Aviation In Canada

Sunday, July 31, 2005

VFR Flight Following and Altitudes

This is an appropriate post given the season. More and more pilots are flying in the finer weather generally afforded by summer, and many seem to have some confusion about flying VFR and talking to ATC for flight following.

Yesterday, for example, I spoke with a pilot inbound to Charlottetown, PEI. He was at 5,500 feet in a C172, and seemed to me to remain there for a long time, and pretty close in to the airport. I asked him when he planned to descend, and he said, "As soon as you let me down." Ok. I try to be diplomatic in such situations and hope that my words and tone convey the message properly wihtout sounding too trite. The basics are needed here.

It's unlikely that this same pilot would have considered a need for permission for descent if he weren't talking to me for flight following. So why now? It seems that some pilots think ATC is always the one in control once their radios are tuned to their frequency. This isn't always the case. The rules are the same whether in contact with ATC or not, and all depend on the class of airspace in which the aircraft is operating. In the case of CYYG above, the entire area around is Class E airspace, including the control zone itself. This means IFR aircraft require a clearance (and therefore permission from ATC to descend), but VFR aircraft do not. Whether in contact with ATC or not, the pilot may climb or descend at pilot's discretion. Other rules still apply, mind you, such as cruising altitudes and direction of flight. The one thing I will ask of a VFR pilot in contact with ATC is that he should advise ATC when he plans to descend. The controller may be working other aircraft in your area and may have already determined that you are not traffic for other flights since you last checked in and told him you'd be maintaining 4,500 enroute to Timbuktu. Once you change your mind and descend, you suddenly become an issue for the other guy at 4,000 feet, 3,500 feet or whatever.

So the important thing is class of airspace, not contact with ATC. If you're in Class D, C or B airspace, there is a whole new component introduced. In each of these cases, permission from ATC is required, and if you want to climb or descend, it's as simple as asking. I understand American pilots are subjected to a different mindset. Especially in busier areas, controllers can be a bit snippy from time to time if requests are made. We in Canada are often confronted with pilots who will simply not request descent, but rather wait until ATC initiates a clearance for it. This often includes American VFR pilots, since, it seems, they don't carry enough information to determine what class of airspace they're in and don't want to do anything wrong. I can appreciate this, but I also believe in carrying charts and having a certain amount of situational awareness.

It's a good time to refresh your memory on what is required of you for each class of airspace you intend to fly in, if you're not already familiar. Then again, perhaps another look at the rules would be in order anyway, since you never know what you may "learn" again for having forgotten or simply not had the occasion to use.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

More on Runway Number Changes

I love the title. It's a good look at what's coming...

As a followup to July 28th's post, I want to mention a runway numbering issue that happened in the Moncton FIR a while ago. At CYGR, Les Iles de la Madeleine, QC, the runway had been 08/26 for a while. The magnetic variation had changed in the area, requiring a renumbering of the runway. Neil, a regular reader, may be able to shed more light on how things happened the way they did, but it ended up being that the runway had been repainted to reflect the change, but the approaches were not renamed. Apparently, the data was still valid on them, but they still reflected the old runway numbers. Here was a conversation that would happen there fairly regularly for a short time until things settled out:

Pilot: Alpha Bravo Charlie requesting descent.
ATC: Alpha Bravo Charlie, Moncton, you're cleared to the Grindstone Airport for the straight-in LOC/BC DME runway 08 approach.
Pilot: Alpha Bravo Charlie requesting the contact approach.
ATC: Alpha Bravo Charlie, roger, you're cleared for the contact approach runway 07.

As if a normal runway numbering change isn't bad enough...

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Runway Number Changes

Halifax, as mentioned here before, is undergoing some formal changes to their runway numbers. Now reopened, for the most part, runway 06/24 is now 05/23, and 15/33 is now 14/32. The logic was already mentioned, and the need is there t oconform with standards, but what a bugger it is to deal with this. As long as I've been interested in aviation, as long as I can remember, this airport has had the old numbers. I believe they opened in 1960 with those old numbers. It's a hard adjustment. In fact, a pilot tripped me up last night, too. He asked what approach they were using (already mentioned he had the ATIS), so I told him they were lining up for Runway 23. He asked for R15. I correct him, and said oh yeah, we got the ATIS and I guess we'll use R24 if if we have to.

I thought, surely the TWR wouldn't put R24 on the ATIS if it's now R23. So I had to look silly and ask the TCU guys next to me. This runway number change is big news around there, so they thought I should damn well know about it. Alright, I took the wet noodle of my own before slapping the pilot I allowed to lead me with it. Simple miscommunication. He meant R23, but out of habbit said R24.

I can't wait til we all get accustomed to this new change.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Is ATC Stressful?

