Aviation In Canada

Friday, September 30, 2005

Vectored Approaches in a Non-Terminal Area

Something I just realized that I didn't answer was one reader's question about being told not to expect a vector if another controller weren't available to help the controller who was working his flight. There are all kinds of possible reasons for this, but they essentially come down to the same thing: Division of workload.

The more air traffic controllers there are available to work in a given area, the more focussed a controller can be in a given area. That's the whole background to ATC and "sectorization" of airspace. There is an infamous, if not hated quote from a controller in Moncton Center from years ago: "Give me two good men and an ashtray and I'll work the whole center." Tongue in cheek, of course, but his point of view is that some people were complaining about putting too much airspace together, not allowing them to watch the finer details and help pilots in their operation.

One of the requirements that ATC has is to watch all of his airspace, plus a margin for taking hand-offs and so forth. If staffing is low, requiring the "consolidation" of airspace into a smaller number of radar screens, each controller working must watch more airspace. This means that he has more airports to watch over, more enroute traffic to concern himself with, and must watch a larger range. Vectoring to final may become difficult, or at the very least inefficient, since it is harder to vector accurately when you watch a large range. Terminal control units, who vector regularly and use as little as 3 NM between aircraft, are very focussed and are always one a much smaller range than their enroute counterparts since their repsonsibilities often include a very small area and only a small number of busier airports. It's easier to determine, with accuracy, where a vector will take an aircraft if you're watching a 60 mile range than if you're watching 500 miles from side to side.

Also, even if the airspace a controller is watching is comparatively small, there are always a number of other duties that must be tended to. For example, in a busier enroute sector, there may be handoffs to neighbouring ATC units, incoming phone calls from other facilities, and coordination of flight data between controllers. None of the above mentioned activities can be heard on the radios, so it may sound like the controller isn't busy but he may very well be tied up. These activities all require the attention of the controller, as well as his voice. If he's talking to an adjacent ATC unit, he can't issue you a vector to final, and may end up "zinging" you through a localizer, which we all know wouldn't be a very efficient operation, and may be less than helpful at best.

So if a controller says he can't vector you to final because of workload or because, "another controller isn't around to help," there may not be much you can do about it. And he's not necessarily being lazy or uninterested in helping out, either.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Multiple Approaches - Uncontrolled Airports

To answer a recently asked question, and hopefully help some folks understand why things are the way they are, we'll look at uncontrolled airports and how things with ATC work when more than one IFR aircraft are inbound at the same time.

For starters, the rule that ATC has to work with is that only one aircraft may be cleared for an approach at an airport at a time. This holds true for all airports in controlled airspace, with the exception of those in a terminal environment. A terminal environment is one where ATC has radar to the ground, a tower in operation, appropriate radar and radio backups, and an airspace structure internally which allows for closer monitoring than the average enroute sector can accomplish. Most airports in Canada are in ATC sectors which are fairly large, and may not allow the controller to "range down" enough to actually watch things as close as a terminal control unit is organized to do. Add to that the radar coverage issue, and you'll see that most airports, even if radar coverage is good, are below radar coverage to the point that even if ATC could monitor the airspace on a small enough range, they wouldn't be able to see well enough to provide a terminal service at most of them.

So back to the multiple approaches outside of a terminal operation. Without the above mentioned abilities, ATC has to go back to the all-covering rule of one on approach at a time. In VFR weather, ATC may only clear one IFR aircraft for an approach to an airport at a time. This means that until the first one lands, the second one must be kept at an altitude above that of the inbound aircraft until he lands. In fact, ATC must protect for the possibility of a missed approach, too. So if #1 is on approach out of 2,300 feet and the missed approach altitude is 2,500 feet, then the lowest available altitude for #2 is 3,500 until #1 lands or cancels IFR. If the weather is IFR, then it gets a little worse. ATC must now wait until #1 lands and taxis clear of the runway to be used by #2 before he can clear him for the approach. If we get the "on time", then we can issue a lower altitude to #2, but we still can't clear him for the approach until #1 has taxied off the runway.

The same statements mentioned above are true for an airport where a control tower is in operation but terminal control service is not provided. Only one on approach at a time at these controlled airports.

But wait. There are two more wrinkles. There is the possibility of successive visual approaches. #2 sees #1, ATC may be able to approve a visual approach, clearing #2 to follow #1. Another one that most pilots don't understand (and many aren't aware of) is the transfer of control of an IFR aircraft to the tower at a controlled airport. When a preceeding IFR aircraft, whether on a visual, contact or instrument approach procedure, enters the control zone, and weather permits, tower may be able to assume responsibility for control of the IFR aircraft, thereby allowing the IFR controller to issue an approach clearance to the #2 airplane. If you were following the thread earlier about the missed approach on a visual approach, you'll remember I said at a controlled airport ATC (in this case the tower) will issue instructions for the aircraft on a visual who must do a missed approach. That's what this statement was about.

