Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sweat the Small Stuff

Papers pile up on your desk, stuff accumulates in your garage, weeds grow in your garden, and you reach a point where action must be taken. Call it cleaning house or a garage sale, nothing beats finally clearing away all the junk, reorganizing, and simplifying. Think about complexity in aviation, specifically under Instrument Flight Rules, and it's easy to see some house cleaning is in order. Needless complexity in aircraft equipment and instrument procedures has increased errors, gaffes, and worse on the part of controllers and pilots alike. Both the FAA and GA manufacturers could take simple steps to clean things up and here is a list of just a few of the needed fixes and improvements.

By Any Other Name ...

The FAA Instrument Approach Procedures Division has done a great job of creating a plethora of RNAV approaches with vertical guidance. Kudos! Now it's time to tackle a much simpler problem: Instrument approach procedure names. They have become needlessly convoluted and naming conventions are important because pilots and controllers say those names over the radio, thousands of times a day. Pilots have to look-up instrument approaches, sorting through long lists of similarly named procedures. Add to the mix similarly named approaches to parallel runways and it's obvious that selecting the wrong approach by mistake could have serious repercussions.

Controllers and pilots can often be heard saying something like "Cleared RNAV GPS 32 approach" when it should be simply "Cleared RNAV 32 approach." Many pilots and controllers apparently don't realize that approach title items that appear in parenthesis are not to be used when referring to the approach. Who came up with that convention? Bet it wasn't a pilot or a controller.

Complicated, dumb naming conventions add no value, but they do create confusion and extra workload for all concerned. Consider this subset of the RNAV approaches at my home airport:

How about a naming scheme where RNAV would refer to approaches for use with appropriate area navigation or GPS, RNP would refer to approaches with curved paths reserved for authorized aircraft and aircrew (i.e. not most GA aircraft)? And lose the stuff in parenthesis fer cryin' out loud! The list of KOAK approaches would then read as follows:
That would make it easier (and safer) for everyone, now wouldn't it?

Smart Vectors-To-Final

Adhering to crossing restrictions at step-down fixes leading to an ILS is important because early interception of the glideslope does not necessarily guarantee compliance with altitude crossing restrictions outside the final approach fix (FAF). This is where Garmin's implementation of Vectors-To-Final (VTF) for instrument approaches comes under scrutiny.

Let's see, 5 plus 2.3 plus 2 = ...

Since the late 1990s, when the 430/530 units were first introduced, activating an approach with VTF has remained virtually unchanged. VTF causes any step-down fixes outside the FAF to disappear, the current waypoint becomes the FAF, and the only distance displayed is the distance to the FAF. To locate step-down fixes before the FAF, the pilot must perform some interesting mental math. This is particularly vexing because when a pilot hears a controller say "fly heading 210, vectors ILS 27 right" and they see an option named "Vectors-to-final," they naturally assume that's the option to choose. The standard operating procedure is actually to never use VTF on approaches with step-down fixes outside the FAF, even if the controller says "vectors RNAV 28 left approach."

The vectors-to-final option should result in the GPS receiver figuring out where the aircraft has intercepted the approach course and all fixes outside the FAF should be depicted. If the current behavior is required by the relevant Technical Standard Order (TSO), then Garmin and the FAA need to work to change those TSOs. Touch screens interfaces on GPS receivers are great, but pilots have been waiting for a fix for VTF behavior for over a decade. This isn't rocket science.

Alternate Airports

With the exception of the discontinued CNX 80, Garmin GPS receivers do not provide the ability to define an alternate airport as part of a programmed flight plan. In fact, the flight plan behavior of the Garmin units is so convoluted that it would take an entire blog post to describe the work-arounds pilots have to do when navigating to their alternate after a missed approach. Pilots don't need increased workload during critical phases of flight. Hello? Garmin?

Required Equipment

When pilots and instructors sit around the hangar and debate the possible reasons why ADF is required on an approach, something is wrong. An instrument approach needs to be clear so that it can be accurately flown. In the evolving world of RNAV, the convention of encoding the equipment required for an approach in the procedure name is quickly breaking down. So here's some heresy: The design details that require certain equipment for an approach should be opaque to pilots.