Someone asked me this recently, as they were considering a career change. Here's what I can say about this:

There are some people who just can't handle stress. Regardless of where it comes from. There are some who can handle stress aimed at themselves, but can't deal with a situation where they are required to help someone else who won't help themselves. There are some who thrive on it in almost any form. Stress can be good, since it does help make some people more alert than usual, but then too much stress often causes an individual to drop out of useful consciousness and go NORDO. Consider these points with what I say below.

ATC has been described varyingly as "90% boredom with 10% terror". This can be quite true, regardless of the unit you're operating in. A low density unit (one with little regular traffic) demonstrates this as a controller shows a calm demeanor when things are quiet and freaks out with a voice whose pitch is two octaves higher when it's busy. In a high density unit, the controllers get very well practiced at the regular flows, but when the thunderstorms roll in, or some dufus does something completely unexpected, it can really throw a huge wrench into your day and the days of hundreds of other people. You have to be able to deal with it. Also, like a doctor who has to deal with the death of a patient, and the family afterwards, consider how you would feel to know you were the last person to talk to someone who just crashed. And what it if it was something that you said that contributed to the fatal impact? How about watching two airplanes narrowly avoid hitting because you reacted too slowly or incorrectly? Or simply doing everything right but having a pilot up there in your sky ignore all the warnings and information you gave him and still proceed to do himself in?

The normal workings of ATC are stressful, but for most people who are successful in the training, this is seen as something to learn from, grow from, even brag about. "Look how I fit this guy in the line!" This is the kind of stress that a controller can often enjoy or hate while it's happening, but easily forget about later when he gets home. It's when things go wrong that the real stress can come about. This can be the lasting stress that they say can take time off your life. But then, some people can even enjoy that kind of pressure, too, since they can draw from the experiences, spread the knowledge to other individuals (controllers, pilots or aviation afficionados) and move on.

ATC isn't for everyone. And so far, I haven't been able to identify a "type" of personality it's good for. Some people are book smart, but action stupid. Some the other way around. I watched one trainee who could hardly cite a passage out of a rule book, but who could make a plan for traffic flow and smoothly make it work (even if his plans weren't the best early on, he still made them work). Many people don't have much background in aviation, and this is something I'd like to see change, but if they possess the skills and mental abilities to perform the tasks assigned, understand the issues and deal with them, and take the day to day pressures and continue on, then so be it. You'll only really know if you try.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Back in June, I was contacted by Curtis Peters of Aviation.ca, the website I mentioned here some time ago. This time it wasn't about another one of my stories, but rather all of them, in effect. He had found my blog, and was interested in me doing some posting there. They are trying to build an aviation home page, or so to speak, for Canadian aviation interests. They're getting underway fairly well, I think.

They have forums, galleries, links, and all that good stuff, as well as daily headlines in aviation news right on the "front page". I don't know of how much of an honor it actually is, but it has become one of the few "daily stops" on the web that I haven't failed to visit in the recent weeks (except for my vacation, of course).

Right now, I'm posting there what I'm posting here, in my own little section called "Controller's Corner" (their name choice, not mine). I made them promise to make my stuff accessible "on the cover" if they wanted me. They have free "memberships" which allow more customized content, but I didn't want people to have to click here, sign in there, and click, click, click some more to find my stuff if it were to become a permanent home. I like simplicity, and therefore I aim for it. For now, I'll continue to run the mirrored operation, but eventually I plan to move there completely and permanently. I'd really like some feedback on this plan. Would you mind clicking over there and checking things out (if only my column, if you plan to keep reading), and tell me here what you think about this potential move? I'd like to hear from you. The site is simply, http://www.aviation.ca.

Monday, July 25, 2005

RADAR FOD Detection

I'm back from a well needed vacation, and we'll get right to it.

QinetiQ (What's wrong with the real spelling of the word, kinetic, anyway?) out of Britain has developed a high-resolution, short range radar which is designed to detect FOD on a runway. It has an effective range of about 2 kilometers (1 NM=~1.85km), and they say it can spot a small rock, or a wheel from a suitcase in that range, and plot it accurately within about 3m (10 feet) for pickup. The current method of FOD detection includes pilot reports, but is primarily a field foreman running the runways and taxiways in a truck, trying to spot debris. Not easy at a busy airport, at night, in the fog or any combination of these. You may have limited time to run a runway that's a mile and a half long, so you may have to scan quickly, making it easy to miss anything but the biggest piece of engine killing FOD.

At first, it may seem like something that's not significant. But if you're the one footing the bill for that little luggage wheel that just got sucked up into the multi-million dollar B777 engine, and maybe the cost of an aborted take-off or a single-engine return to point of departure, you're probably thinking, "It's about time!" The cost of FOD on aircraft, it is said, is $4 Billion US annually worldwide. Hey, it was some FOD that contributed to the demise of a Concorde a while back.

