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Lapses hinder rescue efforts to find lost planes

NTSB urges tighter search procedures

The wreckage of a Piper Tomahawk that crashed near Dawson- ville, Ga., in 2007. By the time rescuers arrived, the pilot died. The wreckage of a Piper Tomahawk that crashed near Dawson- ville, Ga., in 2007. By the time rescuers arrived, the pilot died. (Ntsb via Associated Press)
By Joan Lowy
Associated Press / April 4, 2010

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WASHINGTON — On a cloudy April afternoon nearly three years ago, Sam Smiley’s single-engine plane failed to clear a north Georgia mountain ridge and slammed into rugged woods.

The 78-year-old Ohio businessman freed himself from the wreckage and, though badly injured, activated an emergency signal. For nearly six hours, the letters “EMRG’’ flashed on radar scopes at a Federal Aviation Administration facility near Atlanta, giving air traffic controllers a general idea of Smiley’s location.

Yet it was a full two days before rescuers arrived. Smiley was dead. He had scrawled a last note to his wife on an envelope.

GPS devices can direct commuters to the nearest Starbucks for commuters and military drones can track insurgents across the mountains of Afghanistan. When it comes to downed small planes and helicopters in the United States, however, rescue teams aren’t always getting the critical information that in some cases can mean the difference between life or death for crash victims.

The National Transportation Safety Board cited Smiley’s case and four other accidents in a recent letter urging the FAA to tighten its procedures for reporting lost aircraft and getting radar data quickly to the Air Force. The board faulted miscommunication, a lack of trained personnel, and other problems.

The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Alabama, the agency chiefly responsible for getting inland searches started, said it helped launch searches for 227 missing planes and helicopters in 2008, the latest figures available. The center could not say how many fatalities or injuries were associated with those searches.

In Smiley’s case, there was mix-up in terminology: An FAA air traffic manager reported to the Air Force that he had a signal from an emergency beacon; the Air Force uses the term emergency transponder. The Air Force, believing the call was related to a different emergency signal south of Atlanta, didn’t launch a search.

The NTSB, in its letter, placed most of the responsibility for the mix-up on the Air Force. But the board also said the FAA manager should have realized that a search hadn’t gotten underway when the Air Force controller didn’t reply that a case had been opened. After the manager made his report to the Air Force, FAA controllers continued to discuss the signal, but they didn’t take further action because they believed it had reported properly, the letter said.

Smiley, flying to his home in Cincinnati from Hilton Head, S.C., was reported missing by his family after he failed to arrive that night.

An alert for his plane was sent to radar facilities the next day, including the Atlanta facility. But by that time there had been a shift change and the controllers on duty didn’t connect the alert to the previous day’s emergency signal. Without a radar location to start from, Civil Air Patrol units in four states conducted an extensive search trying to trace the plane’s route.

Sarah McCune, Smiley’s daughter, says she doesn’t know whether her father’s life could have been saved. But she regrets that searchers didn’t arrive sooner so that perhaps he wouldn’t have been alone when he died.

Doug Gould, an FAA safety official, said the agency has accident investigators on call around-the-clock who can access the data, but most of their time is taken up with other duties.

The FAA generally does a good job analyzing radar data and sending it quickly to the Air Force, Gould said. But because of aging equipment that’s in the process of being replaced, radar experts can’t always review and remotely assess radar images from different centers. The problem will be greatly eliminated when the FAA starts requiring planes to have devices that continually broadcast their location using GPS technology, Gould said. That requirement isn’t expected to apply to private planes until around 2020.

But aviation safety analyst Michael Barr said, “What the FAA has done is they’ve accepted the current risk that people won’t be found.’’