Says Communications Problems Hamper Speedy Rescue Of Crash
In a letter to FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, the NTSB says
the FAA should work to improve communications between it and the
Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC), which has
responsibility for initiation and coordination of SAR activities in
the domestic United States.
The letter cites a case in which a Piper PA-38-112, N9247T
crashed into trees and rising mountainous terrain at Amicalola
Falls State Park in Dawsonville, Georgia. The pilot was attempting
to stay below overcast cloud conditions. The certificated
commercial pilot, the sole occupant, eventually died as a result of
the accident, and the airplane sustained substantial damage. The
flight originated from Habersham County Airport, Cornelia, Georgia,
about 1400 local time, destined for Lunken Field, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Evidence indicates that the pilot likely survived the accident and
activated an emergency transponder code but died before the
airplane was located.
Shortly after the crash, the letter says, controllers at the
Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZTL) noticed an
unidentified stationary radar target about 50 nm north of Atlanta.
Beginning about 1534, the target transmitted transponder code 7700,
which is a dedicated emergency code reserved for use by aircraft in
distress, and its use by the accident pilot caused a special
flashing "EMRG" alert to appear on ZTL radar displays.
About 1552, the ZTL traffic management coordinator (TMC)
notified the AFRCC of ELT reports and observation of the 7700 code.
During the call, the TMC stated that there were “numerous ELT
reports…north of Atlanta” and that he did not believe
that an incident number had been assigned. The AFRCC controller
replied that an incident had been reported south of Atlanta. The
TMC noted that the reports he was calling about were north of
Atlanta and that “…we actually show an emergency
beacon flashing north of the airport.” (In using the term
“emergency beacon,” the TMC was attempting to
communicate the observation of a 7700 emergency transponder signal,
which provides more specific location information than ELT reports
and indicates more definitively that an emergency has actually
occurred.) At the AFRCC controller’s request, the TMC
provided the information in the ELT reports, and the call
The AFRCC controller did not provide an incident number to the
TMC, which would have indicated that she understood that the
TMC’s report indicated a new incident. Rather, she associated
the report with the incident south of Atlanta. Once the report for
the incident south of Atlanta was closed, that also ended any
activity related to the ELT reports and radar observations north of
Atlanta provided by ZTL’s TMC.
As a result, no SAR effort was begun for N9247T until family
members reported the accident airplane missing the following day.
As there was evidence that the pilot survived the crash, this was a
critical SAR failure. Based on the family's report of the missing
airplane, the Dayton, Ohio, Flight Service Station (FSS) issued an
Alert Notice (ALNOT) about 1247. According to the AFRCC’s
mission log, the AFRCC began attempting to locate the airplane
immediately upon receipt of the ALNOT. Air searchers located the
airplane about 49 hours after the accident, and the ground team
arrived shortly afterward. The team reported that the pilot was
The NTSB says that the lack of standard phraseology for
communications between FAA and AFRCC personnel about particular
observations, such as the observation of an emergency 7700
transponder code, clearly hindered the SAR effort in this event.
For example, the AFRCC controller also did not understand that the
TMC's report of “an emergency beacon flashing north of the
airport” indicated that ZTL was observing a 7700 emergency
code on radar. If the AFRCC controller had understood that ZTL was
forwarding not only ELT reports but also a radar observation of an
emergency 7700 code north of Atlanta, she likely would have
recognized that two separate events were occurring and assigned a
new incident number to the emergency 7700 code instead of
associating the new information with the previous ELT reports south
The NTSB recommends that the FAA develop, in conjunction with
the AFRCC, specific phraseology for communicating about the
location, time, and nature of ELT signals and emergency beacon
codes. The NTSB further recommends that the FAA amend FAA Order
7110.65, “Air Traffic Control,” to prescribe the use of
the phraseology requested in Safety Recommendation A-10-1.
The NTSB further recommends that the FAA provide training for
all FAA personnel who may be required to interact with the AFRCC,
ensuring that personnel understand the AFRCC's incident reporting
process and recognize that new incidents are always assigned a
unique incident number.