Remaining guarded on guard: The purpose of 121.5

The FCC is warning pilots that misuse of 121.5Mhz could result in steep penalties, both for the mis-user and for pilots who may need help.

It should go without saying that 121.5Mhz, or Guard, is only for emergency radio traffic. But a recent explosion in the number of frequency violations has forced the FCC to come out with an enforcement advisory about the reserved radio frequency, meaning that at least some percentage of the people are getting this wrong--and, from the sound of it, in intentional ways. Given that the FAA monitors this frequency constantly to better offer swift aid during an emergency situation, misuse of this frequency could prove dangerous for pilots in an actual emergency. This is true even where the misuse is accidental--many incorrect frequency problems occur because a controller or pilot made a human error at some point during a hand-off process.

We trust that this reminder is preaching to the chorus, perhaps ever moreso now that the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau is prepared to step up their action against violators. But outside of staying off Guard for non-emergencies, there are a few other things pilots can do to help improve radio communications surrounding 121.5Mhz. For one, you should always know that you can use 122.750 Mhz instead for general air-to-air communication for fixed wing aircraft, or 123.025 for helicopters. Finally, there’s 123.45, which is the long-range air-to-air frequency used most often for remote area or oceanic crossings.

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That said, if you’re able and no other items in the cockpit take priority, it can be good to listen to 121.5 to provide assistance in the event that an aircraft in your vicinity requires it. This should not take precedence over effectively piloting your own aircraft, but given a low workload, the potential that another nearby pilot might be able to help out a fellow aviator in need has the potential to save lives.

On the off-chance that someone misuses Guard, you can use your best judgment to determine whether you ought to say something in the moment to discourage further use (as you might if a person seems to be making an honest mistake), or to report the misuse to the FCC, who can then respond accordingly. Unfortunately with reports, the FCC likely won’t be able to act upon them until long after the offending Guard-user is gone, but it’s still good to give all the information at your disposal where possible.

Misuse of 121.5Mhz can result in hefty fines, confiscation of radio equipment, and the potential for criminal charges. Ensure you are aware of how your radio is tuned at all times, especially right before you transmit, and report any deliberate misuse of the frequency as soon as possible. Guard is intended to provide yet another safety net for pilots in distress--we should all do our part to ensure it can function as efficiently as possible.

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