So why did I bring this British system up in Aviation in Canada? This system has been purchased by the Vancouver Airport Authority, and they'll be the first commercial airport in the world to run with it. If this radar pans out, it may very well be worth the money. We'll have to keep an eye out for fruther information.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


I'm on vacation this week, and I'll be out of town most of the time. As a result, there will not likely be any new posts here until Monday of next week, that being July 25th. Have a great week. I intend to.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Runway Number Changes

Someone wrote a question recently regarding runway number changes. I thought it an interesting topic and I know that not everyone is aware (though I suspect most people reading this will be), so I thought I'd elaborate on it here, as well.

The reason is simple, once you know about it: a shift in magnetic north. A look at any well done map of certain projections will have mention of magnetic variation in the area (usually the center of the map unless specified), and with that should be a date (or at least a year), along with a rate of change. It might be something like "1997 Variation 21.2°W Annual change 2.4' East". This means that variation will change from the 21.2°W moving eastward at 2.4 minutes (1 minute is 1/60 of a degree), so over 25 years, variation would change to 20.2°W. This rate will be different for different areas since it's all relative to magnetic north and true north. Right now (2005), the magnetic north pole is in the Canadian Archipelago, at 82N114W, and is moving northwestward slowly.

When I first started working at CYHZ in 1992, the runway headings were 056/146/236/326. A few years after I moved to Moncton, they changed in the pubs to show 055/145/235/325. Last fall, they changed again to 054/144/234/324, thus passing the point where they should be renumbered. Given the construction planned (I've raved about this a few times, haven't I?), they decided they'd give an extension to the current numbering, and renumber them after construction while painting the numbers on the new pavement. That said, they missed the next publication deadline, and are now forced to issue NOTAMs ammeding approach plates, CFS entries, et al, instead of having correct information out there off the top. Another example of poor execution on the HIAA's part.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

ATC Radios

A pilot from the Netherlands recently wrote me, asking about a flight experience he had while flying through Gander's airspace. The concern he expressed related to the fact that it was obvious to him the controller was working more than one frequency, and the fact that aircraft on each frequency were unable to hear pilots talking on the other one. This lead to missed readbacks, communications being "stepped on" and so forth. He cited it as an unacceptable safety concern, and wondered how this was possible.

In fact, many ATC units in Canada deal with this on an ongoing basis, as do other units in other countries. Especially in low level sectors where large pieces of airspace must be worked by one controller, it is quite common to have more than one frequency per sector. The higher the airspace worked by a given controller, the less likely they are to need more than one radio since VHF is line of sight and can often reach everywhere in the sector. But down low, terrain and distance often preclude the use of only one radio to reach the entirety of the airspace. Hence, a controller is often "plugged in" to more than one radio. Generally speaking, ATC simulcasts on all of his radios at once, while all are open to receive at the same time when not transmitting.

This leads to some confusion sometimes, as for some strange reason, it seems that dead air is often followed by more than one aircraft calling in at once on separate frequencies. The controller is often able to distinguish who was calling, based on numbers or partial callsigns heard in the mix, but not always. The problems really arise when a clearance readback is stepped on by an aircraft on a separate frequency. There's a little bit of professionalism in a pilot who won't immediately ask for something when ATC just finishes issuing a clearance to an aircraft, even if he doesn't hear the pilot's readback right away. And then, sometimes a well-intentioned pilot doesn't know a clearance was just issued, for whatever reason. Perhaps he just tuned into a new frequency, waits for a second or two to make sure he isn't stepping on someone before calling, and then calls over a readback on a different frequency. Some ATC will get quite impatient with a pilot for such a thing, but hopefully they'll get over it.

Some units have what are called Radio Retransmit Units installed on some or all of their radios. This allows incoming transmissions on one frequency to be rebroadcast on one or more other frequencies, thereby allowing pilots on one to hear pilots on the others. This greatly reduces the chances of readbacks being stepped on. The one thing I like, as a controller working without this, is that while one pilot is calling, I can still take transmissions on other radios. For example, two pilots request altitude changes, and can do so in dramatically different ways. Compare:

"Moncton, JAZZ 8765 request 12,000"
"Moncton Center, JAZZ 8765, it's getting kind of bumpy up here, say, light occasional moderate chop. We're kind of riding the tops here. Is there any chance we might be able to get 12,000 as a final for this leg today?"

In a world with frequency coupling, as it is called, the pilot of an aircraft that suddenly experiences an emergency would be preempted on his frequency by the pilot of another while listening to the altitude request. Or sometimes a VFR pilot with limited experience might begin a long diatribe without realizing he's blocking other aircraft. Without coupling, ATC can mute the radio with the incoming Grammy acceptance speech and listen to the one with the emergency on another radio.

So the RTUs can be a blessing (and normally are), but they can also be a bit of a curse. There is no perfect solution, I'm afraid. It's a matter of knowing what you're up against, and using common sense.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Publications (Carry Them!)

Just as an aside before today's post, I'd like to announce that I've been posting now for 185 days, so I made my first 6 months, nad only missed a few days in there during the run so far. I guess it's true... I really don't shut up...

