  • Water purification tablets
  • Fishing kit

Medical Supplies

  • Bandages (various sizes)
  • Tape
  • Aspirin
  • Scissors
  • Personal Medications

Have you discovered any must-have emergency supplies? Share them with us in the comments!

5 New Places to Fly in 2015

Looking for a new place to fly? Wondering where to spend your next vacation? Part of the joy of flying includes exploring new places while avoiding airlines and long road trips. Here are five stunning places that will remind you why you fly and double as fun vacation spots for the whole family. If you haven't been to these places, put them on your flying bucket list for 2015!

  1. First Flight Airport (KFFA), Kill Devil Hills, Outer Banks, NC
    First Flight Airport should be an airport in every aviator’s logbook. A flight to KFFA will let you experience flight as the Wright Brothers first did at Kitty Hawk in 1903. The airport itself is part of the Wright Brothers National Memorial. It’s home to the Wright Brothers Memorial, which rests high on Kill Devil Hill, the Wright Brothers Visitor’s Center, the Flight Line, where large stones commemorate the Wright Brothers’ takeoff points, and a reconstruction of their living quarters.

    But that’s not all. There are plenty of things to do in the Outer Banks, so plan on grabbing a hotel or beach house and staying on the beach for a few days. The area offers a wealth of activities like golfing, fishing and hang gliding. View some of the area lighthouses or just relax and take in the sights.

    Airport Information: KFFA has a 3,000-foot asphalt runway. There are no instrument approach procedures, and it can be windy. If you need a larger runway, you’ll find a 4,305-foot runway six miles south at Dare County Regional Airport (KMQI). Stay aware of the restricted areas, MOAs and other low-flying operations like hang gliding.

    Pilot Services: AOPA has donated a pilot’s lounge that is reportedly accessible at all hours, but there is no fuel available here, so plan ahead to stop elsewhere.

  2. Sedona Airport (KSEZ), Sedona, Arizona
    Red rock country offers spectacular views and a relaxing atmosphere for a vacation. Sedona airport sits atop a gorgeous plateau of red rock, and flying in is a treat - as long as you are prepared for the potential downdrafts associated with the sharp drop-offs on approach and landing.

    There’s a nice restaurant with panoramic views at the airport and it’s a quick trip to the downtown area, where shopping and tourist attractions are plenty. Take a jeep tour across the red rocks or visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross, which is built into the side of a canyon and is an impressive architectural sight.

    Airport Information: KSEZ has a 5,132-foot runway. Look up the noise abatement procedures before you go, and expect turbulence around the airport. There’s a GPS approach to Runway 3. Its elevation is 4,736 feet, so keep density altitude in mind.

    Pilot Services: Full pilot services are available at Red Rock Aviation. The airport restaurant, Mesa Grill Sedona, is fantastic.

  3. McCall Municipal Airport (KMYL), McCall, Idaho
    McCall is a great airport to visit year-round. If you’re looking for a great ski resort, check out Brundage Mountain Resort, which has 46 trails on 1500 acres. In the summer, the area around McCall offers amazing hiking, camping, fishing and river rafting opportunities. For a quiet, peaceful vacation away from it all, McCall is the place to be.

    Airport Information: McCall’s runway is 6,108 feet. It sits at 5,000+ feet, so keep density altitude in mind. The area gets a lot of snow in the winter, and KMYL is only attended during the day, so night approaches during the winter can be tricky. There are RNAV(GPS) approaches to either runway.

    Pilot Services: 100LL and JetA are available at McCall Aviation, along with a variety of additional pilot services. Hangar space, preheating and de-icing services are available.

  4. Nantucket Memorial Airport (KACK), Nantucket Island, MA
    Nantucket Island has it all: Beaches, whale watching, lighthouses, shopping and restaurants. From the airport, rent a car or a bicycle and explore the island. It’s a great place to take the family for a few relaxing days in the heat of the summer.

    Airport Information: KACK has three runways, with the longest being 6,303 feet. There are multiple approaches available, including an ILS on Runway 06/24. There are noise abatement procedures in place. It can get foggy here, so expects delays. And don’t forget that you may need floatation devices on board for this trip!

    Pilot Services: A full service FBO is located adjacent to the terminal. It’s recommended that large aircraft call ahead to make arrangements. Bring your own tie-down rope and look up the landing fees in advance.

  5. Mackinac Island Airport (KMCD), Mackinac Island, MI
    History buffs will love Mackinac Island. Pronounced "Mack-in-naw," the island separates the lower and upper peninsulas in northern Michigan, and is a great place for a day trip in the airplane. Cars are not allowed on the island, which keeps things peaceful. Hike, bike or take a horse-drawn carriage around the island and see historic sights, caves, springs, rock formations and wildlife. Check out Fort Mackinac, which was constructed by the British during the War of 1812.

    Airport Information: KMCD has a 3,501-foot lighted runway. There’s an RNAV(GPS) approach to runway 08/26 and a VOR/DME-A approach. No touch-and-goes are allowed here. If you need a longer runway, or are getting a hotel for a few days, try Pellston Regional Airport (KPLN), which has a 6,500-foot runway and more pilot services.

    Pilot Services: Call ahead for the landing fee. Tie downs are available, but no fuel or maintenance services are available. If you’re going for longer than a day, you’ll want to fly into KPLN for full pilot services.

Are you planning to fly somewhere new in 2015? Share your airport ideas with us in the comments!