So basically, outside of a terminal environment (only at larger airports), you'll normally only see one IFR aircraft on approach at a time.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Pre-Taxi Clearances

There is a move afoot in the Moncton FIR to reintroduce "Pre-taxi clearances" at uncontrolled airports. Here is a little background.

At many towered airports, certainly the larger ones, the towers will issue "canned" clearances to IFR aircraft. They're normally based on SIDs that are published for the field, include the aircraft's flight plan route if at least the initial segments of that are acceptable (meaning don't penetrate restricted areas, have proper, valid airways/fixes within the originating FIR, and so forth), and a transponder code. The idea from the ATC side of things is to reduce coordination between the IFR unit, which is responsible for issuing IFR clearances, and the tower, who communicates with the IFR unit for said clearances and "releases" for IFR departures. Where these canned clearances aren't in effect, the tower must call the IFR ATC unit (a terminal or ACC) for each IFR clearance, and they often don't include SIDs but are the old fashioned, "full clearances" which may include things like initial headings, altitude restrictions, radial climbs and so forth.

Pilots have said they like the idea of getting pre-taxi clearances because they have the opportunity to brief the departure and if they get the same thing all the time, then there is less of an opportunity to make errors.

The idea that is being introduced is to allow FSS to issue similar canned clearances and call for a release of an IFR departure. We attempted to do this many years ago, and met only with a moderate amount of success. There are SIDs published for the target airports, but there were so many errors by flight crews in the departure instructions that it ended up being terminated and normal ops resumed. The SIDs, with the exception of Fredericton off runway 15, were all "runway heading for vectors to assigned route, maintain 5,000" were so frequently broken it was unreal. Many pilots took off and made the turn on course, and even some outright admitted they were climbing to their flight planned altitude as well. This resulted in some losses of separation as overflights and arrivals were being planned based on the SID being flown. Nobody has come up with a definite answer as to why all these SIDs were being busted, but the most prominent belief is that the mindset of the pilots being at an uncontrolled airport leads to the pilot not flying a SID. Some of them have gone so far as to say that the SID at an uncontrolled airport is confusing. Which is funny since the pilots are strong supporters of this procedure. They're saying they want the same thing everywhere they fly. So if they get a SID at Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax and so many other places, why can't they understand how to fly them at these smaller airports? We rarely ever see SIDs busted at Halifax or Moncton in our FIR, but at one point the clearances were busted upwards of 8 times a day at Saint John, Fredericton and Charlottetown.

Another aspect At uncontrolled airports, this sort of thing is a little more difficult, technically speaking. At a controlled airport, there is someone in the tower who has the authority to stop an aircraft from taxiing, entering the runway and taking off, so there is an element of control there that is needed for IFR operations. Without a tower, if a pilot believes he has a valid IFR clearance, then there is nobody who can stop him from taking off, regardless of where his traffic is.

So this will likely be implemented again in the near future. The airlines will likely fair better overall, since they have training departments to help spread the word. The individual operators are the ones who will likely have longer term difficulties with this. Here's hoping it goes well, when it goes.

Monday, September 26, 2005


All around the world, people are encouraged by various groups to report fireballs and meteors by various officials, and pilots are asked to do the same through ATS facilities. These reports, to ATC, are so unimportant to us (overall) that it's a good thing fireballs are not often visible, or at least not often reported. Having said that, I have taken my fair share of reports of fireballs over the 13 years I've been in ATC.

This post, while it has little to do with Aviation in Canada, was sparked by what I saw yesterday afternoon: My first daytime fireball. It appeared where I happened to be looking when I was playing with my kids. No sound, but a brilliant yellow with the odd flash of white while it fell, leaving a rapidly dissipating "train" or smoke trail. I've seen many over the years at various times through the night, but this was the first I saw during daylight hours. Since I knew that someone was always looking for reports, I decided I'd try to find somewhere on the internet to send a report, and a quick Google search revealed the name of a man at the University of New Brunswick who had such an interest. There. I've done my good deed for someone today.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Visual Approaches

Ah, here's one that's stirring debate at Moncton ACC. The rules ATC have to follow for a visual approach. We'll cover the basics, then I'll explain the opening statement.