Recently, I dealt with a pilot headed from KBGR (Bangor, ME) to CYYR (Goose Bay, NF) in a PA28, likely being ferried overseas as many do. He was flying IFR at 9,000. As I gave him the frequencies for Montreal Center, he asked me a question.

"Have you got the localizer frequency for Goose Bay? I don't have the approach plates with me and I need that."

You're kidding me, right? You're flight planned into an airport and you don't have the relevant information handy? I can almost understand if you're heading to an alternate airport, but you should have the information for the airport you're heading to. Let me ask you this: You're IMC, and so is your destination. Before you can ask this question of ATC, you're radio fails. Since you're in northern Quebec, there isn't much for cellphone service. What do you do now? What altitude can you descend to? What do you do without knowing where the terrain high points are, or what the ILS frequency is, or anything else? Personally, I find this to be poor airmanship.

A pilot should always have the pertinent enroute charts, as well as the approach plates for airports that he may need along the way to destination or to the alternate. ATC doesn't mind reading the information out to you, if needed. Such as in an emergency. For example, one pilot is flying the plane and the other is troubleshooting. But in normal circumstances, why wouldn't you have the charts you know you'll need?

Friday, July 15, 2005

Engine Failure on Take-Off

This story was shared with me by a coworker upon seeing my blog. I couldn't resist sharing it here, with his permission, of course. You'll see why later...

The year was 1973, and he was a trainee in Halifax Tower. He had just cleared the Cessna 150 for take-off on runway 24, with the aircraft heading out toward the city, which was basically straight out off 24, roughly paralleling the highway. Shortly after take-off, the pilot reported his engine running rough. The controller trainee, having completed most of the training for his own pilot's license, offered the use of carb heat as a possible solution. The pilot said it made things worse. Well, that's what happens if it is carb icing, it gets worse but then melts the ice and gets better, right? The pilot refused and stated he was planning to land on the highway nearby. With his instructor watching over him, the trainee watched the aircraft sink beneath the tree tops. Evidence to the aircraft's attempted highway landing was seen in the tail lights of the cars as they slowed while going over the hill where the highway is visible from the tower cab. Repeated calls were made on tower frequency to see if they could raise the aircraft, attempting to find out if he was successful in his landing, even though the RCMP had already be dispatched.

Then, a call came in from the aircraft: He had landed, taxied off the highway onto an offramp, and was calling in on ground frequency for taxi back to the airport. The supervisor on duty was extremely angry with our trainee for bursting out laughing at this point.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Electrical Failure

One morning, many moons ago, I was nearing the tail end of a midnight shift. Every weekday morning at this point, there would be four PA-31 Navajos that would scramble for simultaneous departure to their various destinations, CYYG, CYQM, CYFC and CYSJ (and then onward for their milkruns to other airports). In Halifax Tower we had just recently received the digital radar setup which wasn't yet commissioned, but we were allowed to play with it to get used to while the old radar, the one we were still formally using, kept turning during the testing and flight checking of the new one. We generally weren't assigning discrete codes to VFR aircraft leaving the control zone, so they were all left to squawk 1200.

The last of the Navajos departed, a few minutes behind the rest, on his way to CYFC. It was late winter and the morning was clear and chilly, leaving a huge but relatively low fog bank over Grand Lake, a pretty big body of water about 4 NM northwest of CYHZ, near the direct route from CYHZ to CYFC. The PA31 flew just north of it, causing me to lose sight of his lights in the dim morning light. I turned to the new radar to play a little bit and watch him go, the last airplane I would be likely to talk to that morning. Then I noticed his transponder had stopped replying -- I was seeing a primary return only. This occasionally happens to aircraft with perfectly serviceable transponder when an SSR return fails to make it back, for whatever reason.

As I continued to watch the target's path on primary radar, I felt that it was strange that I couldn't see an SSR return yet. Then I realized that he was no longer heading in the direction of CYFC, but more to the west. Because of the fog bank, I still couldn't see the aircraft out the window. I followed the target on radar. While scanning the sky south of the fog bank, where I figured I'd soon be able to see the airplane as his radar track showed him now heading south, I started to wonder what was up. It appeared as though he were flying a slant downwind/base leg for Runway 06, which he had departed only minutes earlier. Through the dim light at dawn, I finally spotted a slightly darker dot on the horizon, so I grabbed the binoculars to search for him. There was the outline of an airplane, with no nav lights on. It seemed pretty clear to me now that he was returning, and with the lack of lights, it probably meant a lack of radio, too, so I flicked the runway lights back on for him and grabbed our trusty light gun from WWII. I held the green light for him, the pilot landed and taxied in. Shortly thereafter, the pilot called and thanked me for the lights. He had an electrical fire on board, some dense smoke in the cockpit, and had to disable all electrics to a prevent further fire. I'm glad I was on the ground.

