Aviation In Canada

Monday, February 28, 2005

Useless Speed Restrictions

Early in my days of IFR control, I was guilty of the same thing expressed in the title. What do I mean? I hear it spoken sometimes at work by other controllers attempting to avoid putting #2 into a hold at one of our smaller airports, as discussed in yesterday's post. He doesn't really know exactly how much to tell the next pilot to slow down, so he uses an intentionally vague expression like, "reduce speed a bit," or maybe something like, "slow down a touch." Neither of which are useful to a pilot, really. I mean, just how much is a "bit"? How is that indicative of a value that will help? I have tried to teach any trainees that I've had that if a speed restriction is to be issued, make it count. Give the pilot a number to work with. Personally, I am happy that some pilots will come back and ask for a value, forcing the controller to think a little more about what he just said. I don't know if the message was received, but hopefully it will be in the long run.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Multiple Approaches

Not all airports in Canada can have more than one IFR aircraft on approach at a time. In fact, most can't. The major airports which account for more arrivals than the others put together have better equipment, more facilities, and tighter control on things to allow simultaneous approaches (not thinking of simultaneous landings here, just more than one aircraft cleared for an instrument approach procedure at the same time).

Most satellite airports are not served by terminal control units, and the majority of them don't even have air traffic control towers in place. The may have flight service stations or CARS (Community Aerodrome Radio Stations). As such, ATC lacks the equipment and facilities to allow more than one IFR aircraft on an instrument approach procedure at the same time. In a classic circumstance, more than one aircraft is inbound to such a field, and nearly tied. That means #1 gets there without delay, and #2 must wait until #1 has landed or canceled IFR. It doesn't matter which one ATC makes #1, whoever becomes #2 ends up with a massive speed restriction, a wide vector, or a holding clearance, all amounting to a significant delay. It gets worse with another rule resulting from an incident a few years back if the weather is IMC at destination. ATC must wait not just until the #1 aicraft lands, but until he has cleared all runways, too.

Such is a miserable case at CYSJ, Saint John, NB. A jet landing R23 after an ILS must backtrack whatever amount of the 7,000 foot runway to get clear since they don't have a parallel taxiway. The amount of time it takes for a jet to backtrack, especially if the runway is slippery and he rolled out far, means that #2 could end up with a very significant delay. In fact, if ATC vectors #2, he may require something on the order of 15-20NM between airplanes to prevent #2 from entering a hold! Talk about inefficient.

PS- I'm heading up to Ottawa again beginning Monday morning. My computer access will be limited, but I'll try to keep posting while I'm away. No promises, though.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

"Descent at your discretion" Revisited

I wrote some time ago about this subject, and was challenged by a reader. So I loaded up the guns with section RAC 8.5.1 out of the AIP Canada, the book which details rules for operating within Canadian airspace. As was was loading the first shell, I read the paragraph looking for quotes. There it was. The one that proved me wrong.

I had said that a pilot in receipt of such a clearance must, upon leaving the previously assigned altitude, make a descent at a rate commensurate with the type of aircraft, excluding the interpretation of clearances for climbs and descents "at pilot's discretion" as authority for a "cruise climb" or "cruise descent." Turns out, I'm flatly wrong.

In days gone by, the Canadian rules regarding the phrase didn't even include authority for a pilot to level off at an intermediate altitude without telling ATC. This change was made a few years back, though I'm not sure when, to include that authority. To my knowledge, the wording hasn't in the paragraph changed since then, so the sentence, "Vertical navigation is at the pilot's discretion," must have been there from the start. This is quite easily interpretted as authority for a cruise descent/climb, so I must stand down from my assertion in the previous post. My beliefs were based on other words in the paragraph, completely missing this statement. I guess it's a good thing I hadn't berated a pilot for doing a cruise descent with a discretionary clearance.

The slap with the wet noodle is deserved. Thank you, sir, may I have another?

Friday, February 25, 2005

Visual Passage

When two aircraft are travelling in opposite directions along the same track and one wants to climb or descend the altitude of the other, ATC has to find some way of proving that they have passed before he can issue such a clearance. Most often, radar is used, since it's normally the most efficient. In a non-radar environment, ATC has to use other methods. The typical standard is DME. One reports 20DME west of a facility westbound and the other reports 15DME west of it eastbound and separation is proven. The 5DME difference was chosen intentionally, since that's the minimum useable.

When the two aircraft involved see each other, visual passage can be used to prove "tail to tail". Many pilots who fly in non-radar environments regularly are already familiar with this trick, as many offer such a report before it is asked for by ATC. The kicker is that both aircraft must report visual passage before ATC can discontinue vertical separation. If only one reports the passage, ATC has to wait for something else. This has actually been used quite successfully between two sharp pilots in a radar environment, too. Typically, one pilot reports passage before they have passed, giving the other pilot the hint that the visual passage report may help, and he reports in quickly, too. Do I feel this is dangerours? Not at all. You can't tell me that if a pilot reports passage before his traffic has passed and I clear him down that he's going to dive, knowing full well where is traffic is (remember that he saw him already) and run into him. Mind you, both pilots have to know that the visual report would be helpful. The one wanting to descend, for example, is often the one who is quickest with his report, while the other guy doesn't always realize that he is holding someone else up.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Thanks for Kind Words

I've received a few e-mails, and seen some of the comments to my posts recently which prompted this post. Air traffic control is largely a thankless job. Often, the job satisfaction comes to us in believing we did a good job, rather than being told so. Hey, I can understand it, too. I fly and have had the same doubts as to whether the guy in the tower or the center is doing everything he can to give me the best he can. It's really easy, too, to get the feeling that what you're interested in at any given moment should be the priority. And maybe it should be! In the absence of all the information, as with any position, it's difficult to understand the decisions being made. And ATC makes mistakes, too, like anyone else.

