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AF to replace aviator locator beacons

WASHINGTON (AFNS) --

The Air Force will replace thousands of unreliable aircraft personnel locator beacons across the fleet, a service official said Jan. 16, here.

Locator beacons are an automated method used to locate an aviator should he or she eject or egress in peacetime flights, said Col. Aaron Clark, the Global Power Programs Directorate deputy director for Air Force acquisitions. 

During the past three years, a steady trend of increasing failures in the URT-44 personnel locator beacon occurred during ejections. The beacons were purchased between January 2009 and August 2010, in order to communicate with a new satellite operating frequency.

According to Clark, when the beacon turns on, it sends a signal to a satellite. That signal is then used by rescue crews to locate the downed aviator.  Since the beacon broadcasts a signal, it is normally not used during wartime operations. 

In 2011, a small number of ejections took place with service aircraft, Clark said. When beacon failures happened during those ejections, the cause was mainly attributed to human error and a manufacturer defect.

“We issued additional maintenance instructions to inspect and repair a couple possible problems to make sure the system was installed and prepared to operate properly,” Clark said.

In 2012, more ejections occurred, with the failure rate rising higher.

Problems included antenna issues, battery reliability and other electrical component problems, he said.

“The beacon is not as reliable as we need it to be,” he said.  “Right now, we are seeing an observed reliability of about 55 percent.” 

A series of beacon tests were performed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio last year. The test, called a highly accelerated lifecycle test, runs the entire URT-44 system through the most extreme scenarios and environments it could see during an ejection sequence. 

The results of this test confirmed the beacon needs to be replaced fleetwide.

“They had a 100 percent failure rate,” Clark said. “That showed us the system is not what we want to have in our aircraft.”

The plan to replace the beacon has two phases, he said.   

Phase one has begun and will replace 3,900 beacons on all aircraft with ejection seats by 2015, costing the Air Force approximately $15 million, of which $6 million is in place. The Air Force is currently working to identify funding sources for the remaining $9 million, Clark said. The second phase will complete a fleetwide replacement and cost approximately $40 million.

Though the beacon is one way personnel recovery teams find aircrew members, it is by no means the only way.

“As far as locating the isolated personnel, there’s a wide gamut of techniques out there that range from electronic to visual means,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Hogan, the 23rd Wing director of staff and an A-10C Thunderbolt II combat search and rescue pilot. “We have a device called a ‘quick draw,’ which, with certain survival radios, we can actually send text messages (to an isolated crew member).”

Some aircraft are equipped with direction finding capabilities that tune to the isolated person’s frequency, further pinpointing the Airman’s exact location.

Additionally, aviators have satellite communication radios on hand, which send their coordinates directly to the combined air and space operations center, but sometimes the most effective method for locating a downed aircrew isn’t technology-based at all, Hogan explained.

Since no single piece of equipment alone will be an aviator’s saving grace, survival kits are packed with redundancies and multi-use tools for worst-case scenarios. For instance, a kit may be equipped with more than one radio with similar capabilities or multiple flares.

While all of these mechanisms and tools are important, they don’t trump the most important, according to one aircrew member -- the wingman.

 “I know there are lots of alternate means that could be used to find where I was,” said Maj. Robert Volesky, who served as a flight test engineer on 31 different types of aircraft. 

Though the beacon is not working properly, he said it would not keep him from doing his job.  

“I’d have no problem flying right now,” Volesky said. “Our search and rescue teams are true professionals. I know if something were to happen, they could find me anywhere.” 

(Staff Sgt. Jamal Sutter, 23rd Wing Public Affairs, contributed to this story)

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