Sunday, March 29, 2009

Clipboard Notes

Sometimes I write down hilarious things that I heard on the radio to tell you about later. Obviously I have to abbreviate, just put down a couple of notes and then recall the conversation, right? Oh and I often do this in the dark, in turbulence, while not looking at what I'm writing. The results are predictable. I present to you the best transcription I can make of funniest thing someone said on the radio this week. I imagine it was written down while I was controlling the airplane, looking for traffic and laughing hysterically.

You sure GS hazl?

R cicre n moin

I think that's what it says, anyway. It's a good thing it wasn't my clearance.

Controllers here fairly frequently ask aircraft to find airplanes they can't reach on frequency. In the US, "flight following" is avaialble right across the country, but if a low-flying airplane misses a handoff because a transmitter is out and he's too low to receive from a back up, the controller loses radio contact. They'll call another pilot in the right vicinity and ask him to "raise N123RE on 123.75 and tell him to call me on 127.65."

"The military has all the money in the world, and we can't get radios that work," complains one controller. He was working Polk approach, and Polk is a military airfield, but that doesn't mean he was military. If he was he was complaining about military inefficiency that couldn't buy him new radios, but I suspect he was civilian and was comparing resources between military and civilian facilities. I've heard "It's the best we've got" several times when pilots report weak signals. They work very well around the deficiencies. One day I heard controllers telling pilots "Houston approach and landline is out of service." I wasn't going towards Houston, but I found it odd that Houston was contactable neither on approach (i.e. the approach controller's radio frequency) and the landline (i.e. telephone). I wondered if there was a bomb scare or a power failure that had shut down the whole facility. The system is very fault tolerant, however, so Houston Center managed to hand people off to tower without approach, and airplanes got to where they needed to be.

One call stood out well enough that I could interpret my notes. A pilot called to ask what for the nearest airport to her. Was it maybe Newton? The controller said yes, Newton was twelve miles southeast. The urgency of the situation was raised when the pilot asked to confirm that there was nothing nearer. The controller gave her a moment before delicately asking what was wrong. She said she had a sputtering engine, and would "try" to land at Newton, "what is the Unicom frequency there?" The controller said "standby" but I knew the frequency off the top of my head, so transmitted simply, "Newton Unicom is 122.8."

The pilot asked if this was Newton, about three miles off to her left, and after a bit of rescaling to the radar, the controller confirmed that it was. The pilot announced that she was overhead the airport, and switching to Unicom. The controller let her know that he could receive her on the center frequency until almost at the ground there. She should be fine. Drama over.

We switched frequency for a while and then returned to that one. A pilot called in and reported that there were two people talking on guard, but they were just chatting, nothing related to an emergency, and they sounded very far away. At first I thought "Huh?" Was the pilot trying to rat on someone abusing the emergency frequency? I've been let to believe that chatting on 121.5 is quite common in the US, especially by the military. My specialist asked me about it too and I speculated that perhaps he had asked that pilot to monitor 121.5 for a possible ELT activation.

That was confirmed when the controller got a hold of the another pilot who had just taken off from Newton. "Anything unusual at Newton?" the controller asked.

"What? No. Everything was normal."

"Okay, thanks," says the controller.

"There was a flaming pile of wreckage at the south end of the runway, but that's usual for a Tuesday here," I quip to my coworker.

And then to our hilarity the queried pilot adds, "There was a Bonanza landed earlier with engine problems, but no, nothing out of the ordinary." Reminds me of my first aid training. The instructor delighted in an example of a patient born without a limb who has grazed the end of a stump, making first aiders think they were dealing with a traumatic amputation. You have to establish what is normal for the patient. The pilot confirmed that the Bonanza landed without further incident, so that controller was satisfied.

I wondered why the controller hadn't simply asked the Bonanza pilot, as a Canadian one would, "Give us a call when you're on the ground." If I have an emergency or any problem that I've told ATC about, they'll always ask me to call if I'm landing at an unattended field. I'll just call Flight Services, and say, "Hi, this is Aviatrix. I've just landed GABC on one engine at Middle of Nowhere Municipal." The specialist will tell me to hang on and then transfer me to someone who will note down anything he didn't get in the radio exchange that he needs for his paperwork. It's painless. My mission specialist suggests that they don't have a centralized flight services office for a region, and they have so many more airplanes in the sky at any one time, that it wouldn't be practical to link up the data, and that the controller wasn't going to ask a pilot in an emergency to copy a number. I don't buy that, though, because indications from the US Airways landing in the Hudson and the Colgan vanishing over the outer marker, that ATC integrates spectacularly well not only with other FAA agencies but with every other service that they can call into play.

