Air Force Replacing Failing Aircrew Locator Beacons, Years After Call for Expedited Replacements

TSgt. Brandon Dutreix, 403rd Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment craftsman, instructs SrA. Tabitha Williams, 403rd OSS aircrew flight equipment journeyman, on how to assemble and inspect an AN/URT-44 personnel locator beacon on Jan. 10, 2015. Air Force photo by TSgt. Ryan Labadens.

The Air Force is finally moving forward with plans to replace the locator beacons used to find ejected aircrew in the case of an emergency, years after an urgent request for replacements.

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center announced last month it is fielding 12,000 new URT-46 locator beacons to replace legacy URT-44 beacons, which were found to have an unacceptably high failure rate. The $19.4 million program, which brings a new lifeline that aircrews can carry on every flight, is being fielded in a phased approach.

The Air Force first decided to replace the beacons in 2013, after Air Combat Command urged a rapid replacement for the defective devices. The service awarded Signal Engineering a $19.8 million contract for the new beacons in 2017, but the program was put on hold by two rounds of protests, leaving USAF aircrews to fly with beacons that had failed half the time in real-world ejections.

The Government Accountability Office ruled in favor of the Air Force in November 2017, allowing the program to finally move forward, and the service says it is prioritizing how the beacons are assigned as they begin to roll out to the field.

The URT-46 beacons will be installed in aircraft assigned to Pacific Air Forces first because the aircraft regularly conduct “extended flights over water,” and the beacons are critical to ensuring a downed pilot can be located in the vast sea. Other units outside the continental United States, such as USAF fighter squadrons across Europe, will receive priority following the Pacific. CONUS units will receive the new beacons last.

The new beacons, like the URT-44, are made by Signal Engineering and include improved circuit boards, antennas, capacitors, higher quality components, and better protection against water damage, 2nd Lt. Cody Ray, program manager for the beacons, said in an Air Force release.

“We needed a good replacement, with improved reliability, and that’s what we are getting with the URT-46,” he said in the release.

All 12,000 beacons are slated to be replaced by early 2020 with additional spares, according to the Air Force.

The new beacons cost approximately $1,200 each, about half the cost of the legacy URT-44s, which failed in 22 out of 49 real-world ejections from 2011 to 2017, according to Air Force Materiel Command. This means that in 44.9 percent of pilot punchouts, the pilots would not have been able to be located if incapacitated. From 2014-15, the Air Force conducted Highly Accelerated Lifecycle Tests on beacons that were being held in storage or in a flight equipment room waiting to be used and found a 24 percent failure rate.

The failure rate was so bad that some pilots began carrying personal cell phones in Ziploc bags, expecting that a phone’s GPS signal was more reliable than the beacon. For example, in a January 2013 crash involving an F-16 from Aviano AB, Italy, the URT-44 was set to automatically switch on but didn’t. The pilot was killed during the ejection, and rescue crews were unable to locate him despite an exhaustive search of the Adriatic Sea that lasted for more than three days.

The Air Force Human Systems Program Office began market research in late 2014, and conducted qualification testing from interested vendors, according to Air Force Materiel Command. That research ended in April 2015, and shortly after the office began benchmark testing on the URT-44 beacon “in order to achieve a one-to-one comparison” while also conducting the in-depth off the shelf test that found the 24 percent failure rate. The new beacon did not have a single failure in 14 tests involving 45 separate units, according to AFMC.

“Bottom line, if it were not for the protests, the PLB Replacement program would have delivered in accordance with its initial acquisition strategy,” AFMC told Air Force Magazine.