First off, in order for ATC to clear a pilot for a visual approach, or to approve a pilot's request for a visual approach, the weather must meet certain minima. I say it that way because unlike a Contact Approach, ATC may initiate a Visual Approach whereas a Contact Approach must be requested by the pilot. The weather minima include a minimum of 3SM visibility and a ceiling that is at least 500 feet above the minimum IFR altitude. The term "Minimum IFR altitude" confuses a lot of people, since there are so many altitudes that could be chosen Quadrantal altitudes, 100 NM safe altitudes, whatever. If a Minimum Radar Vectoring Altitude is established for the area, ATC will use that (note that MRVAs are not published for pilot reference). If none, they will look for something that is appropriate for the airspace concerned. The way this is arrived at flows something like this: The MRVA at CYQM is 1,800 feet ASL. The aerodrome elevation is about 200 feet, so that makes a ceiling requirement of 1,600 feet plus the 500 foot addition mentioned above, for a ceiling of 2,100 as a minimum for approving a visual approach (remembering that METAR cloud levels are heights above ground, rather than altitudes above sea level).

Once the weather minima are out of the way, ATC has to look at some other points. If the aircraft is number one, it's simple: The pilot merely has to report the field in sight. He doesn't have to be within a certain distance or anything fancy. If he's not number one, he has to see the aircraft he will be following. If he's not number one at the field, but the other aircraft is landing on another runway, he has to see that traffic and be instructed to maintain visual separation from him. ATC must take caution to ensure the correct aircraft is spotted in multiple aircraft situations, and will say the aircraft type in the clearance. For example, "... cleared for the visual approach runway 14, follow the Dash 8 on left base."

Pretty simple. Now, for the complications. It used to be common practice in a terminal environment that when, say, a Dash 8 is 6 miles final and the 2nd aircraft is 40 miles out, but calls the field in sight, ATC could clear the 2nd aircraft for the visual approach, using the applicable radar separation minimum to verify that positive separation exists. Hey, it should be good having over 10 times the minimum, right? What I understand is that it is still done that way across most of the country. In our FIR, though, things are different. They're telling us that this is not legal, and that number one must see number two, or we have to become the "visual nazi" -- no visual for you! They tell us it's a "national ruling", but nobody else in the country has received direction to operate this way. And it makes no sense, but we have to tell pilots "no" and leave them shaking their heads. In so many situations like the above, it would be impossible for one aircraft to catch another or even be within 10NM of the other, even if he wanted to. What more can I say? So much for consistency and common sense.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Missed Approach on a Visual Approach

Eric wrote in and asked a few questions about today's title subject. This is not a cut and dry issue, and I expect plenty of debate about this. At least, there is in other circles where I've had discussions about this. For the American readers, remember that what I write below is out of Canadian rule books and may differ from your procedures somewhat.

His question revolved around the opening statement, "On an IFR flight plan, after you have been cleared for a visual approach, controlled or uncontrolled airport, what is ATC expecting the pilot to do in case of a go around?" Actually, there is a difference between controlled and uncontrolled aerodromes. At a controlled airport, remembering that a controlled airport is one with an ATC tower in operation, the tower will give appropriate instructions and clearances which will tell the pilot what to do, or let the pilot do what he wants to do. That's pretty simple. It's at an uncontrolled airport where things become a little less than clear.

At an uncontrolled airport (served by FSS, CARS, etc), pilots are expected to operate clear of cloud and complete a landing as soon as possible. If a landing is not possible, the AIP tells aircrews that they must remain clear of cloud and contact ATC as soon as possible for further clearance. Sounds good, right? Then it goes on to state that "ATC separation from other IFR aircraft will be maintained under these circumstances." As a controller, I can envision some circumstances that that prove this last statement wrong, even though they are supported by ATC rule books.

The visual approach is not an instrument approach procedure. It is an IFR approach, though. An IFR aircraft on a visual approach is still an IFR aircraft, though he is no longer flying by reference to his instruments, such as while on an ILS approach. Since it is not an instrument approach procedure, there is no missed approach segment for such an approach. ATC does provide separation from other IFR aircraft on instrument approach procedures, but not for visual approaches. At controlled airports, the tower will look after it, as mentioned above. At uncontrolled airports, ATC will not clear the second aircraft for an approach until one of these following happens: 1) the #1 aircraft lands, 2) #1 cancels IFR, or 3) #2 reports seeing #1 and is cleared for a visual approach and instructed to follow (if using the same runway) or maintain visual separation from (if using a different runway) the preceding aircraft. Now here's the set up. What if the aircraft can't land? Perhaps a VFR aircraft crashes on the runway, forcing both aircraft to go around. How is ATC expected to provide separation between these two aircraft? The aircraft may not be on radar any longer, and therefore ATC may have nothing else to rely on.