I was trained as a tower controller to watch my airplanes. Though not near the airport any more, and rapidly becoming too distant to watch, it would have been easy at that hour to turn my head away and not look out for him. Afterall, they did this every weekday morning at the same time and really, how many of them had problems? Not very many. Anyway, at least two of us were happy that I had been trained that way on that particular morning since he had no landing lights available and there wasn't enough ambient light for him.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Misunderstood Clearances

We have miscommunications rarely, but they do happen. One thing I find interesting is that there is a new trend that is a bit alarming. We have better radar coverage than ever before. In the past, due to the lack of radar coverage, we had to work more non-radar, or procedural, separation in our environment in Moncton. That gets more complicated in many respects, as we have to ask pilots for DME, altitude, radials, etc, and in many cases, assign pilots restrictions to prove separation. A simplified case of a clearance to a departure could be something like, and it's a perfect example, out of Saint John, NB:

"... maintain FL280, depart runway 32, climb runway heading to intercept V314 and proceed on course, not above 4,000 til MOWND."

MOWND is an intersection on V314 about 30NM west of YSJ. The reason for such a clearance could be, perhaps, someone transitting northbound on V310, an airway also off YSJ, and this 30NM restriction would keep our departure under the enroute airplane until they are geographically spearated. This is a lot less complicated than some we used to issue, and rarely ever had pilots misinterpret. This is also an actual clearance given to a Jazz RJ not all that long ago (the tapes are long since gone, so he can't be incriminated now). Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because the pilot departed and flew the assigned route and climbed to 4,000. I was extremely busy during these particular moments and was unable to return to the aircraft to break his restriction and let him climb earlier when I saw him on radar. Since safety was assured by the clearance, my attention was briefly focused elsewhere. When my gaze returned in his area, he had long since passed MOWND and was still at 4,000 feet. Just as I went to ask if everything was OK, wondering why he hadn't started to climb after passing MOWND, he made a transmission: "Moncton, Jazz One Two Three Four when can we expect higher?"

The restriction was a self-cancelling type. Immediately after passing MOWND, a non-compulsory reporting point, the aircraft was allowed to climb to FL280. The pilot was told that, and he said he wasn't sure what he was allowed to do. I have a problem with this. If the clearance wasn't clear, why did he not question this on the ground before departure? I'd much rather have a pilot ask for clarification of a clearance than have him fly a clearance wrong. This is happening more and more often, and mostly with airline types. I think there are too many pilots expecting terminal service at airports that have a complete lack of terminal-type facilities to provide them with such services. Still, haven't many of these pilots done time in smaller airplanes (like the much maligned Navajo) into and out of these smaller airports in the past while building time? I wouldn't expect this kind of clearance to be completely unfamiliar.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Halifax International Airport Construction

They made the news again. Surprise! This airport, with it's poor planning, has endured a very small bit of attention for their part in their issues since this all began, but things are finally starting to change.

They're reconstructing the entire manoeuvring surface at the airport in phases as time goes on. Reportedly, they consulted some 30 years of historical weather data and decided that July would be the best time of year, with prevailing VFR conditions, to do the critical part of the airport, the intersection of the two runways. During this phase, the localizer for 06 would be shut down, as well as the glidepath for 24. The construction activities have also required the closing of ruway 15/33, and the shutdown of their ILS, too. Remaining for instrument approach aids are the localizer 24 (to a displaced threshold) and the NDBs for 06 and 24.

Funny. All the "old timers" I work with agreed that this was probably the worst time of the year, historically, to run with this phase. October points to the best. July? There are always extended periods of fog in July there, hence the requirement for the CAT II ILS. Lately? There have been many days of 200-300 OVC, meaning that airplanes are trying the approach, missing, and heading elsewhere, leaving passengers in a lurch. At times, as many as 1,500 passengers crowd the airport, waiting for their flights that will never arrive. The ramp remains empty, while the the other airports in the region scramble to take the passengers in and process the luggage. The Canada Day holiday weekend was the worst, with local hotels everywhere booked solid.

The best part of this was the media release from the airport authority. They said today, publically, "only the most experienced pilots can land without NAVAIDs." If I were a regional airline or a newer airline, commonly misperceived by the public as having inexperienced pilots, I'd be pissed. This comment is incorrect at best, but inflamatory on any account. The good news is that the airlines have finally tired of taking the heat for the HIAA's piss poor decision making -- remove the most critical NAVAID during the peak of summer passenger traffic and throwing travel plans of thousands into the trash. I'm glad I'll fly out of Moncton where the airport is available, as they boast, 97% of the time. Even without the ILS's functioning, it's more accessible than Halifax. But then, so are the other airports (Saint John excluded) in our region, too. Halifax may have dealt themselves a long term publica relations nightmare with this operation.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Airshow in Saskatchewan

Not to be left out in commentary about the incident, I have to add my words. I don't think I can say much about the accident itself, simply because words are not enough to describe the incident. The loss the loved ones feel, the emotions the spectators felt, the tragedy of it all.

