The mystery of the missing plane

Where is Michael Bratlie and the plane he was flying to Duluth on Friday?

The mystery is intensifying as another day of searching for the missing Lakeville pilot is underway. Air and water searches since he disappeared have turned up nothing. Civil Air Patrol pilots have been unable to spot any sign of the the twin engine Piper PA-31 Navajo.

Authorities have no choice but to assume the worst, that the plane has crashed somewhere.

How can planes disappear like this? Easy. There’s no real requirement that their movement be tracked.

If a pilot flies under “instrument flight rules,” then air traffic controllers can pretty well monitor a plane’s known location. But most general aviation flights are operated under “visual flight rules” (VFR) that do not require a pilot to be in contact with any air traffic control facility.

There are methods to allow families and authorities to track a plane’s under VFR, but with a few exceptions, it’s up to the pilot.

For example:

Emergency Locator Transmitter — This is required on all aircraft but they are unreliable. Many pilots believe the order mandating them was a “feel good” directive after some high-profile aviation mysteries. The FAA recently ordered airplane owners to ditch the ELTs that operated on a 121.5 radio frequency and install more expensive — around $1,000 — ELTs that are monitored by satellites, but the reliability is still questionable. They depend on antennae and although they’re designed to activate whenever a plane goes down, there’s no guarantee the antenna will end up in a position that does any good.

Flight following — Pilots are encouraged to use this voluntary service in which they can ask air traffic control facilities to keep an eye on them as they fly. But air traffic controllers are not required to provide it if their workload doesn’t permit it, radar service can be spotty in some areas, and pilots mostly are reluctant to use it. Many just don’t like talking on the radio.

This reliance on the “system” is a broader topic than what’s allowed here, but it’s also part of the debate over whether general aviation pilots should be required to pay “user fees” when using the air traffic control system (an Obama administration proposal calls for a $100 fee per leg of a trip for turbine powered aircraft). Faced with paying to use ATC services, many pilots will not.

Commercial products — The SPOT satellite messenger is an example. For about $150 for the unit and another $100 a year for the service, the device allows others to track progress, allows communicating by satellite, and can send automatic text messages in the event of an emergency. It’s often used by hikers, and climbers but it hasn’t penetrated the aviation market in a way some had suggested. It costs money.

APRS — This is a home-brewed method which is gaining popularity, especially among the experimental aircraft crowd, which has more freedom to install equipment in their airplanes than owners of production aircraft.

Ham radio enthusiasts developed APRS (automatic position reporting system) that transmits GPS coordinates. Amateur radio fans who are also pilots, brought the system to aviation which allows anyone to track an airplane and display its location and progress on Google maps. It’s not expensive at all, but it does require a ham radio license.

In 2012, there’s no legitimate reason why more pilots don’t spend a couple of bucks for cheap-and-easy insurance, if only for the benefit of a loved one. Why don’t they? Relatively few planes disappear, and most pilots don’t think it’ll ever be them.