The praise of a manager or supervisor is all too often, in the ATC business and perhaps elsewhere, disregarded as an attempt to cultivate "good employer-employee relations" rather than a genuine pat on the back -- rightly or wrongly. The praise of a controller's peers often means so much more. With many pilots willing to nag controllers on the frequencies, and even some who desire the confrontation of a phone call after landing, it's a real refreshing moment when a pilot calls or writes to thank ATC for the job done. I'm certainly not asking for things to change and for every pilot to include a phone call to ATC after tying down the airplane. That would be too far in the other direction, to be sure. Nor am I trying to say that we, as a group, deserve praise for what we do every day, either.

This is merely a thanks on behalf of ATC for those who have taken the time to write the odd letter or make the odd phonecall thanking ATC as a group for things they have done. They are happily received.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

ATC Radio Usage

Continuing the subject of radios, I thought I'd post about radio usage. The Moncton FIR is the smallest FIR in Canada, and our low level sectors have about the same footprint of our FIR. I say about the same, because it's a little different thanks to history. Anyway, within that area, we have divided it into several sectors which are based on the normal flow of traffic so that we can best match our resources to the needs of the aircraft. Each of those sectors requires at least one radio transmitter so we can talk to the aircraft. As it turns out, our traffic patterns, the aircraft we deal with, the diversity of our airspace (radar, non-radar, oceanic and domestic, etc), and a certain need for redundancy requires more than one transceiver per sector. We typically call our transceivers "frequencies" since that's how we refer to them when changing pilots to different sectors.

As workload varies throughout the day, we consolidate our sectors differently. For example, in the middle of the day, all of our sectors may be separated, each being worked by a different controller, perhaps with the addition of a "data man" if an individual sector is busy enough -- one person on the radio and hotlines and one on the landlines. In the middle of the night, traffic flow is so light comparatively, that our sectors will be "rolled in" to one, with the inclusion of Halifax Terminal's airspace and their frequencies. In such a configuration, the one controller working the entire low level airspace can have as many as 17 different frequencies to monitor, 16 hotlines, and about 30 phone lines to answer. Mind you, there won't be a lot of activity on each one. The normal method of operation is to have all of our transceivers engaged for transmit, so you may hear a controller having a radio exchange with an aircraft, but never hear his responses. He could be on a completely different frequency, even though I am working him in the same manor as I am working you. This has the disadvantage of allowing one aircraft to make a call, feeling he is alone and not "stepping" on anyone, at the same time as another on a different frequency, and neither knowing about the other aircraft's call.

Some ATC units have "radio retransmit units", also known as "frequency coupling". This allows the incoming transmission on one frequency to be rebroadcast on the same controller's other frequencies. This means aircraft on separate frequencies, perhaps located several hundred miles away, can hear aircraft in other areas so they know someone else is transmitting. So, for example, if I am receiving a long, detailed readback of an oceanic clearance, other aircraft on my other freuqencies would hear them and know not to call in, since it would ruin my chances of hearing the readback in its entirety. This would mean me having to go back to the oceanic aircraft and having to ask him again for the readback.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Another Radio Communications Gripe

This is another one that gets me ruffled: When a controller tells you, as a pilot, to contact another ATC, a flight service station, or whatever, please, I beg of you, key your mic and say something. Anything. Just so I know you heard me. If you don't acknowledge, I have to call you again. And again. And probably again a few more times. I have to check with the next controller, who may be very busy, to see if you called him. And if he's busy, he doesn't want that. But if he's busy, the last thing he needs is an aircraft in his area, in the middle of his traffic, that he can't talk to. And by then, you may be out of range of my radio, so neither of us can get you. Prompt action is required on our part to be sure to prevent such a situation, all because you wouldn't say, "See ya," "Goodday," "Roger," or something else so simple to let me know you heard me.

It's such a simple request. Please help out. :)

Monday, February 21, 2005

Radio Communications Gripe

And speaking of communications, here's a gripe. A frequent occurrence typically involves VFR flight following. The idea behind flight following is to have an extra pair of eyes looking out for your flight, even if you're in airspace that does not require you to talk to ATC. We radar identify your aircraft and provide you with traffic information, as well as significant weather developments along your route of flight, workload and equipment permitting. What's my beef? Pilots who call up asking for flight following, and then leave my frequency without telling me. I can't possibly provide you with information if you're not listening to me. Also, if you leave radar coverage, how will you know if you can't hear me tell you? You may assume you're being provided with a service when I may not have seen you on radar for a long time. ATC understands the need to make radio calls to MF/ATF areas, FSS and others. All I ask is to extend the controller the courtesy of telling me when you plan to leave his frequency, and let him know when you're back with him.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


Communication is an art. So many people ask the wrong question. "Are you gonna eat all of that?" rather than, "May I have some of that?" Or, "Honey, can you take the garbage out?" rather than, "Honey, would you take the garbage out?" Of course I can take the garbage out. Oh, you want me to? Sure.

How does that relate to aviation? Here's an example.

