Atlantic search and rescue false alarms cost taxpayers millions

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 recent years and some of those false alarm incidents could be avoided in the future with government regulation.

CBC News investigation finds old emergency beacons often the cause of false alarms

Scrambling aircraft on false alarms in the region has cost $11 million in the last 6 years. 3:31

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.

An estimated $11 million has been spent since 2007 on dispatching search and rescue aircraft due to false alarms from emergency transmitters on planes in Atlantic Canada. (CBC)

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.

Talk about embarrassment.- Tim Foulkes, recreational pilot from Bayside, N.B.

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 low-level.”

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 database.

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 deployments.

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

The Canadian taxpayers are putting out millions of dollars.- Master Warrant Officer Greg Smit, search and rescue technician

"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 resources.

“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.

Canadian pilots group rejects 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.

Stu Fairchild, of Truro, says 406 beacons are too expensive for many private aircraft owners. (CBC)

"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 said.

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."

Red areas in this map indicate where the most false alarms were reported from ELT beacons in Eastern Canada between 2008 and 2012. (CBC)