"Flight following" technology, which helps dispatchers keep an eye on the whereabouts of aircraft, is being required aboard all National Park Service aircraft, or any aircraft carrying Park Service personnel, in Alaska, and soon could be required throughout the National Park System.
At a time when aircraft traveling upwards of 150 miles an hour can cover a great distance in a short period of time, making it difficult for searchers to zero in on a missing plane's location, flight following technology provides "real-time" tracking of aircraft.
According to a March 2008 publication developed by the U.S. Forest Service's Northeastern Area office:
Automated flight following (AFF) is a result of advanced communication technology available and affordable to users, contractors, and governmental units using aircraft on special-use missions. The technology links the aircraft to a computerized tracking and communications system, via a satellite, on a computer screen in the dispatcher’s office in real-time. This provides a dispatcher with the status of the flight and the location of the aircraft at all times. Satellite-supported voice communication systems provide the pilot or aerial observer with the ability to call the dispatcher or project personnel on the ground at any given time.
The benefits of AFF can be measured on a scale from life to death. The ability of a dispatcher to track the project aircraft in real-time provides a greater opportunity to observe the flight, ensure the safety of the personnel onboard, and assist in any emergencies occurring during flight. The technology is affordable for small business aviation contractors and reduces the critical time needed to send emergency support.
The decision by the Park Service's Alaska regional director to mandate the tracking system for all Alaska flights with Park Service personnel aboard comes nearly a year after a single-engine plane crash at Katmai National Park and Preserve that led to the deaths of three Park Service employees and the plane's pilot.
In noting the regional director's action, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said Friday in an email to all employees that his office was studying whether flight following technology should be required throughout the park system.
"On August 21, 2010, three National Park Service employees and a contract pilot were reported missing when their De Havilland Beaver aircraft, enroute from Swikshak Lagoon to King Salmon, Alaska, did not arrive," Director Jarvis noted in the email. "Despite a massive, coordinated search effort spanning over 60,000 air miles, the missing aircraft and its crew were not found. Just over a month later, the pilot of a commercial helicopter sighted debris that was later confirmed as parts of the missing aircraft. The location of the remainder of the aircraft remains a mystery, even with subsequent efforts to locate it.
"Despite the uncertainty of what caused the loss of the aircraft, possible adverse weather conditions or mechanical failure, the subsequent Serious Accident Investigation (SAI) revealed many lessons learned that should help to locate missing aircraft," the director continued. "Since this accident occurred, the Alaska Regional Director has implemented a Region-wide requirement that all NPS aircraft, and any aircraft boarded by an NPS employee, will be equipped with flight-following technology, thereby reducing the response time in similar instances. This requirement is being considered for Department-wide implementation."
The director's email indicated that use of flight following technology could further bolster safety conditions for Park Service employees as they go about their work.
"All employees, and more importantly, all supervisors must understand that every employee has the right to refuse to board any vessel or partake in any operation that he or she feels is unsafe," Director Jarvis noted. "While there was no indication that safety was a factor in this accident, it is imperative that each of us realizes and actively practices and promotes this right and responsibility."
The Park Service employees -- Mason McLeod, 26, and brothers Neal, 28, and Seth, 20, Spradlin -- had been working to tear down a deteriorating patrol cabin at Swikshak on the park's eastern coastline and were headed back to King Salmon when the plane piloted by Marco Alletto, 47, vanished. Another plane that departed the area 15 minutes later never received a transmission from Mr. Alletto. Weather conditions were so poor, that the second plane flew only about 500 feet above ground on the way back to King Salmon.