Admittedly, after 11 years in the ACC, I haven't seen any circumstances actually happen where this has become an issue. Despite theoretical arguments and hypothetical situations, it just hasn't come up. I'm pretty sure someone has had to deal with it, but I haven't heard the story myself.

Sorry, Eric, but I can't answer all of your questions directly. Technically, the visual approach clearance is an IFR procedure, and therefore accepting a visual approach clearance doesn't cancel your IFR flight plan. However, there is no missed approach procedure, and effectively, if you have to go around, you're operating as if you are VFR since you're not allowed to enter cloud until you contact ATC and receive a further clearance. Since there is no missed approach segment for a visual approach, and you weren't cleared for any other instrument procedure, I think you'd be hard pressed to justify flying an instrument missed approach procedure, especially if it would take you into cloud. I can say this about separation: The pilot becomes responsible for his own separation from other VFR aircraft (and preceding IFR aircraft if cleared for a visual and instructed regarding it as mentioned above), as well as providing his own separation with respect to wake turbulence, obstructions, terrain, and Class F airspace. The pilot must also assume responsibility for adherence to noise abatement procedures. At a controlled airport, the pilot should operate as cleared or directed by the tower, who also looks after the other aircraft around him in the usual fashion.

Any other thoughts? How about comments? Let the discussion begin.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Weather Follow Up

I didn't realize just how busy a month September can be. I've missed a few days recently.

Anyway, this post is intended to be a follow up to Eric's comment from the post on the 21st. I didn't quite answer his question.

When aircraft make PIREPs to ACC controllers, we are supposed to pass those along to FSS, who will then enter them in the system for retrieval by others over the AFTN, the Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunication Network. This network is accessible by dispatchers, ACCs, FSS, and a number of other agencies connected with the movement of aircraft and information.

The problem is this, in practice: There are a lot of reports, and often people are too busy to actually pass these to the supervisor. Unless there is something significant like severe turbulence or severe icing, these reports may not get passed on to someone who can enter this into the AFTN circuits. Often these reports are held at the sector by the controller for verbal communication to pilots who are flying in his area, and shared with adjacent sectors who have aircraft that are flight planned through. If it's only occasional light chop, these are often disregarded.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Canadian Aviation Weather Online

One thing that NavCanada has been working on which I tend to use a fair amount is the public availability of aviation weather information. Eric wrote in recently to ask me a question about whether pireps were available online, but I couldn't find which article his message was attached to, so I figured I'd address it here. And actually, for those who are interested in Canadian weather information and aren't aware of the website, it's a pretty good resource available for free on the internet, so it would be a worthwhile post anyway.

So here it is:

NavCanada's Flight Planning Webpage

The screen that comes up will have a number of buttons which are largely self-explanatory. Those who are reading this are likely to know a few location identifiers to help get the weather reports they need, though it is possible to enter a place name for a look up. Given that I know all the ones that I want to use, I have never used the location lookup before so I don't know how useful it is. You can't get US weather and reports here, but Canadian PIREPS are available through this interface. NOTAMs and many other products such as weather radar images are linked through here as well. It's quite a useful site for weather watchers like myself, but certainly more useful for those who are planning flights.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Busy day

My apologies for missing a post yesterday. Between the walk, the kayak ride, the bike ride and the golf, I had little time to do anything else. What a great day! Now if only I got flying yesterday, too...

Today is shaping up in a similar way, so I'll just leave you with something quick:

An airliner was taking off from Kennedy Airport. After it reached
comfortable cruising altitude, the captain made an announcement over
the intercom, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.
Welcome to Flight 293, nonstop from New York to Los Angeles. The
weather ahead is good and we should have a smooth and uneventful
flight. Now sit back and relax and. . . OH MY GOD!". . . .

Silence followed. Then after a few seconds, the captain came back on
the intercom and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am so sorry if I
frightened you earlier, but while I was talking to you, the flight
attendent brought me a cup of hot coffee and spilled it in my lap." He
chuckled and said, "You should see the front of my pants!"

A passenger in coach yelled loudly, "That's nothing. You should see
the back of mine!"

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Aviation Medicals

Ah, the old "turn your head and cough" trick is loved by all men. There is only one other test men hate more, at least 90% of us anyway, and fortunately that's not included as part of the Cat 2 or 3 medical category. But getting a medical is often easier than keeping it, since many of us get into aviation licenses when we're younger.