A few years ago, a seasoned veteran controller was working an aircraft north of CYCL at FL240, cruising at 240 knots. The pilot radioed, and I quote with the exception of the callsign, "Moncton, N123A, I've had an engine failure and need to descend." The controller issued a descent to 10,000 and was told to standby when he asked if he could provide any assistance. I was near our supervisor's desk and overheard him telling his dataman that someone had an engine failure. Out of morbid curiousity, I walked over to see what was up. I quietly asked who had the engine failure and he calmly told me this particular aircraft reported an engine failure and the pilot seemed pretty calm about it. After looking at the flight plan, I told him that the aircraft only had one engine. Turns out, the aircraft was a newer type of single-engine turboprop that he was unfamiliar with. The calm transmission from the pilot combined with the words he had chosen led the controller to believe everything was being handled and nothing terribly serious had developed just yet. We understand that in an unusual situation like an engine failure, the pilots are busy and we try not to bother them when they may be otherwise occupied. So he was calmly waiting for the pilot to provide more information, assuming he was running through checklists and such. The aircraft eventually made an emergency landing, after being provided with weather details and finding a suitable airport.

Had the pilot said, "I've lost my engine" as opposed to "an engine," the very statement could have communicated the gravity of the situation. Also, while some maintain that communications should be clear, concise and spoken in even tones at all times, there are occasions where an elevated tone can convey more than just the words speaking for themselves. Tone of voice can underscore their importance so that even if the words are obscured by static, someone can still understand that a serious situation is afoot. My thunderstorm story from a few days ago was an example. The elevated tones and stress evident in the pilot's voice made me very aware early on that things weren't progressing in a very good direction -- even before he started the uncontrolled descent. Rest assured that if you hear me speaking in an elevated tone, it's serious.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Slippery Runways

One morning in late winter while I worked in the tower at CYHZ, there was a warmer airmass over our region while the ground was still snow covered. This often leads to fog, and this was characteristic of the region being dense enough to prevent us from seeing the apron in front of us, let alone the runways. We had some freezing drizzle fall while the temperature remained around freezing. This left an ice covered runway in the middle of an inbound flow, and the ice was wet. The Dash 8's didn't say anything about braking action (they would rarely use brakes on the active runway which was 7,700 feet). Then a BAe-146 landed. I watched him drop off the radar, and gave him several seconds to get slowed down. I told him to take his first available right turn and report off the runway on my frequency, so the B757 behind him could get a landing clearance. He responded with, "Well, we're still sliding here, we'll let you know when we get stopped."

After what seemed like an eternity, a shaken voice came over the radio. "We're just getting it stopped about 75 feet from the end of the runway now. We'll call braking action 'nil'." He confirmed that he touched down about 1,000 feet along, typical for an ILS. He used 6,700 feet of an uphill runway while landing into wind. Now a larger, heavier aircraft is on final. I reported this to the B757, anticipating that he may not want to land. He asked for a landing clearance, which I gave him.

Upon landing, the 757 reported braking action "fair" and turned onto a taxiway about 1,500 feet from the end without a hint of panic in the voice. What a difference thrust reversers can make.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Runway Slope

Have you ever seen the markings on an airport diagram that say something like, "0.77% up," alongside one of the runways? Ever wonder what it means?

It's an indication of slope that can be reduced to a calculation, but it really means nothing without some experience to go with it. Think of a percentage and you realize it's based on 100. So this value above, being 0.77%, means 0.77 over 100. This is the rise over the run. An easier way to look at it is to multiply both by 10, to retain the same ratio, and work with 7.7 over 1,000. The reason I say this is easier is because we measure runways in 1,000's of feet and it makes it simple. This makes for a 7.7 foot rise over a 1,000 foot run. For example, a runway with a 0.77% slope that is 4,000 feet long will have a difference in elevation between thresholds of (7.7 * 4) = 31 feet (30.8 rounded up). If it were a 10,000 foot runway, it would be 77 feet in difference between one end and the other. Note that present this way, it doesn't include the fact that a long runway often rolls with a hill or dale in the middle of it, perhaps making a more significant slope in one area, rather than a steady grade all the way along its length.

Slopes on roads are marked the same way. If you see a sign warning you of a 16% slope, it means that over a 1,000 foot run, you'll drop 160 feet. Or over a 1,000m run, you'll drop 160m. In one kilometer, a drop of about 550 feet is pretty significant. Especially if you're facing the hill from the bottom on a bicycle -- or from the middle on the way down and your brakes have fail. Think about that for a split second and ask yourself: Would be ready for it if it were to happen to you?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Best "Ride Report" Ever

In Moncton Center, our airspace is divided between our high level and low level groups with high having everything FL290 and above. One morning a couple of years ago, while things were quiet, the high level controller noticed an A320, a regular flight from CYYT to CYYZ, was passing through at FL280, below his area. He asked me to get a ride report when I talked to him for relay to others in his area above him. Gander handed the aircraft off to me. The initial call had a bit of a lively step, and went like this:

"Moncton Center, good morning! Airline 123 is with you at FL280, and it's smooth as the inside of a school girl's thigh!"

Unless he was monitoring my frequency for a long time -- which is highly unlikely -- he wouldn't have known he wouldn't reach a woman on the other side of the radio when he called in. I hit the hotline to high level and said, "Here's that ride report you were looking for..."

Note: The name of the airline and the flight number have been changed to protect the guilty.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Thunderstorms and Light Airplanes, Part 2

This story is the continuation of yesterday's post. The background info in that section is important to understanding today's post.

The Cherokee continued on, despite the bad weather reported in the SIGMET and by other pilots in the area. He entered the southern edge of the line of CBs (abbreviation for Cumulonimbus, big, fluffy, deadly clouds) from the south side at a shallow angle. He called for clearance to climb to 7,000. I issued it promptly. He climbed. Passing through 7,700, he asked for a clearance to climb to 9,000. I issued it promptly, being well aware that things weren't good. I called to my supervisor to report the beginnings of something bad. The PA-31 I mentioned earlier was still picking his way through, but he was able to make a requested course change to get him out from underneath the PA-28.

