Friday, November 14, 2008

Curveball



Here's a great blog for pilots out there to read, especially this post. The Flying Penguine is written by an ATC trainee working in the Florida panhandle. The author works some pretty complicated airspace and does a nice job of conveying what it's like to deal with a mix of military and civilian aircraft while learning the ropes. Check it out!

A friend who works for a freight operator told of a controller interaction he had recently that highlights a problem for pilots flying technically advanced aircraft. Flying on an IFR flight plan, he was told by one controller to expect a particular approach. He pulled out the chart, briefed the approach, and loaded it into his GPS.

Handed off to the next sector, he was given a heading to fly that didn't make sense and was told to join the approach course. Confused, he asked for which approach the vector was intended. When the controller told him it was for a different approach than he had been told to expect, he realized all his careful preparation was for naught. He asked for a delay so he could reset his equipment, the controller dismissively told him he didn't have time for that. What he got instead is something pilots refer to as a punishment vector away from the airport. This resulted in a considerable delay - certainly more time than he needed. All of this occurred with the pilot flying single-pilot, at the end of his duty day, in IMC.

I'd been flying earlier that day and knew that, at some point, the winds changed and the Bay Area airports switched from the Southeast Plan to the more common West Plan. Something wasn't communicated between the two ATC sectors and the result was that my friend was set-up for a potentially serious problem. This illustrates that many controllers do not understand how important a pilot's set-up can be, especially if the pilot is flying alone. So what's a pilot to do when this sort of thing happens?

Non-standard phraseology is sometimes the best way to get a controller's attention and convey your current workload. Here's an exchange I had departing a holding pattern near Sacramento Mather:
"Cirrus 123, ready for the Rio Vista GPS 25 approach, Travis information delta."

"Cirrus 123, roger, fly heading 240, when able, proceed direct EPPES"

"Heading 240, direct EPPES when able, Cirrus 123"

And 30 seconds later ...
"Cirrus 123, are you direct EPPES at this time?"

"I will be as soon as I finish twisting some knobs and pushing a few buttons, Cirrus 123"


First, don't be bashful about explicitly telling the controller that a clearance is unacceptable. Be polite, but be clear. You may be at too high an altitude, going too fast, or you might need to avoid some unsafe weather. By immediately telling ATC that a clearance won't work, you actually save everyone some time, especially if you can offer an alternative or two. Few things are more dangerous in single-pilot IFR than pressing on, trying to make a bad situation work.

When setting up for an approach, it's a good practice to have all the relevant approach charts readily available. The last thing you want is to be searching for an approach chart at a high workload moment. When I flew freight, my standard procedure was to have these approach charts available before arriving at Oakland.
  • OAK ILS RWY 29
  • OAK ILS RWY 27R
  • OAK RNAV RWY 27R
  • OAK RNAV RWY 27L
  • OAK VOR/DME 27L
  • OAK VOR 9R
  • OAK RNAV 9L
In my case, having the Oakland VORTAC tuned and identified was useful in maintaining situational awareness regardless of which approach I was anticipating. If you think this is overkill, remember that even when the Bay Area is on the Southeast Plan and Oakland is landing runways 11 and 9 left/right, it is often possible (and expedient) for light aircraft to fly the ILS RWY 27R approach and circle to another runway. Having RNAV, VOR, and ILS approaches ensures that you're prepared, even if a navaid goes out of service unexpectedly.

The same principle applies when departing an airport. You may have the SID or departure procedure out, but if your aircraft develops an unexpected problem it sure would be nice to have one or more approach charts ready for an unexpected return. Yet I seldom see pilots prepared for an emergency return to their departure airport.

To handle the unexpected in a technically advanced aircraft, you must be adept with the knob twists and button pushes required to:
  • Select an approach
  • Activate a leg on the intermediate approach course
  • Proceed direct to a fix on the intermediate approach course
  • Activate vectors-to-final
  • Recognize where you are on the approach
  • Quickly select and load another approach, perhaps to a different airport

We tend to assume that a moving map display makes it child's play to know your position on an approach, yet I often see instrument pilots make the crucial mistake of descending below a minimum altitude because they thought they'd passed a fix. So here are some suggestions on ways to improving situational awareness with the G1000 when flying an approach with a lot of stepdown fixes, like the Jackson Hole RNAV (GPS) X RWY 1 approach.



Some pilots keep their situational awareness by displaying the flight plan on the G1000's MFD, which provides a lot of details, like crossing altitudes. Unless you are flying with another pilot in the right seat, this requires more head turning since the MFD is not in your primary field of view. I prefer displaying the flight plan in the inset window on the PFD, which shows the active waypoint and the distance to that waypoint.


You can also set one of the bearing pointers to the GPS. This will display the name of the current waypoint and the distance to that waypoint in your primary field of view. If you've activated a leg of the approach to intercept, the bearing pointer will show the distance to the waypoint closest to the airport. Setting a bearing pointer to the GPS also works well if you have activated the approach with the Vectors-To-Final option. While you're being vectored, the bearing pointer will point to the current waypoint, the final approach fix, just like an ADF would if the FAF was a locator outer marker.



The GPS bearing pointer trick is also helpful when you need to display something that will make the flight plan inset window go away, like the timer window.



If you are practiced at using your GPS, have all the necessary charts at the ready, and aren't bashful about what clearances will and won't work, you'll be better prepared to handle the occasional unexpected curveball.

1 comment:

Dr.ATP said...

Re "have all the relevant approach charts readily available."

I have done this since reading the NTSB report on the American Airlines accident on approach to Cali, Coumbia. One link in the accident chain was the FO having to dig through the book of approaches to find the new arrival. "Here it is," he says on the cockpit voice recorder. Having the chart out would have kept their SA high enough.

So I was surprised to hear that the Chief Pilot of a local 135 operator has instituted an "only one chart out of the book" rule. His pilots aren't the sharpest tools in the shed, so maybe he is more concerned with them getting confused than with them being ready for changes.

My worst change was early one IFR morning going from Oakland to San Francisco, single pilot on a medical flight. I got the KSFO ATIS before I left Oakland: "expect ILS runway 28R." I loaded it into the FMS. Handed to departure, feeling on top of things, I heard "vectors for the ILS runway 28R." Perfect. Then a frequency change, and "turn right heading 250, maintain xxxx until established, cleared ILS runway 28 left approach. That was quite a scramble.