Yes, keeping a medical can be harder than getting one. As we age, we tend to wear our bodies out. And many of us endure things that aren't planned by any stretch. Broken bones, kidney stones, minor surgeries. All those wonderful things. In the past few years I've dealt with a few of these issues myself. The minor surgeries are often no more than a few days off work (perhaps more for those who fly, depending on the nature of the surgery), and sometimes require letters from attending physicians. After a kidney stone episode, my doctor was willing to declare me fit for duty. Civil Aviation Medicine wanted one of three tests to prove it. And I can understand the need for it, too. The problem was this: They sent me a letter, asking me to forward the results of one of these tests with a letter from my attending physician stating there were no risidual stones and that I was fit for duty. Sounds easy, since my doctor was willing. I had to call back. I said to him, "I'm not sure what the health care system is like in Ontario, but with my doctor telling me I'm OK, I'm not a priority for treatment. The shortest waiting list of the 3 tests that would be acceptable was 3-4 months!" They wanted a reply to that letter in 30 days. They ended up sending me a restricted medical, which basically made my pilot license useless and had me in the office at work.

Eventually, the tests were done, the letters forwarded, and my LVC was returned to normal. But it gave me a whole new outlook on the medical. I'm eating better, exercising more (have I mentioned how much I'm loving mountain biking?) and watching my health better than ever. Strange, since that's all stuff I should be doing anyway. But now I realize just how much my job (ATC) and on of my favorite pass times (flying) depend on my health (which I apparently had been taking for granted). So lift a weight for me as you keep yourself fit for duty. It seems a whole lot easier than trying to get tests done and get doctors to write letters to prove that you're good to go.

Saturday, September 17, 2005


First off, let me say that I tried to avoid it as long as I could. Given the spam comments, I had to go with Paul Tomblin and Aviatrix's suggestion: Turn on word verification for comments. It means an extra step when you want to leave a comment, but it beats everyone seeing stupid ads about irrelevant websites.

Secondly, Canadian Aviator Magazine has invited me to write a column in their bimonthly publication. Truly an honor. I hope to get started with them right away, perhaps even making their next issue. I'm quite excited about this, and hope I can do a good job for them and their readers. I can't wait to see the first article they feel is worth publishing in actual print!

Friday, September 16, 2005

Airplane Watchers

I was one of them, and occasionally still fill the role. An airport watcher. You know the kind: they sit near an approach path just outside the airport fence, or perhaps on a hill overlooking a particular part of an airfield. They often have long telephoto lenses, radios (and some like myself, more than one with a mixer and a loud speaker so everyone can hear more than one channel continuously) and a huge love of airplanes and aviation. Many of these people subscribe to one of the disciplines to an extreme compared to most people. Some have incredible camera setups, with the sole intention of capturing airplanes of all kinds. Some have fantastic radio gear, whose only radio frequencies not found in the VHF and UHF air bands are those associated with airport security and operations.

These groups tend to annoy other groups. While most of the diehards will park clear of pavement, they often draw other, casual observers in who don't understand the finer points of getting out of the way of traffic first, which leads to complaints and a police presence. Then they are often shooed away, only to return later. Some airport security personnel tend to view these people as security risks, when in fact all they want to do is watch airplanes. Airport authorities dislike these people, since they are often seen as the public eye, watching carefully for anything that doesn't go as it should, possibly exposing liability.

The Greater Toronto Airport Authority was one of those until recently. Then, a group of these airport watchers got together and did something that surprised me, among others. They put together a little organization and made an agreement with the GTAA that had them as unofficial watchdogs, an extra set of eyes for airport security. They have no authority to arrest individuals or issue parking tickets, but they have a structure and some respect now and act to help keep an eye open and report suspicious activities near the airport. All of this in return for a little peace and quiet and to be left alone while they watch the operations they meant to see all along -- the airplanes.

Have a look at their website, for curiousity's sake if for no other reason. And the next time you fly into LBPIA (CYYZ), have a look on the final approach path by the fence and see if they wave you in.


Thursday, September 15, 2005

Projecting Approach Fixes

I received a question about aircraft using RNAV to project fixes for use on approaches. I have to say that from an ATC point of view, there are some possible pitfalls for this procedure. Let me explain.

In years past, just before the publishing of Intermediate Fixes (IF) on final approach courses, some operators with RNAV (most notably certain Air Canada aircraft) were asking for "direct to the centerline fix". I'm not sure if these were projected in the cockpit or calculated on the ground by system engineers and added to the waypoint databases on the aircraft. Either way, the idea was the same as the use of the IFs now: to allow, where possible, the use of the aircraft's RNAV and FMS to fly the airplane to final approach without, or with as little as possible, ATC intervention. Some controllers disliked it for various reasons, some controllers made use of it where they could, but eventually, it was determined as an inappropriate procedure and we (ATC) were directed not to allow it.