The highest I saw the PA-28 was 7,800. The aircraft started descending at that point at a rate of 1,600 feet per minute, according to the radar. I asked if he was alright. The response was one I will remember, for a few reasons. The pilot was very professional in his R/T throughout all previous contacts. His answer, shrouded by a crackling noise I would later find out was hail hitting the windshield loudly enough to be heard through his radio (not static from the storm), was, "Well, I'm getting the snot beat out of me right now..." The air around him was descending faster than the aircraft could climb. Never a good thing. The turbulence, he said, was worse than he had ever encountered before.

I advised him the lowest altitude I knew off hand that was safe in his area was 2,800 and that I would look for something lower. He was quite certain in his reply that he'd be going below that. My supervisor found me a map that showed hills up to 1,200 feet, but we knew the area was a popular choice for new cellular telephone towers since the publishing of the chart. I advised the pilot of this as he descended rapidly through 3,500 and he said he'd try to keep it above 1,500 feet.

He did. I saw 1,600 on the Mode C before he finally levelled off. He broke out of the downdraft horizontally and said he was still IMC in heavy rain at that point but was showing a climb. He asked for a vector to the nearest airport. I said Halifax was 40NM due south. He asked about Charlottetown, which he believed was closer. I said, "It is closer, but you'd have to go through another 30 to 40 miles of what you just went through to get there." "What's a good heading for Halifax?" was the reply.

He landed uneventfully and spent the night in CYHZ. I reviewed the incident a thousand times over to see if I could have done anything else that might have kept him from going through, other than forcing him not do it by directing him south. ATC's job is to provide the pilot with what he wants to the best of their ability given equipment, circumstances and other traffic. Who would I be to tell the pilot he can't do what he wants to do if other traffic permits it? After all, it is his butt in the cockpit, not mine. Would you, as a pilot, be willing to have me tell you how to fly your airplane? I think not. It would be like me telling you how to drive your car while I sit in the back seat. Still, it's one of the most helpless feelings I have ever experienced. Here I am, a person trained to be in control (and you have to be a control freak to some extent to be a successful ATC), and there's not a damn thing I can do to help this guy out as he descends. My job is one of safety, and I'm watching an aircraft in an uncontrolled descent into terrain. It's not a good feeling thinking that you may very well be the last one to talk to a person. I'm just glad all of this turned into a write up on an incident, rather than an accident investigation.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Thunderstorms and Light Airplanes

I know it's a little out of season, but this story happened in my airspace one afternoon a few years ago, and I thought I'd share...

The flight plan was a PA-28 enroute from KBGR (Bangor, ME) to CYYT (St.John's, NF), presumably on a trans-Atlantic ferry flight, stopping there for fuel. We had a SIGMET regarding a line of thunderstorms stretching from YFC to YQY, tops at 45,000 according to radar. This is a pretty significant line, and it crosses the PA-28's intended track at about at 20 degree angle, with a width, according to the SIGMET, of about 30NM. Great set up, no?

Anyway, this airplane entered my area south of YQM at 5,000 feet, IFR and IMC. I offered him the SIGMET information and he told me the skies didn't look too bad ahead, so he continued on. A PA-31 Navajo with weather radar operating underneath him at 4,000 asked for deviations around some embedded buildups, so I knew it was near his area. I cautioned the pilot about it again, and he elected to continue, stating he was now in some rough air.

I looked for more information, but Canadian ATC's weather radar is a poor presentation at best. I had two Dash 8's out of Halifax, one heading to Moncton and one to Charlottetown, both tracks crossing the PA-28's intended track about 20 and 40 NM ahead respectively. I asked them to describe what they saw on radar to me so I could paint a mental picture and relate that to the PA-28. It was ugly. A dense line of thunderstorms as advertised on the SIGMET. In fact, upon further examination, both flight crews on the Dashes elected to return to Halifax rather than attempt to penetrate the area.

A Dash8 is one of the most rugged airplanes I'm familiar with. Both of these decided to turn tail and run. The Cherokee pilot, even with all of this information, decided to continue on. Sound like a bad plan? Tune in tomorrow for more on the story.

(I hate it when people do that to me, but it is kind of fun from a writer's point of view... Besides, this post would just be too long if continued today.)

Monday, February 14, 2005

Aviation Safety Letter

The Aviation Safety Letter has been mentioned in previous posts here. It's a valuable resource for learning, as much as it is a stitch in the craw of those who hate rules and procedures. Their slogan used to be one that I really like:

Learn from the mistakes of others. You'll not live long enough to make them all yourself.

Throughout their articles, you will read how some operator skimped on an expense which ultimately lead to a crash, or how a pilot made an improper decision to carry out a flight or an approach when conditions the reader, who invariably has more time to think about it, knows a problem is likely to occur. Personally, I find post-accident investigations incredibly fascinating. Why things happen the way they do, how things are interconnected, and the psychology behind the decisions made.

And, the Aviation Safety Letter gives us a chance to relive incidents and accidents, giving us the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others. The letters are archived, as mentioned before, here:


Sunday, February 13, 2005

Aviation TV Show

I caught a piece of a show on Outdoor Life Network (one of my favorite networks, thanks to programs about mountain biking) called The Flight. It ran at 4:00pm AST for one hour. The show detailed a flight from Toronto to Frankfurt, catching some glimpses on the inside as well. They presented an interesting comparison of views.

