Thursday, July 24, 2008

Catching Up

When a comment gets posted to this blog, I'm supposed to get an email. Unfortunately, an email is not always sent and I when I logged onto Blogger the other day I noticed several comments awaiting my review. Some comments had to do with older posts and I've put those comments up and responded to most. If you posted one of these delayed comments, my apologies for my less than timely response. To paraphrase one of the lines from the movie Repo Man, "I blame Blogger."

One commenter was really asking an unrelated question, so I'll quote it here and offer my opinionated answer:
I'm doing my initial issue multi engine instrument rating here in Aus, and everything is based off the NDB/ADF. You cannot gain an initial issue without demonstrating use of those.

In the US it seems the NDBs are being switched off, so I'm assuming the fundamentals of the rating is not geared around this antiquated piece of equipment.

Is this the case? How is the thing structured in the US?

Thanks if you have time to reply.

Good question Tony. NDBs are being phased out in the U.S., but they still quite common in some parts of the country. There are very few NDB stations remaining in California, but a large number are in service in the Midwest and Eastern states. I know at least one part 121 freight operator that requires pilot applicants to demonstrate an NDB approach. Whether or not an instrument rating candidate in the U.S. will be asked to demonstrate an NDB approach or NDB navigation depends to a large extent on where the practical test is being conducted.

The other obvious issue is the equipment installed in the aircraft the applicant is using for the practical test. If you don't have a functioning Automatic Direction Finder, the examiner can't very well ask you to demonstrate its use. This doesn't preclude an examiner from asking you theoretical questions about NDBs and their use during the oral portion of the test, it just makes it less likely. The same principal holds true for an IFR-approved GPS receiver and an autopilot. If you don't have a GPS in the plane or if the GPS database isn't current, the examiner can't ask you to use it. If your aircraft has a functioning autopilot, you'll be required to demonstrate its use on an approach.

Isn't it interesting how many old ADF receiver and flakey autopilots are suddenly placarded INOP just before a check ride?

There's an amazing amount of variety (or is it inconsistency?) in the approach facilities available in the U.S. where the list of possible navigation aids include ILS (instrument landing system), Localizer, LDA (Localizer-type Direction Aid), SDF (Simplified Directional Facility), VOR, NDB, and GPS/RNAV. Oh, I forgot to mention the MLS (Microwave Landing System): It was supposed to replace the ILS but it never really ... er ... took off. There are only a dozen or so SDF approaches in the entire U.S. and none in California, where I live and work. This situation has all the hallmarks of a system that grew up over time with a little being added here, then a little there. This means instrument pilots who fly to a variety of destinations in the U.S. need an almost encyclopedic level of knowledge on all these systems and their limitations.

NDB navigation outside the U.S. is generally alive and well, as I found when I flew through the Caribbean. So I do my best to expose instrument applicants to NDB navigation. I don't have access to many aircraft with a functioning ADF and there are just a few nearby NDBs around with which to navigate - Stockton and Watsonville come to mind. One can still use the G1000 to simulate an AFD/NDB setup.

Expanding this scenario further, consider flying IFR in a steam gauge aircraft (with separate, round instruments) versus flying a glass panel aircraft with integrated electronic displays. A pilot who learns in a steam gauge aircraft and earns his or her instrument rating could theoretically jump into a glass cockpit and launch into the soup. And vice versa. So while there are plenty of regulations and equipment in the U.S., I'm not sure how much "structure" there actually is.

Did I say that out loud?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Practice Area Ahead

It's easy to recognize inexperienced air traffic controllers on the radio, just as it's easy to recognize a student pilot on frequency because student pilots and controllers-in-training have a lot in common. The student pilot is learning to control their aircraft in a safe manner while simultaneously talking and coordinating with ATC, but they don't have much experience. The new controller is figuring out how to manage aircraft in their airspace and on their taxiways, learning to be the voice of authority that pilots will listen to and respect, and they don't have much experience either.

As a flight instructor, I can relate to the controller-in-training situation because they are often working with another controller who is acting as their instructor.

If you fly regularly and talk to ATC or if you read any of the blogs by FAA air traffic control specialists, it's pretty clear that the FAA is in a tight spot. Experienced controllers are retiring at an pace never seen before, the FAA can't seem to hire and train new controllers fast enough, and the ones that are hired have their hands full: Low pay, long hours, and a lot to learn in a short time. In spite of this situation, ATC consistently provides excellent service the majority of the time, even while showing the ropes to new controllers.