The reason for this is that the fixes were not published. This meant it left some ambiguity as to what altitude was safe for a given area, where the fixes actually were (Air Canada's, I believe, were all placed at 10NM, but some operators got keen on this and projected 8NM gates, and one did a 12NM gate), and some aircraft seemed more capable of others on "smart turns" which turn before the fix while others flew over it before turning, allowing a window of opportunity for separation problems or unexpected flight paths.

With IFs published now, things along those lines are considered reasonable. Now, some pilots are asking for clearances for "direct FIXXX" which is an IF, but fail to mention that they plan to project a fix off to the side for base leg when approach angles to the IF and final approach course are great. The projection of a fix falls again under the same issues that were raised in the past (obstacle clearance, non-standard positioning, etc), but the bigger part to me is the fact that pilots doing this are rarely ever mentioning that's what they plan to do. They ask for direct FIXXX and fly to a projected waypoint somewhere off to the side. In a terminal area, the controller might be expecting the plane to track nicely directly to the fix requested (why wouldn't he? -- the plane is obviously capable of a direct track since he asked for it), but instead makes an unexpected turn. If the fix is, say, 5NM from the centerline and an aircraft is put on what is expected to be a parallel vector, this could lead to a converging traffic situation since the controller may be using as little as 3NM, effectively aiming the vectored aircraft on the wrong side of where the RNAV aircraft is unexpectedly going.

Until fixes on base leg are published, there is a level of ambiguity that must be resolved somehow, and the only way to resolve it is by communication. My guess is that someone will eventually have a hair-raising incident with this sort of practice, from the ATC side or the pilot side, and the brakes will be put to it anyway. It may lead to published fixes, and perhaps that's what is desired and needed. I'm sure we'll run out of five-letter fixes before they get published, though. Perhaps some sort of naming convention including numbers can be published for this?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Custom Instrument Approaches

Westjet has begun altering the face of instrument approach procedures in Canada. Recently, they contracted another company, Naverus, to design some "company" instrument approach procedures for them for a number of airports they serve, and the Greater Moncton International Airport was on thier list. The idea behind a company approach is that it is not published in the Canada Air Pilot so only those with the information and authorization are allowed to use them. The authorization would come from Transport Canada. All the pilot has to do is ask for the approach procedure and ATC gives a clearance for that approach just like any other published approach. Asking for it tells ATC that you have authorization to conduct the approach.

There are a few issues with these that I can see. First off, what's wrong with the published ones? The ILS on R29, for example, has lower limits than these RNP RNAV approaches. While they may be useful if the ILS is shut down, the approaches are otherwise the same. They didn't take the time to do their own base leg fixes, which means ATC still has to get involved in vectoring them downwind, just as an aircraft doing a stright-in ILS R29 via the IF would. Secondly, they have different fixes other than those established, such as a different FAF and missed approach point, as well as (more importantly) different missed approach instructions and altitudes.

The real problem comes in when trying to mix aircraft doing the different approaches and trying to remember what each plane is going to do. Canjet has the new B737-500s now, so what if they decide to design their own approaches? And what about Air Canada and AC Jazz? Have we opened the floodgates to see a number of personalized approaches across the country?

It probably seems like I'm being a little resistant to change. Perhaps I am. But I don't see the need for this as it just creates unnecessary confusion, in my opinion. It's evidenced by the control staff around me, and I can tell you I'm not the only one harbouring such views toward these approach procedures. I do wonder what controllers across Canada think of this concept, though. Do they like an operator designing their own approaches at busier airports? I mean, a satellite airport with no approach procedures published is one thing. Airports already served by existing approaches, I feel, do not need additional approaches.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Unrestricted Approach Clearance Revisited

A reader asked a good question yesterday. His post read as follows, in case you didn't see it:

The first time I encountered this "cleared for an approach" was coming into Kingston Ontario (to meet another reader of this blog, David M). It was severe clear, and I was on a IFR clearance mostly because it's easier with cross border flights than trying to switch to a FSS frequency to open a VFR flight plan, and then begging for Rochester for flight following. At the time they cleared me for any approach, they also turned me over to the FSS frequency for the field. I had the field in sight from 30 miles out, and I told the FSS station that I was going to enter the pattern and land visually.

The only answer I have found is this, that technically, he has done something wrong. Is it a big deal? No. Years ago, visual and contact approaches were allowed when in receipt of a clearance, "for an approach." I'm still not sure of the background, but that had changed and the way it stands now is that visuals and contacts are only allowed if specifically approved by ATC. The exchange, for example, could go something like this:

ATC: "Alpha Bravo Charlie, cleared to the Sumspot airport for an approach."
Pilot: "Alpha Bravo Charlie cleared to the Sumspot airport for an approach. Requesting the contact approach."
ATC: "Alpha Bravo Charlie, the contact approach is approved."