If you ask ATC for assistance or inform them of an irregular situation, do you call them after landing to assure them you're okay? What are the procedures in your country?


Tina Marie said...

I had a carb heat cable failure in the Tripacer a few years back. It failed with the carb heat on, and with the loading I had, and the temperature outside, even after leaning to compensate, I couldn't maintain altitude. I was on the way into Memphis, so I was on Memphis approach, and they vectored me to Millington, TN. They didn't ask me to call when I got on the ground, but I did.

I called, reassured them I was fine, got the carb heat cable fixed, and when I took off out of there the next day, the controller I got on Memphis approach was the same guy who had handled me the night before. I didn't recognize the voice, but he remember me immediately as soon as I gave my callsign.

He seemed glad to hear from me.

(Full story from when it happened here)

kbq said...

Aviatrix: again a reference to a "mission specialist". Maybe I've missed it, but if not: could you do some posts on the kind of projects you fly - without, of course, revealing specifics or clients... I think we'd be interested in typical crew compositions and duties, the type of projects (most general, of course) - and other insights into the mysteries of the Flights of the Aviatrix...


Matt said...

its possible that the pilot called flight service after landing via a landline. Not to mention, there's the tricky part about what is and what is not an emergency. Had the pilot declared an emergency (by using the phrase) I think there might have been more interaction between the two as far as "I'm ok, no need to worry" goes. Its also possible that the controller alerted local emergency service anyway, and left it to them to handle. A lot goes on on the other side of that radar that pilots may never even know about.

Anonymous said...

"I've been let to believe that chatting on 121.5 is quite common in the US, especially by the military."

Not that I am aware of. Anytime something non-urgent is transmitted on 121.5, such as a passenger announcement, someone is usually quick to say "On Guard!". Between ATC, both civilian and military, and pilots monitoring 121.5, it would seem hard for anyone to use that frequency to chat.

Sarah said...

I think your specialist was on track with "didn't want to bother the pilot copying a phone number" to reach them on the ground.

The pilot would not have any idea how to reach the controller without long conversations with TRACON or Center general phone numbers. Probably the easiest way would have been for her to contact Flight Service, who has direct phones and other links into ATC and could relay the message. Sounds like that didn't happen...

In the US, ATC and Flight Service are not the same organization.

Johnson said...

"If you ask ATC for assistance or inform them of an irregular situation, do you call them after landing to assure them you're okay? What are the procedures in your country?"

As far as 'irregular situations' go, I'm not aware of anything official. I've overheard and been a part of a couple 'incidents' in which ATC wanted either someone else or me to do something or help out somehow. None of these were declared emergencies, though.

But if an emergency IS explicitly declared by an aircraft to ATC, the Feds can request that you file a report with the FAA within 24 hours. I assume they make the request after you're on the ground or by looking up the registration information from the N-number.

Anonymous said...

my only experience with this was ome years back. I was talking to Flight service, I think, when my transmitted burned up. Flight service become conerned and started calling as though I had an emercengy. I then landed at the next airport and called them by landline to assure them I was OK. I then hapily completed my trip with no radio.

crazyscot said...

Here in the UK, the military Distress & Diversion people monitor 121.5 over most of the country (as much as they can for the terrain and the antennae they have). Chatting on guard is unheard of. Their two centres also have access to the nationwide radar network and an alarm goes off if one of the emergency transponder codes is spotted, again almost anywhere in the country. Even if a pilot in difficulty isn't talking directly to them they will be in touch with ATC and keep an eye on the situation. One day when I was working the radio at my flying club, D&D rang me to say there was an aircraft squawking 7600 who looked like they were heading for us!

I got to visit the lovely people at London Centre a few years ago when they were based at West Drayton. They have a very cool autotriangulation system on both guard frequencies - one wall in their office is occupied by a map of their area of responsibility (half the country) and is equipped with a laser projection widget. As somebody transmits, the different stations quickly work out their best bearings of the signal and this is projected onto the chart in real-time: the beams cross, that's where they are. This ties in with their radar data, and they have a very fast high-quality computer mapping system tied in with that (and the radar network) so they can for example say to a lost pilot "look out to your left, do you see a village with a prominent church spire? That's X, steer just to the right of it ..."

Borja said...

In Spain you must call to your ACC to let them know you are ok.

Even to close a vfr fp you must do it, if you operate from a non controlled airfield. Vfr fp must be closed from ground.