The only thing I can say is the reporting. They hit that sore spot of mine again. CTV NewsNet reported the incident, showed the footage, and then closed the item with, "... It is not known whether either of the pilots attempted to eject." I'm sorry, but I feel deeply saddened by the network's reporting. It's almost as if they didn't even consult to to find out about the incident, the airplanes, or the people involved, but just added supposition as if from an "on staff expert". They don't have ejector seats, or parachutes, on these planes. It's just that simple. It just leaves me feeling like the reporters don't care enough. They got their story, their footage, and their paycheques, and that's good enough for them. I don't know how to describe my feelings about this. The media sucks in aviation.

For those who aren't aware of the nature of the accident, a link was sent to me earlier about it, from the National Post, of all newspapers, so I thought I'd pass it along for a place to start. My hat's off to these pilots, and my best wishes to their families and friends, most of all their fellow pilots who give their all, and sometimes all of them, to entertain us.


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.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Canadian ATC Issues

I don't believe I'm in much of a position to comment on the "bargaining" currently not going on between NavCanada and the CAW/CATCA. Read the previous sentence again if you missed both subtle messages there. Oh, and don't bother to ask NavCanada what the issues are at the bargaining table, since it is quite clear they are unaware of them. Money is not the issue that's stalling things, and the union is quite willing to negotiate, should the company ever wish to engage in meaningful negotiations.

Another issue that someone mentioned some time ago which I conspicuously failed to comment on was the implementation of CAATS, the Canadian Automated Air Traffic System, in Moncton Center. This is a very contentious issue that the company would probably rather speak about on their own, rather than read my views on it publicly. Freedom of speech is one thing, but continuation of salary is quite another. I'm not really suggesting I'd be fired if I commented, because it's not really working *that* badly. But, I'll say this, in as much as no computer system ever functions perfectly, CAATS fits the expectations quite nicely. Read between the lines there, too.

Friday, July 08, 2005

ATC Radio Chatter

Just a quick post this morning. I have a lot of things to do before heading to work. This one happened several years ago, before Air Canada Jazz came along, with Air Nova as the regional serving the maritimes.

(Check the call sign of the answering aircraft.)
CZQM: "Nova 895 contact Moncton on 127.12"
ARN871: "Over to 127.12, for Nova 871. We'll talk to you later."
CZQM: "Maybe sooner than you think."
(a few seconds pass...)
ARN871: "Uh, Moncton, they didn't want to talk to us on 127.12..."
CZQM: "See what I mean?"

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Eurocontrol Information

For those who may have missed it, a post was made by a German engineer on June 17 as a reply to June 16's article. In it, a link was added that I'm sure at least some of my readers would appreciate. It's a link to the European Aeronautical Information Publication, or AIP. The Canadian AIP as we know it is currently in a different format, but it will change to conform to ICAO standards this fall. The information that we all come to enjoy in the AIP Canada as it is now will be moved to a new pub, called the Aeronautical Information Manual, or AIM. This will sound quite familiar to the American visitors to this site. These two manuals will now be similar in content.

In any case, the link to the European pub will no doubt bring some welcome information and realism to flight simming in the virtual European skies. You're invited to sign up as a public user, and you'll have access to the Published AIP Management System, and therefore access to charts and airport information for many European countries. A reminder from the post, "it's not for real flight preparation, but hey, it's free!" Here's the link:


A big thanks to Helge from Germany!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Halifax International Airport Construction

The Halifax International Airport Authority has decided it's time to redo the surface of the airport. Not an entirely unusual thing, since airport construction happens. Afterall, the surfaces do deteriorate over time. The HIAA has taken it upon themselves to redo the entire surface, in four phases, I believe. The current one, lasting upwards of four weeks in total, has been a bit of a bugaboo for the HIAA as well as many thousands of passengers and the airlines in particular.

Remember my Canjet post a few days ago? That was written on the heels of a letter to the editor to our local newspaper, asking them to contact other parties before reporting, rather than just sensationalize the words of a few passengers. You know, actually call the airline to get their story. What about the airport? Was Canjet the only one who couldn't get in? The basics of good reporting, here. Anyway, Canjet tracked down my phone number and called me last evening. He wanted to see if I was for real, and, if so, to thank me for throwing some sanity into the media frenzy over this. He said they thought about their options in this, and decided to let the storm pass, as one of the comments here had mentioned, rather than getting into a big public fight. The next "big thing" for the media will come along and hopefully all of this would blow over and be forgotten about. He confirmed everything we suspected here: The pilots didn't rocket right up with ear-blowing decompression and everything was done reasonably. He said, in fact, it would have been interesting to see if anyone noticed the difference if they weren't honest and up front about it all, since it was dark (the flight occured after nightfall) and little was visible out the windows with clouds and all. Still, I like the integrity of the company for being forthcoming about the situation with their passengers, rather than trying to hide things. I wonder if Jetsgo would have been equally up front... Nah. No need to compare these two companies.