In the situation above, where he was talking to radio when he decided he wanted to fly visually, he should have asked FSS for a clearance for a visual approach, or cancelled IFR so he could proceed on his own. The funny thing about this is that communication is often incomplete. In my experience, a pilot often tells FSS that he wants to do a visual or contact approach, and the FSS simply acknowledges this as a change of intent on the part of the pilot, leading the pilot to believe that he has received approval for the visual approach.

In either the case just mentioned or Paul's case, I find it hard to believe that it would cause a problem. The fact that the pilot is in receipt of an unrestricted approach clearances means that there is no other traffic around to conflict with, and therefore ATC is unlikely to have an issue with a pilot doing a visual or contact approach anyway. In actual fact, as pilots already recognize in such situations, ATC knows that the pilot is likely to land sooner on a visual approach than doing an instrument procedure anyway, so it is to ATC's benefit as much as it is to the pilot's. Why, then, is this rule in effect? I have no idea. We've tried to change it in the past in Moncton Center, but have had no luck in convincing those above us who obviously have the "bigger picture" and say that it's not acceptable.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Unrestricted Approach Clearance

I've seen a number of questions about the clearance, "...cleared to the Sumspot Airport for an approach," and what it means. I'm hoping to shed some light.

A long time ago, a Northwest Airlink airline (strangely, their callsign was Northeast) who flew in the Moncton FIR often received these clearances as some of the flights were after hours when traffic is light. After several months of flying in the region, one pilot asked about this clearance. He said, "Moncton, do you keep giving us that approach clearance because we're Americans?" Uh, no. That's, "For an approach", not, "foreign approach."

Seriously, though, the unrestricted approach clearance gives the pilot the right to conduct any published instrument approach procedure, and includes the right to navigate from any point on his flight plan route (including present position, of course) to any fix associated with the approach or any published transitions. For example, they may leave an airway and fly RNAV direct to an IF for a straight-in approach. They may fly to a fix on a DME arc and fly the arc for a straight-in. They may fly to a fix associated with an RNAV approach. Whatever. There are two approaches that are conspicuous in their absences from this right: Visual and Contact approaches. While they are IFR approaches, they are not instrument approach procedures and hence are not included in the authorization when in receipt of a clearance for "an approach." Pilots wishing to conduct either of these must ask for authorization from ATC if in controlled airspace prior to leaving a published instrument approach procedure or transition. Controllers and pilots alike seem to agree on this as being a little silly. If a controller has traffic at an airport, he would likely issue a specific approach clearance rather than unrestricted, so why can't a pilot fly a visual if he wants to? Rules are rules, I suppose...

Another rule about the unrestricted approach clearance is that a pilot is required to inform ATC as soon as possible of the approach that will be conducted, and method of transition to be used. I'd say we're running about 50% compliance on this. Also, once stated, a pilot is not supposed to deviate from the approach procedure he notified ATC he would use without prior authorization.

In short, clearance for, "an approach," may be issued at times when traffic is light or if ATC doesn't have the facilities to allow arrival vs. departure style separation. A pilot is supposed to inform ATC what procedure is to be used, and then stick to it unless he receives approval for something else. And a pilot may not conduct a visual or contact approach unless he requests it (and obtains approval) from ATC. Informing a flight service station or other type of facility at destination that you want to do a visual/contact approach doesn't count as asking for, and receiving approval from, ATC. When relayed through an FSS, a clearance would actually be prefixed with, "ATC clears..."

Sunday, September 11, 2005


I'm back from the Nova Scotia International Airshow. Well, technically I was back yesterday from it. And technically I didn't actually go to it. My airshow days start with the day before the show itself when most of the participants fly in. This year, due to other commitments, this was my airshow in its entirety. I had to be back in Moncton yesterday so I missed the show itself. And for the number of airshow aircraft, it almost appears as though I'll miss nothing. The show was quite thin compared to past years, and the $18 admission (that's per person not per car), I don't feel like I made a bad choice, especially after seeing how little arrived.

Given that this is the only annual airshow in the maritime provinces, I feel like the days of it are numbered like all the others. It makes me wonder about the idea of arranging a new one, this time in an airport much closer to home. It's a big undertaking to get one going, but maybe that's what's needed out here. Perhaps some interest can be generated in my own city on getting one together. We had one in the past, why not another one? Perhaps it's time to lend a hand in organizing one instead of just observing one. Where's my pen? I better get the letter writing campaign going soon.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Another Absence

Things are getting quite busy for me, here, so I'll be taking a few days away from posting. I should be back around by the beginning of next week, following the Nova Scotia International Airshow. I hope everyone who reads this is seeing weather as good as we have forecast for our region.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

ATC Radio Chatter

This is a recent exchange between a pilot outbound to Deer Lake from Halifax (a track of about 063°M) and Halifax Terminal. The pilot was given a heading of 075 for "vectors around traffic". The traffic was inbound from Deer Lake and not on the terminal's frequency yet.

