Aviation Safety Letter 3/2004

One Phone Call Away

One Phone Call Away

Have you ever wondered what was in that FedEx® box which remained unopened for four years by a normally zealous but now stranded FedEx® manager, Chuck Noland (i.e. Tom Hanks), in the movie Castaway? My guess has always been that it was a new world-coverage satellite phone with fully charged batteries, user's manual and a couple weeks worth of granola bars. If only...

Like other technologies, satellite phones have improved, are more accessible, more affordable and more reliable. They are not inexpensive by any means, but for the serious flyers who like to venture far away from urban centers, they provide phone coverage that a standard cellular phone can't match.

A coroner's inquiry into the crash of a Cessna 172 near Fort Good Hope, Northwest Territories on December 31, 2001 (see ASL 4/2003, page 4) recommended that all pilots operating in the North and in remote areas carry satellite phones. Not all northern pilots may need to carry satellite phones in all situations, but where communications are limited, and in the event of an emergency, we do encourage the practice of carrying a satellite phone or other means of communication that function independent of the aircraft's electrical systems. The January-February 2004 issue of the magazine La Brousse had a very good article on this topic, where author and pilot Claude Laplante recounted the time last summer when his investment into a satellite phone paid huge dividends. As a matter of fact, it most assuredly saved his life and the life of his flying partner.

On August 17, 2003, Mr. Laplante and a friend were flying in Northern Labrador in his Cessna 172 on floats, exploring fjords and lakes, and planning to meet two more friends in a separate aircraft at a rendez-vous point for a few days of camping and flying. Having arrived early at the rendez-vous point, Mr. Laplante and his friend decided to fly 10 to 12 mi. further north to Kangalaksiorvik Lake, to film known wildlife at that location. They landed safely on the lake and spent a half-hour filming seals and other wildlife. Unfortunately for them, the wind started to pick-up significantly, and the waves were causing some serious handling difficulties. While attempting to manoeuvre the aircraft back into wind for departure, a float dug in, and in very short order, the aircraft had overturned in shallow water, giving them just enough time to exit and inflate their life jackets.

However, Mr. Laplante's first reaction while leaving the cabin was to ensure he had the sealed yellow plastic case, which held his satellite phone. The water depth was about 7 ft, so they were able to sit on the inverted floats. The winds were strong, the water was cold and their clothes were wet, causing them to shiver seriously even though it was August. Mr. Laplante did not lose a minute, and called for help. He first called a reliable friend to raise the alarm, and he followed immediately by calling the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC), in Trenton, Ontario; a couple thousand miles away — direct dialed! He spoke to a French-speaking operator at the RCC who assured him that his friend had already notified them and help was on the way. A rescue aircraft landed 4 hr later, within daylight, and they were flown to warmth and safety.

"What a relief to know that help is on the way," Mr. Laplante would say later. With the aircraft underwater, strong winds, very cold water and hypothermia looming, who knows how long it would take for their friends to find them, if ever. They would later learn that their friends also had a mishap earlier in the day and had not made the rendez-vous point either. Mr. Laplante is quite sure that without his satellite phone, he and his friend would no longer be with us. His satellite phone is not for sale at any price.

This story is inspired by an original article by Claude Laplante, titled "Assurance-vie par téléphone satellite" (Satellite Phone Life Insurance) published in the January-February 2004 issue of La Brousse magazine. This adaptation is published with permission. Private pilots and operators are encouraged to learn more about satellite phones by researching this subject through reputable pilot supplies shops, outdoors outfitters and on the Internet. — Ed.

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