Anyway, the airport construction has been hard on the airport users. In Moncton, the airport authority's president was quoted as saying they had more airplanes on the ramp here than at any point since 9/11. Parking actually became an issue, he said, as was dealing with the passenger influx. Bad enough that the airport had to work with this, but over the Canada Day holiday weekend with all the hotels booked up and so forth, there was no room at the inn, so to speak. Timing really is everything.

I'm still not sure what had the HIAA decide to do all of this construction at the height of summer passenger traffic, but it's the airlines that have quietly shouldered the blame for not making it in there so far. I haven't seen anything from any of them yet pushing that blame to the airport. They have NDB approaches and a localizer approach. That's it. Halifax has a CAT II ILS for a reason: They often need it. The airlines have likely paid out tonnes of cash for passengers' alternate arrangements, tonnes of fuel in holding and diverting. All this, and so far they've been quiet? I wonder if there is some kind of arrangement or it they're just sucking it up. It has to be monumentally expensive on every front (customer relations, crew resources, fuel budget, you name it) especially for a cut-throat business like this.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005


As I've said before, I believe communication is an art, and an important one at that. Afterall, as an ATC, all you have is communication when you figure out what should be done. If you can't tell someone what you need them to do, where does that leave you? Today's post will have one from the opposite side of things from where I normally post -- this will be a gripe about something overheard from my end of the radio (though it wasn't me who said it).

In this particular situation, the controller spoke with an aircraft who departed Moncton, NB (CYQM), Runway 11, and was flight planned to Houlton, ME (HUL), and onward, as many of our departures do. The controller, wishing to turn him left and vector him around some inbound traffic before letting him go on course, said the following: "... radar identified, vectors for the on course, turn left heading three two zero, maintain flight level two eight zero."

Shortly after this transmission, I was sitting down to relieve this controller in our normal rotation of breaks. During the relief briefing, where the controller being relieved is supposed to detail to the relieving controller the necessary things (what each airplane is doing, the status of equipment at the sector and at the relevant airports, etc), I observed the aircraft in question turning past a track of 320°, to roughly a 290° track. Wind drift is possible, but 30° worth in unusual for a jet. I asked him to verify his heading, and he said it was 295°, which was the heading for HUL VOR. My initial reaction was to turn him back to the right to the assigned heading of 320, then think about it until he passed his traffic.

When I found out what the previous controller had said, it hit me why the airplane had taken the turn further to the left than we were expecting. I confirmed it with the pilot, when I had a second. He said, "We were given, heading 320 for vectors for the on course, but we were able to go on course right away so we turned direct to Houlton." Of course he did. Personally, I think it's a little bit of a stretch, but I can see the interpretation.

I have heard others use this phrase occasionally (certain controllers, anyway), and I have always thought it was inappropriate, since it's vague. Is he actually cleared on course or not? If his flight plan is an airway, that's one thing, but if his flight plan, such as this case, includes "CYQM > HUL J509", you can see where he might interpret this instruction that way. Certainly in this case the controller should have said, "vectors for traffic," instead of what he said, since that was the actual purpose of the vector. The chances of the pilot making an on course turn when told he was being vectored around traffic would be so close to zero as makes no odds.

Clear and concise communications. Using standard phraseology where practical. All the various items stated in our training. They're there for a reason. And there's no teacher like experience. I doubt that controller will use that phrase again.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Aviation News Reporting

This is more of a media rant, I'm afraid. Think about this: This is an industry that we know something about. We read the papers, hear the radio reports, and see the stuff on TV. And we all look at it and know how bad the "facts" are.

What about all those other news items out there. The ones we don't know much about. We count on the same newspapers and TV news shows to present us with the "facts" about these other categories. Just how far out to lunch are these people on other stories? And we tend to believe them. Who are the real fools here?

Oh, and Happy Independence Day to my US readers!

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Canjet Flight

I'm not sure how many headlines this story made out west, but about a week ago, a CanJet 737 made an unpressurized flight from CYYZ, planned into CYHZ. This made the news as passengers were quoted as being incredibly distressed that the airliner was unpressurized so their ears were popping, and then, to top it off, they wouldn't land at Halifax, the bastards! They complained as if Canjet was the only one who wouldn't land there.

First things first, what's the cabin pressure in a B737 at 37,000 feet? Something like 6,000 to 8,000 feet, no? The B737 that flew out of CYYZ on June 27 only flew at 10,000 or so. So the pressure wouldn't have been all that different from what they would have experienced anyway. Maybe someone can provide some details on what the normal cabin pressue would have been to compare to what they experienced. I'd like to know why this was reported to be so different from the usual.

