Swathed in clouds and pelted by rain, the small plane struggled for altitude as it approached the pine-clad southeastern slope of Mount Cheaha, Alabama’s highest peak, in the late afternoon of Nov. 19, 1984.
Suddenly a violent downward gust slammed the single-engine Cessna into the trees. The pilot, 53-year-old Howard Alexander, was trapped in the wreckage, immobilized with spinal injuries. His wife and 13-year-old daughter – both unhurt – could do little but build a fire and hope that their emergency radio beacon was working.
As night fell, they never thought the Russians would come to their aid.
But a Soviet Cosmos satellite – a solarpowered cylinder spinning silently in space some 600 miles overhead – heard their electronic cry in the wilderness and relayed it to Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Ill. A helicopter plucked the injured pilot from the mountainside the next morning.
Even as the superpowers gird for the militarization of space, a 3-year-old international satellite rescue system – one of the few surviving children of detente – has helped save at least 374 lives here on Earth.
The satellites are above politics in more ways than one. Celestial Samaritans, they keep watch over Soviet fishing trawlers in the Bering Sea, private pilots in Georgia, bush pilots in Canada, yachtsmen in the English Channel.
The satellites listen for distress signals from $300 emergency transmitters, relaying the automated calls for help to a handful of ground stations around the globe.
SARSAT/COSPAS – the system’s technical acronym – is operated by the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Canada. Conceived in the flush of optimism that followed the successful Apollo-Soyuz linkup of 1975, it is the only remaining cooperative effort between the two superpowers in space.
SARSAT stands for the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking; COSPAS means roughly the same thing in Russian.
“The program has been one of a remarkable spirit of cooperation among the participants,” said Thomas McGunigal, who runs the program for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “It has not been, on either the U.S. or the Soviet side, viewed as a political situation. It’s a humanitarian, technical program, so it has never been a political football.”
Since its inception a number of other countries have joined, including Norway, Sweden, Britain, Finland and Bulgaria. Brazil is expected to add its name to the list of participants sometime soon.
“Every other day,” McGunigal estimated, “we save another life.”
A few examples:
- Earlier this month, a 50-year-old California man was fished out of the Pacific by a Coast Guard helicopter alerted by tile system after his 39-foot-sloop sank in heavy seas off San Francisco.
- An Alaska man was saved recently after he became critically ill in his snowbound cabin deep in the wilderness; his wife summoned help – via satellite – by switching on the emergency transmitter in the couple’s small airplane .
- On New Year’s Eve last year, a driver in a French-sponsored car race across Africa fractured his skull when he drove off a dirt track in Somalia. Help arrived after a satellite picked up the signal from his emergency transmitter, activated by the mechanic riding with him.
At present the United States, with its huge flock of private planes and flotilla of pleasure boats, has the most to gain from the system.
In a typical year, more than 4,000 airplanes – roughly a dozen a day – crash somewhere in the United States, according to NASA statistics. Every day, the Coast Guard responds to 200 distress calls and conducts more than 60 searches for missing vessels.
Saving lives means getting there quickly. NASA studies have shown that if the survivors of an air crash are rescued within eight hours, their survival rate is over 50 percent. If the rescue is delayed beyond two days, their chance of survival drops to less than 10 percent.
The system depends on small “emergency locator transmitters” called ELTs, now standard equipment on virtually all American aircraft and many boats. The aircraft devices are set to go off on impact; the marine versions are triggered by immersion. Both can be turned on with the flick of a switch.
The transmitters emit an inaudible beep for up to 48 hours. Sometimes the distress signals are picked up by aircraft in the vicinity. But the constellation of rescue satellites is the key to the system.
Three COSPAS satellites and one SAR/SAT satellite circle the globe in a low, polar orbit. The United States is supposed to have contributed two SARSAT satellites – the French and Canadians supply the actual transmitting and receiving components, but one blinked out unexpectedly last summer.
The Soviets have provided few details about their satellites, American space officials say. But they assume that the COSPAS satellites – operated by the Soviet merchant marines – also serve as navigation beacons. The SARSAT system rides piggyback on an American weather satellite.
If one of the satellites picks up a distress signal, it is relayed to the nearest search and rescue ground station. In the Soviet Union, those stations are in Vladivostok, Moscow and Archangelsk.
The United States has similar stations in Kodiak, Alaska; Point Reyes, Calif, Greenbelt, MD, and Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Scott is also the National Rescue Coordination Control Center; the Soviet counterpart is in Moscow.
American officials and scientists meet with their Soviet partners twice a year to iron out technical glitches and discuss ways to improve the system. McGunigal describes the meetings as remarkably free of the acrimony that” has characterized other Soviet-American encounters.
“It’s a nice program in that way,” he says. “People who are working this program on a day-to-day basis are not high-level government officials. At the working level the spirit of cooperation has been extraordinarily good, and the Soviets have not been using it for propaganda purposes.”
Last October, the four nations that operate SARSAT/COSPAS signed an agreement extending its life to at least 1990.
Every morning at 6 a.m., a telex message arrives at Scott from Moscow bearing information on the location of the Soviet COSPAS satellites. American satellite receiving dishes respond with a whir of electric motors, training their antennae in the right direction.
Distress signals are relayed from the ground stations to Scott, which alerts the appropriate authority. In the case of a marine disaster, that is usually the Coast Guard; if a plane is down, the nearest wing of the Civil Air Patrol – an all-volunteer auxiliary of the Air Force – is informed.
When the Alexander family crashed on Mount Cheaha that rainy evening last November, for example, members of the Georgia Civil Air Patrol were dispatched shortly after midnight. A pilot and observer, backed up by a ground team in a Volkswagen Rabbit – finally homed in on the signal towards dawn.
They found the plane around 9 a.m. and radioed the coordinates to a rescue helicopter.
Despite such dramatic successes, the system is not without its problems.
The biggest one is that ELTs don’t always work as they should, tripping in only about 30 percent of all aircraft crashes. “If your ELT doesn’t go off, then nobody can help you,” McGunigal says.
Another is false alarms. Just 3 percent of the ELT “hits” picked up by the satellites are genuine emergencies, according to NASA figures. Sometimes an ELT will go off if a novice pilot makes an exceptionally hard landing. Sometimes heat sets them off. Sometimes pranksters do.
“We’ve found ELTs hanging from trees,” says Airman 1st Class Bob Siebenaler, a computer operator at the Scott rescue center.
Two years ago, a persistent. distress signal led the Air Force, the Civil Air Patrol, the Federal Communications Commission, the Georgia State Patrol and DeKaib County police in a frantic search that finally ended at a house on Northside Drive in Atlanta.
The owner had removed an ELT from his plane and somehow had been triggered in his attic.
Last summer, Civil Air Patrol aircraft combed a wide swath of landscape south of Atlanta after the rescue center reported a distress signal emanating from the area. But the signal turned out to be from a child’s walkie-talkie that had drifted onto the emergency frequency.
April 26, 1985