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A friend and I are going rim to rim to rim in the Grand Canyon this Wednesday. It's a 46mi, 20+hr "hike" with some very physically challenging sections. We are packing the minimal amount needed - meaning not too much extra in case of an emergency - it's especially risky given the below zero (fahrenheit) temperatures this time of year. Normally for something like this, I would bring my Spot - to call for help if I needed to, but it's not working.

If I brought my VXA-220, would it be legal to use it to call for help? From what I understand, most airliners are tuned into 121.5. Could I tell them to send a helicopter for rescue?

Obviously, in a life or death situation it's not going to matter if I'm braking the law. But it would be nice to know how such a situation would be handled.

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    $\begingroup$ Even if you get a good answer here, you may want to ask on outdoors.stackexchange.com as well, if you haven't already $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Nov 25 '14 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with @Pondlife that this question is more suitable for The Great Outdoors, because it more related to rescue than aviation. God forbid if you are in such situation, you won't mind if an ambulance is sent rather than a helicopter. $\endgroup$ – Farhan Nov 25 '14 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ Since the SPoT neeeds to be replaced anyway, get a 406 MHz ELT. It's the right thing for the job, it's airliner grade, and it works better in canyons (but not in mines or caves). Oh, the ELT will also warble on 121.5. SPoT is a social media gadget wrongly marketed as an ELT. Going on such a trip without some sort of ELT is nuts. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 10 at 13:35
  • $\begingroup$ Great answer, Harper. The question is a little old though. Since this question is about hiking, a PLB like one from manufacturers ACR or by Ocean signal would work well. And, they are personal sized. I believe they are both 121.5 and 406 dual transmitting. The manufacturers include instructions and paperwork for registering them with SARSAT making them legal for emergency use. $\endgroup$ – Dean F. Feb 10 at 17:49
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Yes, this is legal. As far as I understand, it used to be common practice, and some hiker's beacons still squawk 121.5. Nowadays, more advanced beacons are suggested, but it sounds like yours isn't working. Some police and EMT stations still monitor 121.5, too.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the info. From what I understand (at least in the grand canyon), search and rescue is covered by tax dollars. Would this be different calling via handheld radio as opposed to using a SPOT or similar? $\endgroup$ – Keegan Nov 25 '14 at 3:28
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    $\begingroup$ I have no reason to think it'd be different. $\endgroup$ – raptortech97 Nov 25 '14 at 3:34
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    $\begingroup$ For a bit more clarity, much like FAA rules, the FCC allows emergency deviation from any rule for amateur radio operators. See 47 CFR 97.403 and 97.405. Perhaps one could argue this blanket exemption overrides the rules for a license at all. In any case, if it is truly life threatening and someone thinks it's illegal -- maybe they'll rescue and arrest you -- but point is you're still alive. $\endgroup$ – dougk_ff7 Nov 26 '14 at 4:50
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    $\begingroup$ That said, the FCC may well turn a blind eye to distress communications regardless of legality (particularly if you didn't plan to rely on that fact), necessity might be a partial defense, and an FCC fine beats death. $\endgroup$ – cpast Dec 1 '14 at 2:28
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    $\begingroup$ @raptortech97 I saw that, but a) it's 2009 and b) "A friend and I are going rim to rim to rim in the Grand Canyon" NPS and USCG's philosophy is they don't want people dying for fear of the invoice. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 11 at 14:28
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Bear in mind that the effective transmission range of many handheld airband radios is pretty poor - typically rather worse than the reception range. And despite the NOTAM requesting aircraft to monitor 121.5 "when able", many do not. So while it's better than nothing, it's probably not a good idea to rely on this means of calling for rescue.

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The question is pretty old. This post is to add new info.

Since this question is about hiking, a PLB like one from manufacturers ACR or by Ocean signal would work well. And, they are personal sized. I believe they are both 121.5 and 406 dual transmitting. The manufacturers include instructions and paperwork for registering them with SARSAT making them legal for emergency use. You can also do this at:

https://beaconregistration.noaa.gov/RGDB/index .

Handheld airband transceivers are notoriously weak. Unless you have a perfect day, or you know how to construct the right antennae for your frequency and environment, you would be better off with a rented satellite phone than a transceiver.

If you already have the transceiver, and are determined to use it, a jungle antennae is your best bet. See here:

https://brushbeater.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/the-jungle-antenna/

A PLB is still the first choice.

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  • $\begingroup$ Also, SPoT is not a 406 MHz ELT, they rely on private sat-phone networks and are not as reliable, especially not in canyons. 406 is scoped for the kinds of places airplanes actually go down. Also the idea of an ELT being "broken" is insane; sounds like SPoT is a flimsy plastic e-toy, being mainly for social media, which means you can run down the battery in ordinary use and have none left for SOS. A real 406 ELT has a long-lived one-shot battery. Break seal; await helicopter. Also no monthly fees. $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 11 at 14:42
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This answer is for the United States only.

47 CFR § 87.43 states (in full):

§ 87.43 Operation during emergency.

A station [in other words, a radio set] may be used for emergency communications in a manner other than that specified in the station license or in the operating rules when normal communication facilities are disrupted. The Commission may order the discontinuance f any such emergency service.

I'm not 100% sure that this really does allow operation if you don't have a radio license at all, but it certainly seems to. (If you're not aboard an aircraft and the FCC hasn't given you a radio license, then you don't have a radio license at all.)

But it's only allowed "when normal communication facilities are disrupted." So presumably, if you have a cell phone or satellite phone you can use to call 911, you're required to do that instead.

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