Secondly, Canjet wasn't the only one not to land. You see, the Halifax International Airport Authority (HIAA) decided it was time to reconstruct the entire surface at the airport. In several stages, they're tearing apart the runways and taxiways to rebuild them. This is (hopefully) the worst of the stages in that they are working on 15/33, but so near to the glidepath antenna for R24 that they've had to shut it down. So let's look at this for a second. At the peak of summer traffic, the airport has chosen to effectively remove all ILS from use, and rely solely on one localizer and two NDB approaches to land airplanes, and the only CAT II equipped airport in the maritime provinces. There's a reason they're CAT II equipped -- They need it often! Yesterday, only a handful of flights made it in at all, and most were diverted to CYQM, CYFC, CYYG, CYYT and CYUL, among other places. Moncton's ramp was nearly full, while the hotels were chalk full for the holiday weekend. Good planning, guys. It's like taking away an ATC radar on a VFR day, since IFR traffic can do visuals and ATC won't need it. Yeah, right.

Anyway, CanJet wasn't the only one to miss that night for the very same reason, and nobody else got any attention for not making their destination. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to defend an airline. They're big enough to do that. I just can't stand the fact that the public seems to have no interest in learning about the tubes they're flying in, and the media feeds on that, since they don't know any better, either. Our local paper, by a staff reporter, said they had no idea why the ILS wasn't operating at CYHZ. The construction has only been going on since May, and all they had to do was ask any source, a pilot or an ATC (Hey, there are only 150 of us here in Moncton) not to mention, you know, actually calling the airport authority and asking. One would think that a reporter would have already done this and found out that reason after June 27th's incident and the hubbub it raised.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Flight Following Anyone? Part 3

(...Continued from yesterday...)

This is more of a conclusion portion of the events described in the previous days, rather than a continuation. When I think back about this incident, there were several things that were interesting. First, if the pilot had departed 30 minutes later, he would have been over that area after dark, and there would have been no hope of finding that airfield. If the engine failed 5 minutes earlier he would have been over the cold waters and steep cliffs of the Bay of Fundy with little hope of survival. 5 minutes later, he may have been out of range of Apple River's strip. I drove to that area the following week and there is nothing but trees and rolling, rocky hills. Not even a straight stretch of road long enough to plunk down a PA28, in my thoughts. Also, the fact that not many of us in the Center were aware of a field there made my position a little more interesting in the mix. And why would I have not handed this aircraft off to Greenwood? Would they have known about this little field just outside their area? We don't see much traffic flying into and out of this little field.

As I mentioned, I drove down to find this little field a week later. I'm impressed by this pilot. I drove my car out onto the runway, keeping ever vigilant for power-out Cherokees on approach, as I made my way to the hangar. It was extremely rough for a nose-wheel aircraft, I thought to myself. About halfway along, there was a hangar with three walls, the open side cut into the trees. And there, inside it, was a CGNBO, with the tail propped up by supports. The airplane, other than the obvious lack of an engine, looked, upon quick inspection from a distance, no worse for the wear. So back out to the airfield. There were power lines on the edge of the road just prior to the start of R27. About halfway along runway 27, it started to slope down, as published. And, boy, did it. I couldn't see the threshold of 09 from the midpoint of the 2,500 foot runway. So this pilot, power off, made a forced landing over wires and onto the runway that was sloping away from him. All without further damaging the airplane in the dying light. I only hope I'll do as well if (when) it happens to me.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Flight Following Anyone? Part 2

(Happy Canada Day! This is continued from yesterday, PA28 CGNBO had experienced an engine failure near Apple River, NS, and was attempting to find the grass strip I had mentioned to him, and was awaiting more information on the field which I had promised him.)

No sooner did I have the word details out of my mouth did my supervisor shove the Canada Flight Supplement under my nose open to the page. Quite alert to the word "emergency", he was. The pilot asked for a heading and pointed the airplane in the direction of the field, near the coast line. I considered a few things: We're getting close to dusk, and the area where this field is contains virtually nothing else. The community of Apple River is a small one, and there won't be many lights in the town, with none at the airfield itself. The pilot asked me to tell him when he was overhead the field to help him find it. Another thing that was quite amazing is that I was still able to talk to him on our main transmitter out of 3,500 feet. This was exceptional. I was beginning to lose him, so I ran for our backup transmitter with an antenna much closer to the area. This allowed me to continue the conversation. I read out the details: Runway 09/27, 2,500 feet of grass, field elevation 135 feet, power wires near the threshold of R27, and R27 slopes downward. He was lining up for R27.

The pilot soon reported the field in sight and was observed circling in the area as he slowly descended toward the grass strip. Eventually, we lost him on radar at an unusual 300 feet on the Mode C. From there, we could only hope. We had already called the local RCMP to go get him, but we didn't know how long it would take to get someone out there in this remote area.

Then, finally, an overflying Airbus, who was on the same frequency but had been transferred to his next one during the incident, called in to report that the pilot had broadcast a message. He had landed safely and was looking for assistance. We asked the airbus pilot to relay that we had called the RCMP and hopefully they would arrive soon.

(last part tomorrow...)