406MHz distress beacon search – A rescuer’s story

Lookout! Issue 29, August 2013

As told by a crewman from Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust.
Rescue helicopter
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust crew make final adjustments to their night vision goggles before setting off on a rescue.

Early that evening, we had been tasked by RCCNZ to investigate a 406MHz distress beacon going off. The beacon was registered to a 7 metre alloy boat that had possibly three people on board.

RCCNZ was also able to tell us that the distress beacon was GPS capable and this information played a very big part in our planning. The helicopter was readied with extra equipment and fuel to enable us to conduct a search and, if circumstances permitted, a possible rescue.

Almost an hour later we found ourselves in very dark conditions well off shore, with the steady sound of a beacon coming through our earpieces and our direction finding gear indicating a beacon in our direction of travel.

Approximately 6 minutes later, one of the pilots said he had spotted a very weak flashing light. The light’s position was where the direction finding gear was indicating, and not long after I gained a visual of the light too.

We started a very cautious descent and the flying pilot got the airspeed back so we could get a visual on what was with the flashing light.

The Coastguard vessel was directed to the vessel’s position and shortly after they advised they were able converse with each survivor.

Looking out through the night vision goggles we sighted an upturned hull of a boat and a very brief flash of reflective tape and possibly two people. The aircraft was repositioned to go overhead and attempt to get an accurate position fix.

Once we had done this, messages were relayed to RCCNZ via maritime radio and we were updated on a Coastguard vessel’s estimated time of arrival to the scene.

We were asked to confirm how many people we could see, and we managed to get low and slow enough to confirm that three people were on the upturned hull with the dimly flashing light.

The Coastguard vessel was directed to the vessel’s position and shortly after they advised they were able converse with each survivor. The Coastguard vessel transported survivors back to shore where they were assessed by ambulance staff.

When I was talking with the crew after this job, a comment was made that the survivors needed to buy a lotto ticket!

Rescue crews around the country have been in similar circumstances plenty of times in the past and, unfortunately, things do not always end as well. I have been involved in a number of similar incidents and feel there is a pretty common theme to those that end with a ‘positive outcome’...a 406MHz beacon.

Yes, they may seem a bit pricey and, yes, they may take up room, but if things go pear shaped they can be a game-changer!

Think of a distress beacon as your pre-paid lotto ticket with the ultimate prize...life!

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