On a cloudy April afternoon nearly three years ago, Sam Smiley's single-engine plane failed to clear a north Georgia mountain ridge and slammed into rugged woods.
The 78-year-old Ohio businessman freed himself from the wreckage and, though badly injured, activated an emergency signal. For nearly six hours, the letters "EMRG" flashed on radar scopes at a Federal Aviation Administration facility near Atlanta, giving air traffic controllers a general idea of Smiley's location.
Yet it was full two days before rescuers arrived. Smiley was dead. He had scrawled a last note to his wife on an envelope.
GPS devices can direct commuters to the nearest Starbucks and military drones can track insurgents across the mountains of Afghanistan. When it comes to downed small planes and helicopters in the United States, however, rescue teams aren't always getting the critical information that in some cases can mean the difference between life or death for crash victims.
The National Transportation Safety Board cited Smiley's case and four other accidents in a recent letter urging the FAA to tighten its procedures for reporting lost aircraft and getting radar data quickly to the Air Force. The board said miscommunication, a lack of trained personnel and other problems are hindering rescue efforts.
"The whole process needs to get nailed down a lot tighter than it is," said NTSB radar expert Scott Dunham, who drafted the letter.
The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center in Florida, the agency chiefly responsible for getting inland searches started, said it helped launch searches for 227 missing planes and helicopters in 2008, the latest figures available. The center could not say how many fatalities or injuries were associated with those searches.
In Smiley's case, there was mix-up in terminology: An FAA air traffic manager reported to the Air Force that he had a signal from an emergency beacon; the Air Force uses the term emergency transponder. The Air Force, believing the call was related to a different emergency signal south of Atlanta, didn't launch a search.
The NTSB, in its letter, placed most of the responsibility for the mix-up on the Air Force. But the board also said the FAA manager should have realized that a search hadn't gotten under way when the Air Force controller didn't reply that a case had been opened. After the manager made his report to the Air Force, FAA controllers continued to discuss the signal, but they didn't take further action because they believed it had reported properly, the letter said.
Smiley, flying to his home in Cincinnati from Hilton Head, South Carolina, was reported missing by his family after he failed to arrive that night. An alert for his plane was sent to radar facilities the next day, including the Atlanta facility. But by that time there had been a shift change and the controllers on duty didn't connect the alert to the previous day's emergency signal. Without a radar location to start from, Civil Air Patrol units in four states conducted an extensive search trying to trace the plane's route.
Sarah McCune, Smiley's daughter, says she doesn't know if her father's life could have been saved. But she regrets that searchers didn't arrive sooner so that perhaps he wouldn't have been alone when he died.
"I want somebody to know there were mistakes made and they should have done this process differently," said McCune, who lives in Cincinnati.
Dunham, the NTSB radar expert, said he began talking to FAA officials in late 2007 about problems getting critical radar information to the Air Force.
The board recommended that the FAA always have a team of radar experts available to retrieve data remotely from computers, analyze it and provide a location to the Air Force.
The Air Force has access to most of the same raw radar data, but "the first people to know the guy is gone is the FAA," Dunham said. "We think they should use their own data as fast as they can to get a good location."
Doug Gould, an FAA safety official, said the FAA has accident investigators on call around-the-clock who can access the data, but most of their time is taken up with other duties. He said the agency is considering moving a radar expert to a new office to help investigators.
The FAA generally does a good job analyzing radar data and sending it quickly to the Air Force, Gould said. But because of aging equipment that's in the process of being replaced, radar experts can't always review and remotely assess radar images from different centers. A technician has to drive to the radar facility, and that takes time, he said.
The problem will be greatly eliminated when the FAA starts requiring planes to have devices that continually broadcast their location using GPS technology, Gould said. That requirement isn't expected to apply to private planes until around 2020.
"Come back in 10 years and it's going to be a night and day difference," Gould said.
But aviation safety expert Michael Barr said, "What the FAA has done is they've accepted the current risk that people won't be found."
In one case cited by NTSB _ a small plane that crashed while trying to land at night at a closed airport in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania _ the FAA never provided a crash location to the Air Force even though it promised to send one "as soon as possible."
It took searchers over eight hours to find the site. The pilot was dead and the three passengers seriously injured. One passenger, Justin Hughes, was hanging upside down by his left foot, which was trapped in the wreckage.
"I just remember trying to get out and screaming and going unconscious again and doing the same thing all over again," said Hughes, now 22 and a student at Middle Tennessee State University. His left foot is difficult to control and he still wears a leg brace more than three years after the accident. He wonders if the damage might have been less severe if he had reached a hospital sooner.
Gould said the radar center on New York's Long Island that handled the plane is one of FAA's older facilities and its equipment couldn't be accessed remotely.
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