Pilot: "Are we able to go direct Deer Lake yet?"
ATC: "No, you're on vectors around traffic."
Pilot: "Well, we don't see any traffic."
ATC: "Fly heading 060 and you'll probably get a pretty good look at him."

Seriously, though, there are a number of answers that could have come from that comment. "I guess I'm doing my job well then." Or how about, "That's what ATC is all about." There used to be one group of pilots who flew the Moncton FIR regularly and they often made remarks like, "Where's my traffic?" as if they were expecting us to say, "Oh, you caught me. I actually didn't have any for you. You can proceed on course now." When all it did in the short term is waste air time on the radio, and in the long term lead to a bad working relationship. Thankfully, there isn't a lot of this going around any more, but obviously still a few pilots who think that way.

Saturday, September 03, 2005


It seems fewer and fewer pilots are reading their NOTAMs lately. The most recent example, silly as it is, comes from the Rolling Stones' concert in Moncton. Yesterday, there was a tiny restricted area in effect a ful day before the concert that begins this afternoon. It's only a 1 NM radius and it's capped at 3,000 feet ASL. The problem? It's only 8 NM from the airport, just north of the departure path of runway 29, the runway normally in use during fair weather due to the prevailing winds and it's length over the other one. In an IFR world, restricted areas are effectively bigger than the advertised dimenions since ATC must apply separation from the boundaries of them. In this case, since it's located so close to an airport in a terminal environment, we have to keep aircraft 3NM from the edge (making it effectively a 4NM radius) if they're below 4,000 feet. If a pilot accepts a visual or contact approach, he is then responsible for separation from this kind of area and the 3NM need not apply.

The trouble is, only one IFR pilot destined for Moncton yesterday was even aware there was restricted airspace near the airport, and he admitted he had only the faintest notion, saying, "I read something about that. Where is it?"

I've seen a lot of evidence of pilot's being less and less likely to read NOTAMs in the past few years. NAVAID outages, runway closures, restricted airspace, military activities, and so forth are always advertised in one of the three levels of NOTAMs. There are the airport NOTAMs which this Rolling Stones thing would have been advertised, as well as NAVAID outages. Then there are the regional NOTAM files which include items not associated with an airport like a runway closure, but would include things like military exercises and their areas. Then there is the Headquarters file (HQ) which includes things like NOTAMs about regulation changes, and other nationwide issues such as those items that occured on Sept 11, 2001.

As much as load factors and flight plan routes are important, the NOTAM summary should be consulted. I'm not suggesting that every airport along the route of flight be researched, but certainly the departure point, destination and the alternate aerodrome should be on the list of priorities.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Changing Transponder Codes

Here's something that's kind of interesting about transponder operation. Changing codes. When assigned a code while airborne, many pilots will select "Stnadby", change the code, then select "On" or "Alt" again. Did you know that this isn't the preferred method from the other side of the scopes?

I know, most pilots will tell me they do this to ensure they don't inadvertently select any of the emergency codes. But the reason this is bad is that it causes ATC to lose the target on radar while the code change is taking place. The last thing we want, if we're trying to confirm which target is you on radar, is to stop seeing you on radar.

The soon-to-be vanquished AIP Canada actually has a passage about it in RAC 1.9.1, para 3, which states, "Do not select "STANDBY" while changing codes as this will cause the target to be lost on ATC radar screens."

In the same paragraph, they give advice on how to prevent inadvertent selection of codes. Their example is changing from 1700 to 7100 by changing the second digit first, making it 1100, then changing the first one to show 7100. This requires a little thought as to which codes could be "moved through" in the process. Another idea is to change the last digit first, which is often not a zero.

Whatever method you choose, it would make a controller on the other end happier not to lose your target when changing codes. Oh, yes, don't operate the IDENT feature when you change a code. Changing the code is enough. The ident feature should not be used except when directed by ATC. Some pilots seem to like being cool and calling in on departure like this: "Good afternoon, Center, Airline 123 with you off AirportX through 1,900 with the flash." Save it, please. Wait until instructed to use it. What if, just before you called in, someone else was told to squawk ident? Then two targets are flashing at the same time, and technically, neither one can be considered radar identified.