Despite Logbook Showing a Replacement, Incident Aircraft Flew with Non-Functional ELT

The NTSB has reported an uncomfortable possibility in a crash that occurred in Alaska’s Eagle River Valley in July of 2021: The ELT may not have activated after the aircraft impacted a mountainside.

The crash Killed a 23-year-old CFI and a 27–year-old pilot while out on a discovery flight for a local flight school, heading out in the direction of the Chugach mountains. Investigators were puzzled as to the exact cause of the flight, making little headway even after 2 years of investigation. While the cause remains somewhat unknown, a worrisome prospect arrived when referencing data from the passenger’s smartwatch after the deceased were recovered – there may have been a survivor had crews been able to find the crash site sooner. When the aircraft crashed, its ELT did not send a signal of any kind until nearly a full day after the crash, leaving search teams with a large swath of terrain to cover. The flight was reported missing around 1400 hrs local time, and its wreckage was located at 22:45 when crews found it in an “area of steep, rising glacial terrain at an elevation of about 3,100 feet”.

The ELT equipped on the accident aircraft, a Cessna 172P, had previously been flagged by the FAA in 2015 when similar issues had been found. Investators more troublingly found that the ELT equipped (an AD-affected AmeriKing AK-451) differed from the one written in the records. According to maintenance logs, the Skyhawk should have had an entirely different make and model of ELT, as a full replacement had been logged about 1.5 years prior to the accident. That newer, more reliable model was nowhere to be found, thought – instead, the troubled AmeriKing unit remained in place, even down to bearing completed AD compliance paperwork from 6 months before the crash. The prospect is grim, considering the price that may have been paid for sloppy recordkeeping or cut corners in the hangar. Postaccident testing revealed the ELT offered spotty reliability at best, only broadcasting once out of numerous tries when in the ‘ARMED’ position.

The NTSB recognized the possibility of a survivor but maintained a somewhat neutral outlook on the chances even had the ELT worked as required. “Had the ELT functioned as designed,” the report said. “Emergency personnel would have been alerted to the accident, even if the company did not report it overdue. Similarly, had the AD-affected ELT been removed and replaced with a functional unit as was noted in the maintenance records, the search and rescue response likely would have been faster; however, whether faster location of the wreckage would have prevented a fatal outcome could not be determined.” 

If nothing else the Eagle Valley crash once again drills in the importance of hangar discipline. Making sure the right part is in the right place, in the right plane, with the right paperwork just might save a life some day.