Most pilots have overheard a controller interacting with an inexperienced or a less-than-competent pilot, trying to work out some issue or another. Usually the controller is just trying to figure out the pilot's intentions. When a controller is patient, relaxed, and friendly, the end result is more likely to be positive for all concerned. When a controller is under stress and gets impatient, rude, or angry, the end result is not so good: Pilots walk away with a bad feeling that can foster an adversarial relationship with ATC rather than a sense of partnership. The same thing can happen when pilots are surly toward controllers, but this is not saying anything new.

My philosophy as a flight instructor is to let the pilot I'm instructing make some mistakes on the radio, up to a point. I want my students to be confident that if they get confused, they will able to work things out with ATC. When a controller's workload is high, I'm not bashful about intervening on the radio to prevent needless confusion and mayhem that may only serve to increase the controller's stress level. For example, I will respond to an ATC instruction when the frequency is crowded and the pilot I'm instructing does not respond in a timely fashion. This gives a positive example to the pilot of how to respond promptly while preserving the controller's tempo and pacing.

I regularly hear student pilots or pilots with little experience whose radio technique can only be described as awful and there are two basic reasons: Flight instructors who pass on their own sloppy technique and certificated pilots who know better, but are out of practice or simply content to be sloppy. There are plenty of good sources of information on the internet about aviation radio technique and I've even written about this topic a bit in the past. Based on some of the pilots I've heard out there, it's obvious that many flight instructors aren't providing enough training in radio communications.

Instructors need to set high standards for radio communications and ensure that students meet those standards, especially before conferring solo privileges. A lot of radio practice and drilling can be done on the ground, outside of the aircraft, without noise and distraction, and without burning any fuel or wasting ATC's time. Pilots who fly infrequently can study and practice radio communications by simply listening to ATC chatter in their off time. Internet sites like Live ATC let you listen to ATC on your computer, but remember that you'll hear bad radio technique mixed in with the good: Emulate the good technique, recognize and eschew the bad.

With all the controllers-in-training out there, an experienced pilot or instructor often finds themselves being handled by an inexperienced controller. Just the other day, a tower controller asked us to expedite our exit from the runway for traffic on a half mile final. I'm all for helping out controllers and other pilots, but in this case the controller had violated an unspoken rule: She made this request just as we entered the landing flare and before any of our wheels had actually touched pavement. To make matters worse, I was trying to help the pilot solidify his landing technique in a new, and heavily-loaded, high-performance Cessna. I thought about giving some on-the-air feedback about her timing, but I just bit my tongue and hoped that an instructor was standing by on the other side of the radio.

Like pilots, experienced controllers can get sloppy, too. Flying practice approaches with a student the other day, she checked in with her altitude and asked for a practice ILS approach. The controller gave her a heading to fly and a climb to 3000 feet. I had to opine that 3000' would put us in Class Bravo, that we were currently VFR, and the controller had not explicitly cleared us to enter Bravo. So she asked the controller to verify she was cleared to enter Class Bravo and he said something like "If I give you an altitude in Bravo, you are cleared to go there ..." I winced and said "Unfortunately he's wrong, he should say the words 'cleared to enter class Bravo' and you were right to ask for clarification."

I explain to instrument rating candidates the procedure that controllers are supposed to follow for RNAV approaches, but some controllers don't seem to be up to speed - they'll vector you to a point inside the Intermediate Fix rather than clearing you direct to the Initial Approach Fix or the Intermediate Fix. Frankly, I don't think many controllers out there have any idea of the level of sophistication that exists in newer GA aircraft and that pilots of these aircraft can fly autopilot coupled approaches that can join the final approach course more accurately than any vectoring the controller might be willing to offer. Air traffic control's lack of understanding of RNAV approach procedures (combined with other mistakes) have contributed to at least one fatal accident that I know of in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I teach instrument candidates to refer to an RNAV (GPS) approach as an RNAV approach, even though many controllers still refer to these as GPS approaches. I can appreciate how changes to en route, approach and departure procedures might be confusing, especially if controllers (and pilots) are not kept up to speed. Both the FAA Order 7110.65S and the Instrument Procedures Handbook state that “GPS” is not included in the ATC approach clearance for these procedures. It's a small thing that a lot of the controllers and pilots out there can't seem to get right.

When considering the separate, but intersecting worlds that pilots and controllers inhabit, it would be ideal if both sides were to develop some understanding of the other's world. Pilots are certainly free to read Order 7110.65S and controllers could be encouraged to ride along in an aircraft from time to time. I can't get any good data on the percentage of controllers who also hold pilot certificates, but when I did a tour of Oakland Center many years ago I recall being told it was only around 20%.