Pilots don't need to know why, we just need to know what. The FAA needs to list the required equipment (along with other  restrictions) on the plan view, in plain view, and in a font big enough that pilots can read. Pilots shouldn't have to theorize what stuff they need in the panel to legally fly a particular approach.

User-defined Holding Patterns

The CNX 80 allowed the pilot to program an ad hoc holding pattern and then allowed the GPS and autopilot to fly that holding pattern. The CNX80 has been discontinued and follow-on models still don't seem to have the user-defined hold feature. It's great that Garmin is working on voice-controlled avionics, but user-defined holding patterns is a basic feature that's still missing. Again beating up on Garmin, but they make it so easy. 

PT Required or No PT?

A decade ago it appeared RNAV approaches would all be designed with Terminal Arrival Areas (TAA) that would simplify the delivery of approach clearances, reduce workload on controllers, and allow pilots to navigate on their own using RNAV. While some older RNAV approaches do provide minimum safe altitude information by TAA sectors and explicitly include the No PT notation for entire TAA sectors, the TAA seems to have fallen out of favor and isn't included in many of the new RNAV approaches. Perhaps this is a cost-saving maneuver, but it sets up a bad situation with regard to procedure turns.

You were just cleared direct to an Initial Approach Fix on an RNAV approach with a 30 degree intercept to the approach course, but you're not on a transition that tells you the Hold-In-Lieu-of-Procedure turn is not required (NoPT). If the controller doesn't say "Cleared straight in RNAV ..." you're expected to fly once around the hold. Of course if the controller simply forgot to specify "straight in" and you fly the hold, you'll probably get yelled at or worse (cf. Limitation on Procedure Turns). The best advice for pilots in the situation is to query the controller if they don't get a straight-in clearance.

Perhaps depicting MSA sectors is not feasible for technical reasons, still the FAA should find a way to clearly specify when a procedure turn on an approach is required and when it isn't.

Which Weather?

Approach procedures into some non-towered airports specify that you should use the surface weather for a nearby airport. In the current age of electronic information, why can't the FAA (and by extension, Jeppesen) include the frequency for that airport's surface weather? This sort of simple cross-referencing is what computers are good at.

Digital Charts

The days of individual paper chart purchases are quickly fading and the production of these charts needs to be modernized. VFR and IFR charts need to be produced in a way that allows seamless electronic display. Many EFB users may not realize it, but there is significant effort going on behind the scenes to stitch together these charts for EFB display. And while we're at it, geo-referencing on instrument approach charts should not require significant third-party effort and cost to provide. The times they are a changin' and the Aeronav folks have been working hard to keep up with those changes. Let's hope their chart products continue to be modernized.

Jeppesen has had over a year to get their digital chart act together for the iPad, but geo-referenced en route and approach charts are still missing in action. One assumes that once these features are finally available, they still will cost you your other arm and/or leg.

Digital Documents

Cessna/Textron has probably made more training aircraft than any other manufacturer in history, but you can't get PDFs of their pilot information manuals. Diamond, Cirrus, and even Garmin provide important documents for download as PDFs. Given the rapid acceptance of electronic tablets like the iPad, Cessna needs to get with the program.

And speaking of Cessna, ever try to figure out if your aircraft's Approved Flight Manual and all of its supplements are up to date? Good luck to you because it's a nightmare!

Anyone Listening?

You may have ideas for simple fixes that would result in big payoffs for little investment, but you may ask "What's the use? Is anyone in a position to make the changes actually paying attention?" Before glossing over the idea that seemingly trivial improvements really can have a tremendous impact on any system, take a few minutes to watch Rory Sutherland's TED talk on the subject. The important points are toward the end, but it may just change the way you look at small stuff.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Weird Summer So Far

Diablo Practice Area. 28˚C at 3000 feet
Sizzling Night in Oaktown
Still 27˚C at Sunset
A few days later, rain and broken clouds ...
Odd Wx for the end of June in N. Ca
At least there's no ice ...
2 Days Later, Hot and Clear
A new ... Perspective
Micro-climates in action
Near Bolinas
Ft. Baker ... Golden Gate Bridge in there somewhere
Hot Evening in San Fran
More Micro-climates

Then today ... Walkies? Nah, it's too hot dad!