Agencies rescue camper with aid of satellite beacon

The 406-MHz satellite personal locator beacon, which became available nationwide last year, saved a camper lost in freezing weather in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.

Carl Skalak late last year became disoriented and activated his beacon to send a distress signal to one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's geostationary operational environmental satellites (GOES). The signal contained his registration data.

One of NOAA's polar-orbiting operational environmental satellites (POES) then located him, and NOAA's satellite-based instrument package, the Search and Rescue Satellite Aid Tracking System (SARSAT), notified the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Langley Air Force Base, Va. The center alerted state rescue agencies in Skalak's vicinity, and the Army's Fort Drum, N.Y., Air Ambulance Detachment picked him up.

Lt. Daniel Karlson, SARSAT operations officer, said the GOES satellite detected Skalak's beacon 'almost instantly when he activated it after two days of rain and heavy snow. He had canoed up a river and was running low on supplies.'

Difficult site

It took several hours for various rescue services to try to reach him, Karlson said. Forest Service rangers could not get to his location, which the POES satellite had pinpointed to about a half-mile. The rangers said a helicopter was necessary, and finally one at Fort Drum became available for the mission.

'It takes faith to activate a beacon,' Karlson said, because there is no return signal to show help is on the way. In the end, Skalak saw the Army copter and waved a flashlight to bring it down. He suffered no injuries other than mild hypothermia, Karlson said.

The Coast Guard in November also rescued occupants of a sailboat off Nantucket, Mass., who had lost their mast and their electronics'except for the satellite beacon, Karlson said.

NOAA officials have said SARSAT has saved more than 150 people in Alaska, where the beacons were first tested, since 1994. For more information, visit www.sarsat.noaa.gov, which provides online registration for new or used beacons.

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