You're a passenger aboard a B767. The seat gets rather cramped on the ~7 hr flight, the movie gets old. As an airline passenger, you're not terribly happy anyway, but now you're trying to catch some sleep in an upright position on an airliner as you cross the North Atlantic -- a feat completed in about 34 hours by Lindberg, but now you'll do it in less than a quarter of the time. You feel alone as you look out the window at the dark sky and the featureless ocean below. Little do you know how far from alone you are...

Other than the passengers in the seats around you, the flight attendants and the pilots, there are many others watching over you. The dispatchers planned every aspect of your flight before you even got to the airport. They watched the weather, examined possible routes and planned the load factors for the aircraft. The flight plan was processed by specialists in Nav Canada who keep the computer systems fed with data. The air traffic controllers in the tower, various ATC enroute facilities (like mine!) and those over the ocean kept a watchful eye on your flight, and the 300 others around you over the ocean, all going the same direction to make connections in Europe by daybreak. The airport authorities are the ones who kept the runways clean and free of FOD, the lights at the airport serviceable and the NAVAIDs to help guide your plane through the fog are looking out for your safe arrival. The maintenance techincians kept the whole thing running, from the airport grounds to the ATC facilities to the airplane you're flying in. And don't forget the ramp handlers that looked after your plane at the gate and handled your luggage.

It's not just you counting on your flight's safe arrival, but the many men and women all over that get involved in the movement of your airplane that you don't even think about, and rarely hear about.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

STAR Arrivals

While many airports have STARs in their preferential routings, some don't. One, for example, is Halifax. The only published STARs are FMS STARs, so there are many aircraft who can't make use of them the way they're intended. For instance, an IFR aircraft arriving in CYHZ from St.John's NF (CYYT), may legitimately file a flight plan CYYT J575 CYHZ, or even CYYT > CYHZ. If he wants to make use of the FMS STAR, the LISCOMB6, all he needs to do is flight plan that arrival. Even if he doesn't flight plan it, simply asking for the LISCOMB6 arrival will get him a clearance for it, in all likelihood. But that's the catch -- ATC has to know you want to do it, and you need a clearance for it. We had an aircraft inbound to Halifax a while back who filed direct from point of departure to CYHZ, and then took a turn at the bedpost fix without telling ATC because he wanted to fly the STAR. Of course, ATC wasn't expecting the aircraft to turn, and we lost one of the chairs in the building since it was damaged during the surgery required to remove it from the controller's butt. I think the pilot took exception to seeing some other aircraft heading at him on TCAS, too.

The pilot doing the unexpected turn ended up taking a high speed run at other departures climbing out in his direction and caused quite a row. I honestly don't know if separation was lost, but it certainly created a lot of tension that night. If the pilot had filed the RNAV STAR, or asked for a clearance that included it, ATC would have been expecting the turn at the bedpost fix. They could have avoided the situation by either vectoring other aircraft away from that point, or by cancelling the STAR in the first place due to other traffic. In either case, we wouldn't be replacing furniture in the OPS room and hearts would beat normally again.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Another Fuel Venting Situation

While working a midnight shift in Moncton Center, the majority of the early evening passenger traffic had settled in for the night, and the couriers hadn't yet started up. The lone airplane on this late Saturday night took off from Fredericton, bound for Montreal. It was a Piper PA-23 Apache. Only a few minutes out of CYFC, he called with a stressed voice, stating that he wanted a vector to the nearest airport. I told him Houlton, ME, was 30 miles straight ahead, and Fredericton, where he just departed, was 30NM directly behind and he could make an immediate turn to heading 120 if he wanted to return there.

The pilot elected to return to Fredericton. While on descent, he told me he could see what appeared to be vapor trails from the wings reflecting the moonlight, and believed it was fuel. He landed uneventfully, and later called Fredericton Radio on the phone. He explained to the FSS operator what had happened. The aircraft lacked fuel filler caps, for reasons unknown. They decided to ferry the aircraft to Montreal to purchase new ones and get some maintenance done. How did they close off the fillers? With duct tape. Yes, that's right. It's little wonder the adhesive didn't stand up to 120 knot winds with gasoline splashing against the tape from below. Good thing it was a full moon or he may not have noticed it at all, and ended up setting down in the dark, empty areas of northern Maine.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Watchful Eyes

I was born and raised as an ATC in the tower at Halifax International Airport -- a fact that I am quite proud of. We endeavored always to provide pilots what they wanted before they knew they wanted it. We planned departure runways, eyeballing which one would be more likely to get someone away and on course quicker given what else we knew about what was going on. Of course, that sort of thinking doesn't always work. The plans were almost always made with limited information and on a best-guess basis, but we tried hard and often served well. But I digress. Now on to the subject...

I remember one sunny morning watching a Falcon bizjet departing runway 06, heading east overseas. At the same time as I was watching it and relaying the information to the tower controller to relay to the pilot, another aircraft in a taxiway waiting to cross while this Falcon departed radioed me. He reported seeing what he believed were trails of fuel streaming back from the wings. The aircraft turned around and headed for the runway to land. The pilots later called us and told us the ground handlers made some kind of error, and the fuel was venting as they flew. Fortunately, both the controllers in the tower and other alert pilots were there to look out for this sort of thing. It gives me a good feeling to know that, as a pilot, I can count on others to see things I may not be aware of.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Westjet runs again

As an aircraft enthusiast, I always like to see a variety of aircraft in the sky. Living an area where there is a comparative lack of aviation traffic (compared with places like Atlanta, Toronto, and so forth), I sometimes find myself living vicariously through others, watching airline news and so forth. Along those lines, I read in this morning's paper about how Westjet has furthered more agreements on aircraft leases. They started off with B737-200's, and now they're updating the fleet with -700s. The new leases show that Westjet is continuing its love affair with the B737, but this time their getting 5 -800s and 3 -600s, along with more of the -700s. Kind neat to see the variety, even if it is the same parent line of aircraft.

