Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Here to Help

Before my recent trip to the East Coast, I decided to upgrade my PDF software. Normally I would have some trepidation about doing a software upgrade at a critical time (I was planning to take my laptop on the trip), but my experience with this software has been quite good. Imagine my surprise when, after upgrading (at cost that wasn't insignificant, I might add) any attempt to read a PDF file resulted in a crash of either the reader or my browser.

A somewhat circuitous review of their website uncovered a description of the exact problem I was seeing and a patch to download. I downloaded the patch, applied it as instructed, but the thing still crashed. I tried to call their customer support, but sat on hold for over 20 minutes before I decided I had to deal with this at a later time - I had to pack after all! So I did the reasonable thing and un-installed the upgrade, but something nefarious had occurred and the crash would still happen. Needless to say, this changed my workflow for reading and creating PDF files. I don't know about you, but I was surprised at how much I depend on PDF files.

Yesterday I got through to a very helpful support person, after listening to some funky Muzak for 20 minutes or so. He walked me through some potential fixes before I finally uncovered a misunderstanding I had with the patch process. Once that was behind me, everything worked as advertised. It was a fascinating example of two people, both with technical backgrounds, speaking the same language, but not really communicating.

The weather was great for an instrument training flight last night. We headed toward a towered airport; just over 50 miles away, to do an ILS and GPS approach. The Center controller was unwilling to give us a practice approach clearance, but provided flight following while my student tracked the approach. Since the controller wasn't going to say the things that would normally be said during a practice approach or an approach under IFR, I simulated the instructions the controller normally would give.
Piper 123, when able proceed direct COATI, descend and maintain 3000, expect the ILS 32 approach.
Piper 123 is 3 miles from COATI, cleared ILS runway 32 approach ...

As we arrived for a touch and go, the tower controller announced he was closed and we wished him a good night. We climbed straight out, checked in with Center and told them we wanted to go to the initial approach fix for a GPS approach, do a turn in the hold, and track it inbound under VFR conditions. He acknowledged with a sort of "Yes dear, maintain VFR ..."

About to enter the hold, we heard a regional airliner that had been cleared for an approach into the same airport we just departed announce they had a flap problem and that they were abandoning the approach. One of the pilots asked to fly north and climb to 5000 feet so they could run some checklists. What ensued was a series of miscues and miscommunications, mostly on the part of the controller.

The controller asked the airliner if they were declaring an emergency and when they said no, he instructed them to fly to the south. This involved nearly a 180-degree turn, which surprised me given the aircraft said they had a flap problem. My gut feeling was that this controller was not a pilot and didn't realize the possible implications his instructions could have on a flight with an abnormal flap condition. Next the controller asked if the airline wanted to be vectored back for the approach. Again one of the pilots said they needed some time to run their checklists and asked to climb to 7000 feet. The controller approved the climb but kept asking if they wanted vectors to try the approach again. The tone of voice of at least one of the pilots betrayed some stress and I was astounded the controller was bugging them when it seemed clear (to me at least) that they needed to be left alone to do some troubleshooting.

We reported procedure turn inbound and reminded the controller we wanted to track inbound on the GPS approach, adding that we could abandon our approach at any time if the airliner needed priority. The frequency then became quiet and my student got his first taste of flying a snowballing non-precision approach with a strong tailwind, the resulting high ground speed, and the high rate of descent required to get down in time. We were cleared to the advisory frequency, circled to the opposite runway, and did a touch and go with a stiff wind right down the runway.

Climbing out, we contacted Center for flight following and I could see the airliner's landing lights. It appeared they were again inbound toward the airport. I thought the Center controller would call us as traffic to the airliner or vice a versa, but he didn't. Instead, he cleared them for the same ILS we had just flown, but gave them a 4,500 foot crossing restriction at the initial approach fix. The approach chart lists a 3000-foot altitude at that fix. One of the airliner pilots began inquiring about the surface winds and an involved conversation ensued where the controller said they essentially didn't really know what the winds were. I thought about chiming in, saying that we had landed there 10 minutes ago and that the wind was straight down the runway, but I didn't want to further confuse the issue.

As we passed to the east of the airliner, I found myself thinking, "They're awfully high and if they can't use their flaps, there's no way they'll get down at a reasonable speed." Adding to the interest, the runway they were planning to use is just over 5000' long. Next the Center controller asked the airliner if they were established and one of the pilots said they were too high and asked for a left 360 to loose altitude and get reestablished. I could tell there was some tension in the airliner cockpit because both pilots would answer on the radio at different times. Shortly before we were handed off to the next sector, I heard the airline cancelling IFR, having finally arrived (safely, one would assume).

All in all, it was a good learning experience for my student and it sparked a discussion on ways to deal with controllers who don't seem to understand what a pilot is asking for. Controllers often don't realize that they can be a serious distraction when they begin asking pilots a bunch of questions that require the pilot to focus on the Controller instead of flying the plane. Ever see someone driving down a highway while trying to read a newspaper?

My other observations were that the airliner crew could have been more demanding in what they wanted from the controller. I also think they should have been clearer about needing some "quiet time," emphasizing that they would advise the controller when they were ready for the approach. When given the 4,500' crossing restriction, they could have asked for lower. But mostly I hope that controller gets a chance to jump seat on an airliner in the near future because there's a lot he's missing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

John - great insight, as always.

Next time the need arises to spend $$ on PDF software, check out PDFCreator. I've tried many of the opensource solutions and this is without doubt the most compatible.