The Malone Column
If you believe your newly-registered PLB can trace back to you in case of difficulty, think again!
Got your PLB, I trust? Or your ELT? And I do hope you’ve been on to the appropriate authorities to register your beacon, as you are required to do. You can’t possibly have been caught on the hop by the EASA requirement to have a beacon aboard your certified aircraft, after all. We’ve been grappling with this one for almost a decade, after EASA set out to mandate that every aircraft should have a fixed Emergency Locator Transmitter. It took an age to convince them that Personal Locator Beacons should be allowed instead, because it’s the pilot you want, not the wreckage. Eventually they came round, and since August last year the law has stated that every EASA aircraft must be flown with one or the other.
Tell you who it did catch on the hop, though — The Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the people who register the beacons. At the time of writing (the turn of the year) the waiting list for registration is five months. I have a friend who put an ELT in a new helicopter back in July and happily went flying off over stormy seas and mountains, only to discover in December — and he had to ask, he wasn’t told — that his beacon had still not been registered. He’s not alone… if you registered yours less than nineteen weeks ago, your data will not be in the system.
This is because registration is in the hands of the UK Distress and Security Beacon Registry, which, for all its imposing title, is actually a room in Falmouth with five little elves in it. However busy these little elves make themselves — and three of them are only part-time — they can’t keep up with the avalanche of registration requests which followed the introduction of the EASA mandate. Not only are they coping with that, but it coincided with a European regulation that says every fishing boat has to have an ELT, and the fisherfolk all requested registration at once, too. And, of course, since January 2012 it’s been legal for hillwalkers and mountaineers to use PLBS, and that’s added to the workload. You’d think that somebody somewhere would raise the possibility that a sixth elf might be needed, perhaps even more, but any such suggestion would surely be met with outraged accusations of empirebuilding and disdain for austerity. So our five stalwart souls struggle on at their Sisyphean labour, secure in the knowledge that they are doing a valuable, nay vital job. Well no, actually… scratch that. They struggle on in the knowledge that most of what they do is utterly pointless.
You see, you can apply for your registration online, and you input all your personal and aircraft details, your Hex ID, your SARSAT beacon coding, your emergency contact details and all that palaver, into the UK Distress and Security Beacon Registry website. But instead of passing this on into the database at the push of a button, the little elf sits down and carefully copies it all out onto another screen. This is because of ‘security issues’ which were raised during the development of the database, as a result of which it was decided not to allow direct customer access. So you input your details onto a ‘pseudo’ website and it comes to the elf in the form of an email, which the elf must re-enter in full into the database. And of course, apart from the increased workload and the wasted time, the chance of creating an error increases with every keystroke.
The government really needs to hire my neighbour’s kid to get round that one… he’s a real whizz at the keyboard and I bet he could sort them out in an afternoon. Then again, there’s probably some law against it, seeing as he’s only nine. I thought they must be dealing with a legacy database to have such archaic problems, but no, the Registry only moved to a new database system at the end of November 2015. In fact, they were already struggling with teething problems before EASA’S mandate came along, and the other stuff from the fisheries people. So the drifts of data pile up on the threshold while the elves tap their little fingers to the bone, doing what shouldn’t need to be done, as fast as they possibly can. But this is not to say that when you plunge into the sea and pull the little red tag on your PLB, they’re not going to come and get you, nor will they throw you back if your Easa-mandated ELT is improperly documented. The people at the pointy end are prepared for additional problems and will be coping with them by over-reacting to everything.
Under normal circumstances (whatever they are) the first thing they do on receipt of a PLB alert up at Kinloss, the nerve centre of the operation, is to phone up the contact number on the database, because there are a lot of false alarms. Quite often they’ll find that the pilot’s Reliant threewheeler has gone over a bump in the road (this is an actual example) or whatever, and there’s no need to hit the panic button. But if a lady says, oh, my husband’s flying to Norway and he should be halfway to Oslo by now, then they put the wheels in motion. But if no contact details are available — and obviously there have never been as many undocumented PLBS and ELTS out there as there are today — they have no option but to unleash Plan A for every beacon, even if it seems to be coming from the M8 near Glasgow (as was the case with the three-wheeler).
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency — and may they be thrice-blessed, along with their contracted friends at Bristows who might one day come and get me when I am otherwise beyond the succour of any human agency — say they are in the process of addressing the double-keystroke situation and hope to have a workable solution that will allow the backlog to be whittled down in the coming months without the addition of further elves. But it does rather reinforce the notion that somebody at the top needs careful instruction on how to organise a bacchanal in a brewery, and I know just the nine-yearold to deliver the lesson.
At present the waiting list for registration is five months
If no contact details are available, they unleash Plan A
Pat has worked as a journalist on three continents and is a fixed-wing pilot and former helicopter instructor with 1,500 hours TT PAT MALONE