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SAR false alarms in Atlantic Canada waste millions

April 10, 2014  By CBC News

April 10, 2014, Bayside, N.B. - A CBC News investigation has revealed that scrambling aircraft on search and rescue false alarms in Atlantic Canada has cost at least $11 million in the last six years.

It is also evident some of those false alarms and the associated costs
could be avoided in the future through improved government regulation.

Tim Foulkes, a recreational pilot in Bayside, N.B., recalls military
aircraft criss-crossing the skies over his small home town on April
16-17, 2011.

"I went home and that evening heard the Cormorant patrolling over the
shoreline of the river where I live and — in the fog — and I thought,
'Well that’s strange.'"  

The Cormorant helicopter crew from 14 Wing Greenwood air base in Nova
Scotia was searching — at a cost of $21,327 a hour — for a 121.5
Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT), or a homing beacon, which was
emitting a distress signal.  


That signal had been picked up by a British Airways flight and the Moncton Area Control Centre.

The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax launched into action:
two Hercules airplanes, a Cormorant helicopter, two volunteer search
and rescue crews, a Canadian Coast Guard vessel and an American Search
and Rescue Centre were all involved at various times during the search.

Little did Foulkes know, he or his mechanic had accidentally bumped
the ELT in his plane earlier that day while performing maintenance,
causing it to emit the distress signal from its position, safe and sound
inside an airport hangar in nearby St. Stephen, N.B.

“Talk about embarrassment," said Foulkes. "I certainly felt bad that
so many people had gone to such an effort to find this thing and could
possibly even put their lives at risk flying around in the fog at

In Foulkes’s example, a Cormorant and two different Hercules flew for
nearly 12 hours altogether, before finding the beacon. Those flying
hours totalled roughly $140,000, with crew and maintenance costs
factored in.

But the Foulkes case is only one of many costly 121.5 ELT false alarms in Atlantic Canada.

Through documents obtained through Access to Information requests,
CBC News has determined that between 2008 and 2012, there were about 80
incidents involving 121.5 ELT false alarms. Anywhere from one to five
Hercules or Cormorant aircraft were scrambled in each instance.
Cormorants cost about $20,000 a hour to fly, and Hercules cost about
$10,000 a hour to fly.

"It does cost taxpayers money. When there is one possible fix known,
to all aviators in this country, and that is to buy a 406 beacon," said
Master Warrant Officer Greg Smit, a search and rescue technician with
National Defence in Ottawa.

Smit says all recreational pilots should use 406 emergency
transmitters, which, unlike the 121.5 ELTs, are registered in a national

The registry allows search and rescue officials to look up the
beacon’s owner and contact information. One phone call often determines
if it’s a false alarm right away, avoiding any costly aircraft

Smit says Transport Canada should make pilots switch to the registered beacons.

"What we are doing is trying to
work with our other government departments, Transport Canada,"
said Smit. "We bring it to the interdepartmental committee on search and
rescue, and try to come up with a resolution to better utilize our

“The Canadian taxpayers are putting out millions of dollars," he said.

The 406 beacons are mandatory in boats. But the Canadian Owners
and Pilots Association says its members should not have to shell out
anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 to install 406 beacons.

The association told CBC News it also does not believe the quality of
the 406 beacons is superior to 121.5 ELTs. The association
maintains that in a majority of accidents where the 406 beacon is
needed, it fails because it gets crushed, burned or sinks.

Stu Fairchild, who heads the Truro Flying Club, says he clearly sees
why some private aircraft owners don’t want to make the switch.

"Right now, a lot of the private aircraft owners — especially in
ultralights — sometimes you're getting cases where the ELT might be more
expensive than the aircraft, so they're fighting having to do it," he

Canadian Auditor General Michael Ferguson recommended in his spring
2013 report that Transport Canada make digital beacons like the 406s
mandatory in more classes of aircraft. At the time, the government
agreed to look into the matter. "The Department will consult with owners
and operators on the applicability of emergency locator transmitters to
more classes of general aviation aircraft by the end of 2013," the
government had said.

In an email to CBC News on a March 6, 2014, Transport Canada stated:
"Transport Canada did hold discussions with owners and operators on the
applicability of emergency locator transmitters to more classes of
general aircraft in 2013. There are no plans at this time to expand the
applicability in the Canadian Aviation Regulations."

Foulkes says he hasn't replaced his transmitter yet, but that his won’t be the cause of another false alarm.

“I've certainly become much more rigorous in double-checking that one
item on my dashboard before I lock up the hangar for the last time when
I leave it because it is so easy to set off."


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