12 Things You Didn’t Know About the Wright Brothers



Most of us know that Wright brothers Orville and Wilbur were smart guys who also had a thing for bicycles. But what else do we know about these two brothers that successfully launched America – and other countries – into the world of flying? Here are a few interesting facts about the fathers of modern aviation.
  1. Neither Wilbur nor Orville finished high school. A hockey accident left Wilbur badly injured and he fell into a depression, forgoing his plans to attend Yale. Instead, he stayed home and cared for his mother, who had tuberculosis. In the meantime, Wilbur’s younger brother Orville dropped out of high school his senior year to open a print shop.

  2. In 1889 Wilbur and Orville started their own newspaper. It was a West Dayton paper called West Side News, in which Wilbur was the editor and Orville the publisher.

  3. Orville and Wilbur’s father was a bishop who traveled a lot. Their mother was the parent they turned to for advice on their engineering and design pursuits. Being mechanically inclined, she would design and build small appliances and also built toys for the two boys and their siblings.

  4. Wilbur was mature for his age, and he preferred to hang out with his two older brothers. He was invited to join their social group called the "Ten Dayton Boys," where activities included annual meetings, drinking, eating and singing.

  5. Wilbur was quiet and studious. Orville was mischievous, but shy.

  6. Orville played the mandolin. His sister Katharine, whom he was very close to, is known to have said, "He sits around and picks that thing until I can hardly stay in the house."

  7. The brothers funded their airplane pursuits with bicycles. The pair went into business designing, building and repairing bicycles. They competed with many other bicycle shops, at first selling the popular brands and later designing and manufacturing their own.

  8. The Kitty Hawk location was chosen based on certain criteria that included a soft place to land, sustained winds, elevated areas to launch from and, of course, wide open spaces.

  9. The test gliders were left on the beaches of Kitty Hawk. After the test flights of the first three gliders, the aircraft were so beat up from their time at Kitty Hawk that the Wright brothers just left them behind on the beaches of Kitty Hawk. A wingtip was later recovered, and is the only piece found from the Wright brothers’ gliders.

  10. One wing was shorter than the other on the Wright Flyer On the Wright brother’s design of the 1903 Wright Flyer, the left wing was engineered to be four inches longer than the right wing in order to compensate for the engine placement on the right side of the pilot.

  11. The brothers tossed a coin to determine who would be flying the Wright Flyer during its first test flight. Wilbur won.

  12. Farmland was used for future flight testing in Ohio, as long as they moved the cows first. Tired of continuous flights to Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers sought out the use of land from a nearby farmer in Ohio. They built a hangar there and began a mission to fly circular flights and make the aircraft more practical. The farmer requested nothing in return, except that they lead the cattle away before flying.

8 METAR Codes You’ve Always Wondered About

Aviation weather reports are pretty simple once you’ve been trained to read and interpret them, but the more often you fly, the more often you’ll see new and strange codes on METARs (aviation routine weather reports). Some of these are decoded below. A few of these are codes that you may have learned for your check ride but forgot about years later, and others are just plain rare or insignificant.

For more details on METAR codes and other aviation weather reports, check out the FAA advisory circular AC-0045-G, Aviation Weather Services. This particular advisory circular is very thorough, and even if you were previously educated on the codes below, you’re likely to learn a thing or two about Aviation Weather Services from this one.

Here are a few METAR codes that are commonly forgotten, misinterpreted, or never learned. How many do you know?

  1. BKN014 V OVC
    Most of us know that this means there’s a broken cloud layer at 1400 feet AGL. But what’s the ‘V’ mean? The ‘V’ here means that the cloud layer at 1400 feet is variable between broken and overcast. It’s a code that’s not that commonly seen.

  2. CIG 002 RWY11
    If you see the code above and there’s already a ceiling reported earlier in the METAR report, it means that there’s a second station on the field that’s also reporting visibility, and you’ll know this because the specific location will be included. This ceiling is only included if the ceiling at this second station is lower that otherwise reported in the METAR. Here, it means the ceiling is 200 feet at the ceilometer location near runway 11.

  3. SNINCR 2/10
    If the snowfall increases by one inch or more since the previous reported METAR, it’s indicated by ‘SNINCR’ followed by the amount. In the case above, the snow has increased by 2 inches in the past hour, and the total snowfall is 10 inches. This could be easily misinterpreted as a snow increase of 2/10 of an inch, so it's worth remembering.

  4. A01 and A02
    A01 and A02 are types of METAR stations. This code, which is often brushed aside as meaningless by some, distinguishes between a station with a precipitation discriminator (A02) and one without (A01).

  5. $
    The dollar sign at the end of a METAR indicates that the station has self-identified itself as needing maintenance. This one is pretty common, but not all pilots take the time to figure out what it means.
  6. TSB22RAB17GRB23
    This notation gives the time that special weather events began (noted by the ‘B’) and if they’ve ended, what time they ended (noted by an ‘E’). The text above means that thunderstorm began at 22 minutes past the hour, rain began at 17 minutes past the hour, and hail (GR) began at 23 minutes past the hour.

  7. PRESRR
    If the pressure rises or falls at a rate of 0.06 inches per hour, and the difference from the last reported pressure is 0.02 or greater, than the code PRESRR will be used, which stands for pressure rising rapidly, and the code PRESFR will be used to note pressure falling rapidly.

  8. PNO or CHINO LOC
    At the end of a METAR, you may often find an abbreviation ending with ‘NO’. These are most likely sensor status indicators. There are a few different possibilities for these sensor abbreviations. Above, PNO means that the "tipping bucket rain gauge" sensor isn’t working. ‘CHINO LOC’ means that the sensor for the secondary ceiling height indicator is not operating. As you can see, some of these aren’t necessarily intuitive, and will often require you to dig deeper to determine what they mean.

These are just a few of the commonly unknown METAR codes. There are many more, as you’ll discover by reading the advisory circular suggested above.

Which strange codes have you stumbled upon while checking the weather?

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