The Malone Column

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Pat Malone

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

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