Air Force Urgently Replacing Ejection Seat Beacons

On February 5th, the Air Force Times reported the US Air Force has experienced a spate of problems with the emergency locator beacons intended to help rescuers find downed airmen [emphasis added]:

The Air Force spent $30 million for 17,000 of the beacons in 2009, with deliveries finalized in 2010. Two years after the first beacons were installed, crash investigators began noticing that they had not worked in multiple crashes. In fact, the beacons failed 10 times in 22 ejections, according to a review of crash reports since the beacons were installed.

The situation is so serious that one unit in Italy made a point of flying with their personal cell phones.

The article notes the incident that may have caused the greatest injection of urgency was the loss of an F-16C over the Pacific in 2012: 

On July 22, 2012, an F-16C, call sign Jest 73, assigned to the 35th Fighter Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, was flying as part of a four-ship formation to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska…

After four attempts to restart the Falcon’s engine, the pilot decided to punch out about 250 miles north of Hokkaido, Japan…

The beacon failed, but

The pilot’s wingman,Jest 72, was able to radio the approximate coordinates to the formation and command. It was clear daylight…

After a six-hour search through the waters off the Japanese coast, a Japanese research boat, the Hokkou Maru, picked up the pilot and passed him along to an American ship, and eventually to the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska.

The article notes the rescue could have been “shorter” with a working beacon. It fails to note that but for providence, the rescue may not have happened at all. Without a beacon, it might have been impossible to find a single life raft bobbing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, had the wingman not noted his position and the tanker stayed overhead.

The day after the Air Force Times report, the Air Force issued a press release saying it intended to replace the beacons.

A series of beacon tests were performed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio last year…

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

While the article notes there are many devices that can be used to assist in the recovery of downed aircrew, the “saving grace” of the beacon is it may be the only one that operates without the direct input of the aircrew. In other words, if the aircrew is incapacitated, that may be the only piece of equipment he’s carrying that may help him be found.