With Canjet flying -200s and -500s around, we have most of the variants covered. I'm sure someone is flying the -300 and -400 versions around here, but off hand I can't think of anyone. Does anyone know if any operators are still running the -100s in Canada?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Aviation News Reporting

Here's another example of why I believe reporters need a lot of help when it comes to aviation reporting. This article appeared in Monday (February 7, 2005) morning's paper.

Plane spins on slippery runway
ST. JOHN'S, Nfld. (CP) -- A plane landing at the St. John's International airport Saturday night spun as it hit a slippery patch of the runway.
No one was hurt and the 7-37 plane suffered no damage during the incident, officials told VOCM radio.
The accident took place as the plane was about to connect to the terminal walkway around 11:30 p.m. The plane was closing in on the ramp from the terminal building when it reached the slippery section of the runway and spun.
Emergency personnel weren't called in, but passengers and crew remained on the plane for about half an hour until maintenance staff could salt and sand the area.
The aircraft was enventually towed the last few meters to the ramp.
Airport manager Ketith Collins described the incident as minor. He said an "incident report" would be filed with authorities.
A number of flights were postponed or cancelled at the airport yesterday morning due to windy conditions and ice.

How many little things are wrong with this, let us count the items. The headline and the opening paragraph indicate the runway was where the plane "spun". Turns out, the "7-37", which we aviation fans know better as a 737, "spun" on the apron, not on the runway. There is a big difference between the two for those in the know. A plane spinning on a runway may be going significantly faster, making any incident much more serious. Speaking of splitting hairs on terms, aviation buffs often refer to the apron as the ramp, not the jetway, walkway, "finger" or whatever you want to call it.

So it "spun", did it? I doubt it "spun", so much as slid a little, or perhaps weather cocked. More likely one main wheel and the nose wheel hit some ice while braking was being applied, meaning there would be a rotational moment created. Perhaps all three wheels were on the "slippery runway", and it weather cocked -- after all, CYYT is known for high winds. In any case, I'd like to challenge the use of the word "spun" as much as many other words used in the article.

They may have sanded the area, but airports in Canada don't generally apply salt to the manoeuvering areas. Salt is well known for its corrosive properties, so urea is the chemical ice melter of choice, not salt. Once again, assumptions creep in. And was this really and "accident", as the third paragraph states? I can tell you that if an airplane really "spun" on the terminal apron, it certainly wouldn't be considered minor.

Lastly, what relevance to our reported incident does the last paragraph have, refering to Sunday morning's wind and ice?

Why am I being so picky? Because inane "facts" creep up like this all the time. For example, a recent headline in Moncton's Times and Transcript detailed how a PA31 landed belly up, since "both the main and emergency landing gear systems failed." This lead some people around me who aren't up on aviation related issues to believe this little Navajo had the normal landing gear, but also had a backup set of landing gear, rather than a backup method of extending the only set of landing gear. It certainly doesn't have more than one set of wheels to land on.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Low Flying

One of my favorite ideas when I think of flying is flying low. I haven't yet done it. I was taught early on to be paranoid about the lone engine on the nose of my plane, and I believe rightly so. If it were to fail, I can't exactly pull over to the side of the road and wait for help. Without someplace to put down, trees, rocks, and maybe water make the "parking spot" a little more likely to cause a problem.

Apart from my paranoia of an engine failure and not having enough altitude to glide to a semi-decent place to "land", there are other issues. Obstacles that may be difficult to see from a distance through a lightly scratched windshield, high tension power lines, even a flock of birds scared by your engine noise as you approach who rise unsuspectingly out of the tree tops into your path. I've had a number of close calls with birds on take-off and landing and often wondered just how bad a windshield impact would be on a C172. The show "Mythbusters" took on that subject, and their whole test was stymied by the fact that their PA28's windshield wasn't even rated to stand up to anything, let alone a large bird. I found a website with some short items about wildlife strikes, which included incidents such as coyote strikes on the runways on take-off and landing, and other such issues. There are numerous bird strike reports, everything from "little airplanes" to B747s. They're an interesting read, and give an idea of how disastrous a bird strike could be. Could your windshield withstand the impact of a 5 pound seagull? Have a look at the link below for those reports, even if you just scan and see a couple.


A log entry from the military base at Edmonton/Namao's tower logbook reported on the effects of a C130 hitting a coyote on the runway:

"Coyote zigged when he should have zagged. Herc 1, coyote 0"

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Formation Flying

I have a newfound respect for aerial demonstration teams like Canada's Snowbirds and the American Blue Angels. Over the last week, I've taken the opportunity to connect a multiplayer session in Microsoft's Flight Simulator and attempted to fly formation with one other person, and then once with three other flyers. The idea of flying in formation is that one person leads, and navigates, while the others pay all of their attention to the leader and watch nothing else. It takes a steady hand, to say the least. It was all I could do to keep a relatively close position and keep him in sight. Up and down, side to side, and faster and slower. Trying to keep it all together without putting us together. Now you think that these teams do this in faster aircraft, where twitching a control could make a lot more difference than in a C172 or the like, and they're doing it merely as little as 3 feet apart! It's a lot tougher than it looks. Now you start to add formation rolls and loops, and it's hard to believe these guys don't get killed much more often. They're damn good.

