SIGNAL LOST: Downed BRPD chopper’s distress locator signal never arrived, officials say
PORT ALLEN, La. (WAFB) - Federal agencies say a distress locator signal was either not activated, or never arrived, during BRPD’s March 2023 deadly chopper crash.
While Baton Rouge Police, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Transportation and Safety Board each have investigations that may zero in on why the signal did not reach its intended destination, the revelation helps to explain in part why it took Baton Rouge Police several hours to realize the officers had crashed in a rural field near Port Allen.
Federal mandates require most U.S. aircraft to be outfitted with an emergency locator device known as an Emergency Locator Transmitter, or ELT. Those mandates were partially fueled by the unsolved disappearance of Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs, who went missing in flight along with Alaska Congressman Nick Begich in 1972.
A preliminary report published by the NTSB confirms investigators found an ELT in the wreckage of the BRPD helicopter. The ELT had been separated from a mounting structure, according to the NTSB report. The ELT’s antenna had also been severed. It remains unclear if the ELT on the BRPD chopper was the type that automatically triggers when an aircraft is in distress, or if manual activation is required.
When an ELT works as intended, a distress signal ends up at one of two places, according to Andrew J. Scott, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Air Force’s 601st Air Operations Center.
When the ELT is activated over land, the signal is routed to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) located on Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. However, when the ELT is activated over water, the distress signal is sent to the U.S. Coast Guard.
According to Scott, the AFRCC ordered a review of its records in response to questions from WAFB and found “no indication” that the ELT on board the BRPD helicopter had activated.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Jose Hernadez said the alert never made it to the Coast Guard command center either.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses a satellite program called SARSAT to track the signals at its command center in Maryland. The NOAA SARSAT staff has no record of receiving a signal from the BRPD beacon in its database either.
Investigators have released limited information about the ELT on board the BRPD helicopter.
The NTSB report does not identify the manufacturer of the ELT, which could help to answer technical questions about the device.
Flight data published by the website FlightAware shows the BRPD helicopter suddenly switching from speeds of 40 mph to 102 mph in a matter of seconds prior to the crash.
Without knowing the name of the ELT’s manufacturer, it’s unclear whether those changes in speed or force should have triggered the ELT, or how long it would have taken the ELT to transmit the distress signal after activation.
According to Scott, generally, the AFRCC would receive a distress signal within “single-digit minutes,” depending on where it’s activated in the United States.
However, that’s all assuming the device was functional.
According to Baton Rouge Police Sgt. L’Jean Mckneely, information about the last time the ELT was tested cannot be released because of the ongoing investigations.
POLICY REVIEW ONGOING
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul’s administration has avoided questions about its role in the delayed crash response, citing its ongoing internal review of its policies.
The crash was discovered many hours later after the father of one of the pilots grew concerned about his son’s whereabouts. That man called police and shared the officer’s last known location, which he had located by tracking the location of the officer’s cellphone.
According to McKneely, air missions on BRPD’s other police helicopter are still paused as the investigation plays out.
The crash claimed the lives of Scotty Canezaro, 38, and David Porrier, 47.
The two officers were providing air support for a car chase and broke away to return to Baton Rouge shortly before the crash.
An official from the Baton Rouge airport previously said the BRPD helicopter would likely not have been required to check in when it returned. Even if the officers had radioed in, BTR’s air traffic control tower was unmanned at the time of the early morning crash.
The publicly available information published by the FAA and NTSB could change without notice.
The FAA originally reported that the crash happened after the helicopter’s tail rotor had struck a tree and crashed “inverted” in the field.
The FAA later quietly altered its report to say the aircraft “crashed under unknown circumstances.”
Final reports are not expected before 2024.
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