Thursday, June 18, 2009

When Worlds Collide

With aviation being as diverse as it is, there are many “worlds” that divide the flying community and these worlds don’t always share a common viewpoint or, for that matter, a common language. As pilots, we typically find it easy to form a bond with others that may live in a different world than we do and it is often the case that any given pilot may exist in more than one world, but there are times when, to borrow a Seinfeldism, our worlds may collide.

There was an interesting collision between my world, where I predominantly fly into rural uncontrolled airports, and Lynda’s world of structured IFR flight into and out of major metropolitan airports. Our worlds (but hopefully not our respective aircraft) collided when we had a Twitter conversation on the topic of radio communication. As a breed, pilots tend to be evangelical on any number of topics and one of the most contentious can be the proper way to communicate amongst ourselves or with Air Traffic Control. Controllers also have a stake in this game as they spend nearly 100% of their working day talking to pilots. Any time you have that much of a specific activity in your work life, there are bound to be sore points. Lynda had a few blog posts on the subject that you should read if you want to keep up with the discussion, but I will try to excerpt as necessary to help the more time-constrained amongst you keep up.

Because Lynda inhabits a vastly different flying world than I do, the applicability of some of the communications sore points she mentions to my world are somewhat rare. For example, the always controversial “with you” as used in the context “Big City Center, four six six papa golf with you at eight thousand” isn’t that big of a deal to me since I rarely work with Big City Center. That said, I can see the point of those that object to it: frequencies can be crowded and even two unnecessary words uttered by a lot of airplanes can propagate into an untenable over-usage of a fixed capacity spectrum.

In my world, frequency congestion is also a problem. The uncontrolled airports I fly into often share a radio frequency with many other surrounding airports. This is known as a UNICOM frequency. It is also commonly referred to as a CTAF frequency. They’re not precisely synonyms, but the semantic differences aren’t critical to this discussion. This definition will suit our purposes:

UNICOM is employed at airports with a low volume of general aviation traffic and where no control tower is presently active. UNICOM stations typically use a single communications frequency. Some fields always offer UNICOM service while others revert to UNICOM procedures only during hours when the control tower is closed.
In this system or protocol, aircraft may call a non-government ground station to make announcements of their intentions. In some cases, the ground station is not staffed. If no one is staffing the ground station, pilots broadcast their location and intentions over the UNICOM channel. When the ground station is closed this is done without an acknowledgement.

This UNICOM frequency is used by pilots to coordinate their activity within the vicinity of an uncontrolled airport with other pilots. As an example, consider an arrival at MadCo (KUYF) where I typically buy gas for Papa. The runway is oriented east to west. I usually approach from the east. If the winds are westerly, I will want to land on runway 27 which points into the wind. Coming from the east, you might think that I could just fly straight in to runway 27, but that is frowned upon. In fact, it’s another of those evangelical issues pilots love to argue about. Rather than fly a straight in approach, I navigate to a position six or seven miles due south of the airport, turn north to approach the airport, and enter the traffic pattern at midfield for a left downwind.

Before I get to that position, though, I have been monitoring the UNICOM frequency assigned to MadCo. As soon as I'm far enough away from Bolton Tower, I change the radio to the MadCo UNICOM frequency and start listening. In the case of MadCo, that frequency is 123.00. Amongst others, this is also the frequency at Blue Ash (KISZ), down south in Cincinnati. Even as far away as that is, I can hear pilots there and they can hear me. Therefore, I identify the airport that I am going to in order to avoid confusion. My initial radio transmission will go something like this:

“Madison County traffic, experimental four six six papa golf, six miles south, inbound left traffic two seven, Madison County”

Because I have been monitoring the frequency, I have a fairly good idea as to what’s going on in the pattern. There may be a student doing touch & goes, or there may be other airplanes arriving or departing. Because we all announce our intentions (with some notable exceptions, such as airplanes that do not have a radio), I can develop a relatively good picture of who’s there, where they are, and where they will be when I get there. I say it’s a “relatively” good picture because it can never be completely accurate. At a minimum, though, it should give me a pretty good idea as to the amount of traffic there and which runway is in use.

It may seem obvious which runway is in use, but that is not always the case. If the winds are light and variable, or if they are almost exactly 90 degrees to the runway orientation, it’s up to the pilot’s discretion which runway to use. Those are tricky situations in which the only prudent course of action is to listen, look, listen, look, listen, and look, look, look. Since those are the two things most important to do anyway, that really shouldn’t be a problem. It is a fact of life, though, that there are many pilots that rely entirely on the existence of radio traffic to determine what’s going on at the airport. Not surprising, that was recently the topic of another Twitter conversation.

Where the issue of frequency congestion arrives is when the UNICOM frequencies are used for chit chat. It is far too typical to find that you can’t get a word in edgewise because a couple of buddies are yapping about this, that, and the other thing. There are also a number of other poor (in my opinion) techniques that can cause unneeded congestion or unsafe situations:

- Every now and then, you will hear “Podunk Unicom, what’s your active?” Translated, that means what runway would you recommend that I use. Keep in mind, by definition there is no controlling authority at an uncontrolled airport, so any response to this can at best be only advisory in nature. There are three ways to determine this for yourself rather than tying up the frequency by asking: 1) know the wind direction. This is often available via an automatic reporting system. There may not be one at the specific airport you are using, but check your charts. There are often airports nearby that have one. Well, at least in Ohio where there are many, many airports. 2) look at the wind sock. This requires you to fly overhead at an altitude above pattern altitude, though, so many are reluctant to do it. 3) monitor the frequency. What are other pilots in the area doing? I’m not ruling out the use of “What’s your active” or its kissing cousin “Requesting airport advisory,” but it is used far more commonly than is necessary.

