Aviation In Canada

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Lost VFR

This happened recently, and since nobody died, you're not likely to hear any more about this on the news. The reason I feel strongly about posting this little story is that it's true, and it offers some lessons.

One of the things I like about the Moncton Flight College is their strong deire to know where their planes ought to be at any given time. We, in Moncton ACC, received a call from them yesterday morning, asking if we had been talking to one of their airplanes, or if we knew where it was. Of the controllers sitting at the time, none knew of the whereabouts of this aircraft, on a VFR flight plan heading from Moncton to Bathurst, then returning to Moncton. Purely by coincidence, I wasn't busy at my sector and overheard the supervisor asking the adjacent sector, the one through which the aircraft would have flown, about the aircraft and heard its identification. I ranged out on my radar, and caught the last radar hits of an aircraft on the previously assigned code, and it was well within Montreal's airspace, near Rimouski, QC (CYXK). This was about 110 NM from Bathurst.

I told the supervisor and we discussed it for a minute. This aircraft had been assigned this code, one of the codes from a block assigned to Moncton Center by international arrangement, that was considered to be one of our internal codes -- a code assigned to an aircraft whose flight would be solely within the Moncton FIR. The odds of an aircraft talking to Montreal for flight following or for IFR flight being assigned a code in this block are slim to none, especially when it happened to be the code we were looking for. This meant the odds of it being this aircraft, despite the distance from the expected position, were very good.

Our supervisor manned the phones while we asked aircraft nearby to call on other frequencies to try to contact this aircraft. I'm not sure by what mechanism we eventually found out for sure who it was, but it was confirmed that this radar target, now intermittent, was the flight we were looking for. Through an aircraft relay, we established that the pilot wanted to fly to Bathurst, so we asked for a climb (through the other pilot) and a turn toward the southeast to point the aircraft in the right direction. Eventually, the pilot was able to communicate directly with the controller, who was now dedicated to this one frequency and this one pilot, and more questions and facts were confirmed. It was determined that the weather, while hazy, was still good VMC. The pilot had full tanks when the aircraft left Moncton, and had been flying for 3 hours. The controller talking to the aircraft and I are both familiar with it and know that it has long range tanks, good for about another two hours. The position the plane was in put it about 1 hour from Bathurst.

The pilot flew on until the aircraft entered a radar hole. Given the hills there and the lack of radar antennas nearby, this was inevitable. Now, with the loan of the VFR charts I keep at work, the controller was able to continue flight following in a different kind of way. He asked the pilot to periodically call out prominent landmarks, waterways and highways, allowing him to get at least a general position and confirm that the aircraft was still heading in the correct direction. Our supervisor called the Bathurst Airport to confirm that the weather was still good VFR, and to ask about traffic in the vicinity so we could relay to the pilot. The non-radar flight following went on until the aircraft eventually called the Bathurst airport in sight, at which time the pilot was asked to give a call when on the ground so we knew the aircraft landed safely.

Lesson time. The pilot had very little idea of where the airplane was. The geography was unfamiliar, and said that calls were made on familiar frequencies. Problem is, the calls went unheard since the aircraft was down low and on the opposite side of the hills on the Gaspe Penninsula. The chart the pilot had on board was insufficient to help in navigating. The Moncton VNC (AIR 5003) covers the intended route of flight between Moncton and Bathurst, so there would be no expectation of a need for the Chicoutimi chart which begins coverage where the Moncton one ends, about 20NM north of Bathurst. Therefore, the pilot did not have the charts for the area in which the aircraft ended up. This meant there was no navigation assistance from the charts on board, and no radio frequencies for the pilot to use to call, other than the standard ones on which no responses were heard, according to the pilot. Maybe it's a good idea to include charts adjacent to the ones that are known to be needed. And make sure you have them with you, too. This situation also goes back to a post I made here some time ago, about knowing the radio frequencies for the ATC units in the area. Fortunately, we were able to get a hold of the pilot, but if the right frequencies were known for the area, the pilot would have been able to make a call for help earlier. Having all the appropriate charts on board or at least studying a little and noting important things before departure could make a difference.

Personally, I think the pilot did a good job, once things were established. The controller also had a good, calm demeanor, which lent itself to the pilot to help calm the nerves in the cockpit, too. Add to that the familiarity with the airplane and the geography, and he went a long way toward a good resolution. The supervisor I worked with made at least 12,000 calls in support of the operation, and my charts were a welcome addition. I knew I kept those for a reason.