I recall when doing a tour of the KPAO tower that same year that tower controllers were encouraged to do annual jumpseat rides so they could observe what goes on in a cockpit. My understanding is that this practice stopped after 9/11 due to security concerns and a lack of cooperation between the various agencies involved. Too bad that approach controllers don't get to ride along in a GA airplane and appreciate the results of a slam-dunk vector to an approach into a busy airport.

Operation Raincheck, which encouraged pilots to visit ATC control towers, TRACON, and ARTCC facilities now seems to accomplished at the discretion of the facility's management. Some facilities still encourage these visits, but they are not nearly as widespread as they used to be. That's a shame because it allowed pilots to listen in with a controller and see all the stuff they were doing while simultaneously talking to aircraft crews. I sat in with a center controller covering Northern California and when a pilot requested an IFR clearance, departed and then cancelled IFR the controller muttered something like "I don't know what that was all about, it's VFR in Redding." When I suggested that the pilot might be practicing his IFR techniques in VFR conditions so he'll not be rusty when he needs to use them for real, the controller said "Oh ... you're probably right ..."

Just a few things to think about while you ply the skies in a small aircraft, or sit in front of a radar screen, or peer out the window of a tower cab.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Follow the Rules, Follow your Nose

I heard a fascinating exchange the other day between an Oakland Center controller and a pilot who was flying into Little River, near Mendicino on the northern California coast. The important background for this exchange is that weather at Little River is often IFR and this airport does not (yet) have any instrument approach procedures. Apparently the county and the airport association have been working for several years to get an RNAV approach to runways 29 and 11, but I gather there are several hurdles left to clear.

One important accomplishment is that the airport recently installed an automated weather observing system (AWOS-3) that can be accessed on the airport's common traffic advisory frequency. So it is likely the pilot I heard who was inbound for landing at Little River had received the "one minute weather" from the AWOS. Either that or he couldn't see the airport because he asked Oakland Center for a contact approach, which indicated to me that the aircraft was operating under instrument flight rules (IFR).

To my surprise, the center controller approved his request, terminated radar service, cleared him to the airport's advisory frequency, and asked him to cancel on the center frequency or on the ground with flight service. Here's an excerpt from the Low Altitude En Route chart that shows Little River. Note that the airport symbol (which I've circled in red) is rendered in brown ink, meaning the airport has no instrument approach procedures.

To readers who are not familiar the term "contact approach," it is procedure conducted under instrument flight rules that allows a pilot to proceed with visual references to an airport. In the U.S., the pilot must be operating clear of clouds, have at least 1 mile flight visibility, and must reasonably expect to be able to continue to the destination airport in these conditions. Like a Special VFR clearance, a controller cannot offer a contact approach, the pilot must request it.

I was startled that the Oakland Center controller approved the pilot's request for a contact approach because, to my knowledge, the airport has no instrument approaches available. Section 5-4-24(c) of the Aeronautical Information Manual is very clear about this, so I'll just quote it (emphasis mine):
A contact approach is an approach procedure that may be used by a pilot (with prior authorization from ATC) in lieu of conducting a standard or special IAP to an airport. It is not intended for use by a pilot on an IFR flight clearance to operate to an airport not having a published and functioning IAP. Nor is it intended for an aircraft to conduct an instrument approach to one airport and then, when "in the clear," discontinue that approach and proceed to another airport. In the execution of a contact approach, the pilot assumes the responsibility for obstruction clearance. If radar service is being received, it will automatically terminate when the pilot is instructed to change to advisory frequency.
So either there's a special instrument approach procedure into Little River of which I'm unaware or the controller should not have approved the pilot's request for a contact approach.

The airspace around Little River is Class G (uncontrolled airspace) up to 1200 feet AGL (above ground level). Above 1200 feet is Class E (controlled airspace). I've heard many a hair-raising tale about pilots scud running their way into Little River and it always seems the pilot involved was heavily under the influence of "getthereitus." If you can stay clear of the clouds at or below 1200 feet AGL and you have 1 mile visibility, you're legal to try to fly VFR into Little River. But just because it's legal doesn't mean it's a smart thing to do.

As to why an FAA air traffic controller would clear someone for a contact approach into an airport that doesn't have an instrument approach procedure, well I'm still trying to figure out that one. Perhaps it is due to the influx of so many newly hired controllers or some other factor of which I am not aware ...