For information sake, we connected not using VatSim, but by using FS's built-in multiplayer hosting. This allows for a much faster refresh rate of position and therefore a much more accurate picture of where your leader is, which way he's going and so forth. VatSim only refreshes every 5 seconds, and a lot can change in close proximity in that time frame. If you're interacting with others without being that close, VatSim is still better overall. But this experience is one I'll repeat -- at least until I get it right.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Use of Other-Than-The-Active Runways

Depending on what region you fly in, or perhaps what airport you fly in, the term in the title may mean very little to you. In Moncton Center, "Active Runway" doesn't mean much to us, for a couple of reasons.

At uncontrolled airports, there is no such thing as an "active runway" in the traditional sense. Only a "preferred runway". Pilots have the authority to determine which runway they want to use, as there is no control agency directing traffic flow at the airport.

At a controlled airport, however, the tower is responsible for directing traffic flow. I can hear it now. Of course the pilot is in the ultimate place to make the decision on the operations of his aircraft, and as such may determine which runway he wants to use. At a controlled airport, however, he must be "fit in" to the sequence in order to get what he wants. This means he may have to wait for his runway choice, and it may be a long time depending on traffic. In our FIR, we only have two control towers, one at Moncton and one at Halifax, both international airports. The good news for those who like to save a few minutes on the choice of runway is that the people in both of these towers are normally quite willing to mix and match. It often serves ATC better, too. In fact, the most common phrase heard when a pilot requests a runway is, "anything but the active." Does this sound like they make a poor choice on the active runway all the time? Not at all. Many of the pilots opt for a shorter taxi distance, or a more 'on course right from the runway' thought process.

The only part about this that I don't like is that maybe we, as a group, are a little too accommodating. The other day, for example, an airliner requested direct to an IF serving runway 06 when runway 11 was active at Moncton. Another controller relayed the request, and the clearance for the fix to the pilot. When I spoke to the pilot later and told him I would check his request for 06 with the tower (they had numerous VFR aircraft close in which may have made his runway request impractical), he responded with a less than happy tone, stating that he was "already proceeding direct to CASID for runway 06." I understand that, but the active is 11, and other traffic may not permit his request, hence my statement attempting to indicate that runway 06 was not yet approved by the tower.

Magically, though, all the local VFRs exploded away from the circuit, each to his own area of the sky away from the airport. This made 06 available to him afterall. While I felt happy to accommodate him, I also felt like my point was being lost when I cleared him for his visual approach on 06. Did he understand that he was getting his runway not because he asked for it or made his point clear in his second transmission, but because traffic patterns now permitted it? Will it mean that he thinks he can push a little harder next time and get what he wants again? Perhaps being so accommodating isn't all it's cracked up to be. Will that change my method of operation? No. I was born and raised as an ATC in Halifax International's control tower, and the attitude between the tower and the terminal there was always to give a pilot what he wanted to the best of our abilities. I still hold that tenet today, as do most of my collegues in Moncton Center.

My point? Please understand, pilots, that while we try to give you what you ask for, it can't always be done. Sometimes we don't get the notice you would want to have if what you want is unavailable, and sometimes it becomes unavailable on short notice. Other times the situation changes after we start you out for what you want, and it becomes unavailable. If we tell you something isn't available, there is probably a reason for it. It may not be obvious, and the situation may change again and make it seem like it could have been available when the moment of truth arrives. Personally, I think we should all be thankful that, to date, computers are not directing the flow of air traffic. Requests likely would not be entertained in such a hard-coded world.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Challenger Crash

You may have heard of the CL-600 Challenger that crashed near Teterboro, NJ, yesterday. At the time I wrote this, the media had done it's normal stand-up job in aviation reporting and didn't give any real details that the aviation minded public really likes to hear. What's the cause? They may have dropped a hint in an incomplete statement in my local paper, saying that Million Air, the company who, according to the paper, "serviced the aircraft," didn't de-ice the aircraft. Was that an issue? Were conditions such that de-icing should have been performed? It seems a little strange to me that the aircraft apparently left wheel marks off the end of the runway before leaving the airport, crossing a six-lane highway, and penetrating a brick building before coming to rest. It appears from the pictures in the paper that the thrust reversers had been deployed, begging the question of when they were deployed. So many questions left answered by an article which should have been providing details. These reporters really do need a course on aviation so they know the right questions to ask...

Anyway, it lends more credibility to my opinion of the Challenger and derivatives in crash worthiness. Any airplane that can skid across a road, probably near flying speed, take out two cars in direct hits, and penetrate the brick wall of a warehouse and still have the majority of the fuselage intact enough allow all the occupants to escape (the pilot's broken leg the worst of the injuries to the crew and passengers) must be well built to take an impact.

The CRJ crash in Fredericton, NB in 1997 was another example. That one, due to pilot error, contacted the runway at a ~60° bank, left the runway and skidded over snow-covered terrain into a bordering forest about 3/4 mile away, hitting a large tree which ripped open part of the fuselage. All 44 people aboard survived, with only two sustaining serious injuries. The fuselage framing still remained intact, despite the large gash on the left side just behind the cockpit. The jokes about this one, with the snow, include not only the fact that the aircraft is built by Bombardier, a top snowmobile manufacturer in Canada, but also that the civil ident on the aircraft was C-FSKI. Go figure.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

At long last, a flight of my own...

I finally got an opportunity to go flying yesterday. My first combination of good weather, time off, and a C172 available to me. Mind you, I rarely seem to get past the first two to see if Moncton Flight College has a 172 available. And what a day it was in CYQM!