- Not listening for other pilots talking to you. Simply broadcasting your position and intentions is all well and good, but for true coordination to occur you have to respond to any other pilots that may be trying to talk to you. They may want to know your intentions (full stop, touch & go) or they may be trying to alert you to a potential conflict. Either way, communication is (or should be) a two-way street.

- Not clearly stating what airport you are at. You may have noticed in my example above that I said “Madison County” twice. This is another contentious subject, but I do it for two reasons. First is that the first word may be cut off by the radio if it is said too quickly after keying the mike. This is also the reason many pilots start a transmission with “Uh” or “And” and it should be no surprise to you by now to learn that this too is a pet peeve of many a pilot. The second reason that I do it is because of how many times I will be flying along and not quite hear the first airport identification but clearly hear “left downwind two seven.” Darn, did he say “Morain” or “Madison?” I then listen for the closing identification, but not everyone does it.

- I mentioned this above, but far too often we hear “Hey, did you see the game last night?” “Man, I’m glad I’m flying this morning, I have to mow the lawn later.” Hint, people: no one else cares, and we may be trying to, you know, land this airplane at a crowded field. Write a letter for crying out loud.

Those are pretty common beefs, but there are some that are more situationally dependent. This brings us to the intersection of Lynda’s world with mine. During our Twitter conversation, I stated that there are a couple more communications that I find to be either unnecessary, overused and wasteful of the limited space available on a shared frequency, or even somewhat dangerous.

The first was:

“Podunk County, Cessna one two three echo echo five miles east, inbound, any traffic in the area please advise.

In the most common case, this is a completely useless transmission and has the additional effect of incurring even more congestion when every airplane in the vicinity of Podunk chimes in with their location. I always wonder what the guy flying that plane has been doing for the last 20 miles that prevented him from monitoring the frequency. In fact, Co-pilot Rick and I just had this discussion last Sunday as we were approaching Urbana. We decided that there are exceptions that need to be made to any hard and fast rejection of the “please advise” call, but they are relatively rare.

One that I fully understand after having experienced it myself is in the case of the airplane that is arriving after a hand off from air traffic control. In my case, the Tampico had only a single radio so I could not monitor the UNICOM frequency while still being in the positive control of ATC. It is often the case that ATC does not allow the frequency change to the UNICOM frequency until the arriving plane is already in the close vicinity of the airport and at that point, the most prudent thing to do is ask.

That is the first of two quandaries faced by the folks that live in Lynda’s world. The second is closely associated with it. It is case where an IFR pilot (or student) will announce their position on UNICOM using a language that is completely foreign to most VFR pilots. For example, you might hear this:

“Podunk County traffic, Beechcraft one two three is procedure turn inbound to runway two seven.”

Upon hearing that, the low-time VFR pilot or student doing tough & goes is usually thinking “Huh?? Where the heck is Procedure Turn? I wonder if they have a restaurant there...”

This disparity in language puts a burden on the pilot flying a high performance airplane making an IFR approach on a VFR day. ATC will often require that the pilot “call procedure turn inbound” before releasing him from the frequency. The IFR pilot has to make a quick transition from an IFR mentality to a VFR mentality, and there isn’t always a lot of time to do it in. In a perfect world, that pilot would have ample time to report “procedure turn inbound” to his IFR controller and get his release from the frequency before de-IFRing himself and announcing his position to Podunk traffic as “eight miles west, inbound.” I’ve been there, and even in an airplane as slow as the Tampico it was a difficult adjustment to make. It has to be far more difficult for a pilot in a high performance airplane, especially if that pilot didn’t spend a lot of time in the VFR world before moving up to the IFR world.

Even within my world, I find times when I wonder what’s going on in the head of another pilot. It is often too easy for me to forget that I didn’t always have 700+ hours under my belt. Lynda made an extremely good point on this topic: “A pilot may believe someone is being an idiot, but be professional. And no one gets hurt!” That’s exactly right.

It is important for a pilot to retain a couple of abilities, no matter how experienced he or she may be. First, a pilot must be able to empathize with those pilots from other worlds. In my world, we were all students once, many of us were low-time weekend renters, but few of us have flown at the speeds and in the complex environment that Lynda does. In the first two cases, we need to remember our past. In the latter case, we must try to be as cognizant of the challenges others may be facing as possible. We share the sky, so we need to be able to see the other guy’s point-of-view. Second, and I believe this to be critically important, we need to retain a desire and ability to learn from others. As a corollary to that, I also believe that it is important for us to be able to engage in critical introspection in order to learn from our own mistakes.

Failing that, the chances that your world will collide with someone else’s in a literal, rather than Seinfeldian, sense will be needlessly increased.

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