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Forum: General Aviation Search and Rescue, Washington, DC - Chairman's Opening Remarks
Deborah A. P. Hersman
Forum: General Aviation Search and Rescue, Washington, DC - Chairman's Opening Remarks

Good morning. Welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Debbie Hersman, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the NTSB. Joining me are my fellow Board members: Vice Chairman Christopher Hart, Member Robert Sumwalt, Member Mark Rosekind and Member Earl Weener.

We are here to talk about one of the aviation community's most critical endeavors — general aviation search and rescue — where quick action can literally mean the difference between life and death.

We are joined by a number of distinguished panelists from across the search and rescue community and look forward to a productive session of presentations and discussion ... which we hope will point the way to improvements in this vital lifesaving activity.

Let me begin by expressing, on behalf of everyone at the NTSB, our appreciation for the SAR community, which includes thousands of professionals and volunteers from across the country ... at the federal, state, regional and local levels ... from many walks of life ... who are dedicated to saving lives ... and who so many times put the service of others ahead of themselves.

I would like to share a story about one of these dedicated individuals.

In 2003, Tom Melucci, an 18-year-old high school senior, was a Civil Air Patrol cadet and Ground Team Leader of the unit based at Plymouth Airport in Massachusetts. Alerted to a private plane crash in the Berkshires, he and two other cadets drove in a severe winter storm to the Beartown State Forest. They joined EMTs looking for the family of seven whose plane had crashed. The family had been flying home from a Florida vacation.

As the cadets searched, there were places the snow was thigh-high. Melucci told reporters that sometimes he and his two fellow cadets had to crawl over top of the snow. When they reached the crash site, the father and three of the family's five sons were still alive — freezing after a night in the snow, wind and single-digit temperatures. The youngest child, apparently ejected from the plane, was found barefoot with no gloves or hat in a nearby stream. Melucci recalled tucking the two-year-old inside his jacket and breathing warm air on him.

That jacket, that warm breath of air, that aid, came nearly 17 hours after the crash the previous evening. After hours of waiting in the cold, in the dark, with dead and living family members, the father, with severe hypothermia, would not survive another night. He died on the way to the hospital.

It was not for lack of trying that the rescuers took so long to find the wreckage and its survivors. There was a large cast of searchers who, of necessity, cast a wide net. A worried relative's call to FAA triggered the search. The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center received an ELT signal near Sheffield, Massachusetts — about 11 miles from the accident site. After midnight, the Massachusetts Civil Air Patrol actively began its SAR operations. The Massachusetts State Police couldn't fly its helicopters with the extreme wind. Local police searched the ELT coordinates in Sheffield. Civil Air Patrol airplanes broadened the search. In the morning, the New York State Police air wing stepped in to help.

It was at about 1 p.m. when the Melucci and the ground team reached the scene.

Nearly 17 hours from impact to assistance. Why did it take so long? Why must it?

In this case, as in so many others, the airplane was equipped with a 121.5 MHz ELT. And, yes, this crash was three years before satellite processing of the signals was terminated. Even so, the 121.5 ELT was never a precision tool.

Dating back to the 1970s, the NTSB has supported ELTs on aircraft and improvements to those ELTs.

In a world where we have the technology to instantly pinpoint everything in our daily lives ... there are apps that can locate our misplaced Smartphones and systems, like Lojack®, that help police track and recover stolen cars. So, with all this technology— why is it still so difficult to find missing GA aircraft?

There are too many stories — unnecessary stories — like the one in Beartown Forest.

The technology is available. We all know that. During this forum, we will hear about 406 ELTs, GPS technology and more.

Everyone who is here this week wants the same thing: we never want aircraft to crash, but if they do, we want survivors to get help as soon as possible.

In medicine and treating traumatic injuries we hear about the golden hour — prompt treatment that can make a dramatic difference in the patient's outcome. Minutes matter ... as the SAR community knows only too well.

Let's make this the golden age of GA search and rescue. Let this forum be a springboard to take the search out of GA search and rescue.

As a community, we can do better. I know we can. And, we have the experts ... and the expertise ... to guide the way.

Now, I will turn to my colleague, Member Earl Weener, who has done an excellent job by consulting with colleagues and working closely with our staff to organize this forum. Member Weener.