From the early stages of private pilot instruction we are ingrained with using checklists for each phase of flight, and one key item in the after landing checklist is to tune to 121.5 frequency. The reason to do this is to determine if you might have inadvertently set off the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT). In the event of a hard landing, this is very much possible. The second instance where this frequency becomes important is if you have to declare an emergency.


121.5 is the civilian aviation emergency frequency also known as the VHF Guard frequency.  Testing of ELT can typically be performed  within first five minutes after the hour. This frequency is monitored by most air traffic control towers, flight service stations, air traffic control centers and other emergency services. This frequency is also used to alert pilots of encroachment into restricted or prohibited areas.

Flying in and around the DC SFRA the last five years or so, tuning to this frequency in the second COMM has become a habit. My first foray into flying under the SFRA was a timid one (See Oops! I think I might be headed to Dulles). Time and again, I have been told that all this would be second nature. While I initially fretted and worried, I am inclined to now say, that the SFRA rarely bothers me these days. I’ve come to file my flight plans as a given, follow procedures within the SFRA as given and after the initial 15-20 minutes of flight I am off free as a bird under VFR conditions. So it has become second nature, indeed!

Despite the fact that the SFRA has been in place for more than a decade, GA pilots continue to encroach on this highly restricted airspace. More often than not, I continue to hear warnings and interceptions via Black Hawks for aircraft infringing on the airspace. There has been an occasional time when I have heard distress calls or ELTs going off.  And on occasion I have have heard some conversations by military or other training flight personnel 🙂

For sometime now there has been talk of decommissioning this distress frequency. On Feb. 1 2009, the satellite processing of distress signals from 121.5 MHz was discontinued. NOAA highly recommends switching to 406MHz for anyone using emergency beacons. The reason for the decommission being issues with poor accuracy and false alerts.

If you are in the market for a new emergency beacon, the strong recommendation by NOAA is to switch to the digital 406MHz.


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