Temperature out there was +1°C, not a cloud in the sky. Even the Diamond Eclipses were easy to spot, and I always have a hard time finding them on final. I was alone in the plane, so it climbed beautifully in the clear, calm air. While on the ground, I felt a little disorganized, and almost felt that I shouldn't go flying, but once I got seated, I felt pretty good. I did some sightseeing, and then returned right in the middle of the traffic flow. A handful of IFR aircraft inbound and outbound, along with a bunch of VFRs.

The tower worked me in nicely for three circuits amidst it all. The guys and gals in the tower here are a great bunch, despite being underappreciated. It was just nice to get back up in the air again. I hope to fly more this year than I did last year, just barely keeping current.

Finally, I thought I'd take a moment to thank those who have written to me to thank me for writing. It's nice to know this is being read and appreciated. A few have written me from flying clubs, and I seem to have lost their addresses, but I thought I'd post the couple that I still had here, just in case you might be interested in seeing some facilities. Check them out.


And my personal favorite, not just because they let me fly, but because it's the best flight school I have seen to date:


Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Trust Your Judgment, Part 2

Continued from yesterday...

So there I was, on final, wing low but still drifting off the centerline. Fighting the winds, I finally managed to touchdown, mains first, nosewheel still in the air. A split second after touchdown, my right main wheel rolled on top of a puddle of standing water, left over from the heavy rains the night before. Instantly, faster than I could have imagined, I weathercocked. The wind blew the tail around what seems to my memory now like about 40° to the track I had managed to make on the runway. The left wheel on the pavement, the right hydroplaning and the nose wheel still in the air, I gunned the throttle to prevent what I saw as a disaster happenning if I let all three wheels touch at that angle to the direction of travel. Thanks to a gust, my plan worked in getting me back in the air.

After apologizing to the tower for the late go around, I made the horribly bouncy climb back up to circuit height. All the while regretting getting back into the air. It was so rough up there that I actually decided that if I got back around to landing, I'd put the plane on the ground and keep it there, regardless of the outcome. Not afraid, but knowing I couldn't stay in the air until the winds abated, and figuring it best to make the attempt while being conscious of what I would do, rather than letting things happen.

I lined up with the runway again, still unable to keep it that way. This time I was different. This time I was "landing". I reached the runway, about 15-20° to the centerline and drifting away, and gust after gust kept me floating. I had to make the runway soon, or face the decision to go around again or plant it in the soggy grass next to the pavement. I forcefully put the little airplane down, making a "thud" louder than I recall hearing on any bouncy landings during training.

I taxied back to the club, listening carefully in the wind driven noise around me for any signs of damage to the airplane. I was so punch drunk from the bumps in the air and on the ground that I don't have a clear memory of tying the airplane back down. I re-entered the club, the beads of sweat dried by the forceful wind, and immediately did two things. I gave the lady the keys and told her to have the airplane checked for damage before they let anyone else fly it, then I checked the weather sequence again. There it was: winds 220E10-15. The "E", for "estimated", was there for all eyes to see, but somehow I had missed it. The airfield's anemometer had been broken by the winds the night before, but no NOTAM was issued. I was the one pilot who was not given the voice advisory. The club didn't get it either, but I was the only one stupid enough to go flying that day. The airport was a military aerodrome, and they had a wind station on a nearby island in the harbour where helicopters did "dip" training and this was normally included in the weather sequence in remarks. The winds at that station (which I normally ignored until after this date)? 220@25-35 G 45. Not only was I beyond my limits, I was well beyond the airplane's limits.

My lessons? Look more carefully at the information handed to you. Situational awareness begins long before entering the cockpit, the club, or even the airport property. I knew the winds were high before I even left my house, a 30 minute drive from the airfield. Trust your judgment. If you have to convince yourself of something, you may be better off not doing it.

The airplane wasn't damaged, BTW. Just my self respect.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Trust Your Judgment, Part 1

Not long after I earned my pilot license, I learned a valuable lesson about judgment. I had to fly every 30 days to keep current, and often cut that close due to the cost. One morning I found myself doing the walk around on a C150. I chose to leave the tiedowns on, since the wind was very strong. That should have been a clue. How did it get that far to begin with?

I checked in at the club, feeling that I should cancel the flight and hope next weekend, the final weekend in my 30 days, would be better. The weather was 2,200 BKN, 15 miles visibility, but the winds were still high after a nasty, heavy rainstorm the night before. The winds in the weather report showed 220 magnetic at 15 knots, though they felt like more. I returned to the club after the walkaround was completed. I had reinstalled the control locks and packed the flight bag up, intending to cancel. When I entered, the lady behind the counter, someone who I had grown to trust, remarked on how short a flight it had been. I explained to her that I didn't want to fly with the strong winds, to which she replied, "Tower's only calling it 15 knots. You probably need the corsswind practice." She was right, I did need the practice. We had runways 11/29, and 16/34, making the winds a good 60-70 degree crosswind at about the limit of the airplane (C150 published at 13 knots for max demonstrated crosswind component). Back out I went.

The airplane bounced along the taxiway in the quartering tailwind as I made my way down. "Foolish," I kept thinking to myself. Finally, I called ready and was cleared for take-off. All the way up to circuit height, I regretted getting in the air. I had to fight the turbulence more than any 15 knot wind I had ever flown in before. Downwind, I called to tell the tower this would be a full stop. Turning final, the best sideslip I could put the plane in wasn't enough -- I couldn't track the centerline. "This is only a C150, it's not like I need a long runway or anything." I decided to hold what heading I could and land basically at an angle to the centerline...

To be continued...