Saturday, February 09, 2013

Yes, Master

There's a thing that has existed ever since I started flying, called a "master flight plan". It means that the Flight Services personnel have the aircraft "on file", which in turn means that when I call up to file a flight plan, as soon as I give the ident, the specialist knows the details of the type of airplane, what colour it is, your onboard navigation equipment, what kind of survival equipment we carry and how many life rafts we have. With a master flight plan on file, then while filing a flight plan for a particular trip, I need specify only the details that changes from flight to flight. They'll even keep the names and licence numbers of several pilots on file for any given plane, so I give my name and they can fill in the licence number. This is really convenient when filing a flight plan over the radio, which I have to do sometimes.

I sometimes need to modify the master flight plan. While filing a specific flight plan the briefer might ask, "I have a 'Graham' on file. Is that you?" I can tell her that Graham no longer works here, and get her delete him and add me and my licence number to the master. Other changes might be to tell them we've upgraded the instruments and now have RVSM capability, or put the aircraft on floats for the summer. I don't suppose anyone has ever pranked someone by calling up and changing their filed aircraft colour to pink polka dots.

Yesterday the flight services specialist couldn't find the aircraft I filed. It happens from time to time. I called up today to see if it was still lost, or if it was just a glitch. Nope, still not there. It must have expired, she says. Would I like to create a new master flight plan? Yes, yes I would. It's online now. I go to the Nav Canada site to do that. I have to create an account.

Now a number of you are wondering, "Is this really Aviatrix, or my grandmother?" because how can a pilot live in the world today and not have online flight planning mastered? Weeelll, it's because we generally file very special flight plans. Flight plans that need direct communication, and often negotiation, yea even bribes to the relevant Area Control Centre. But that's a topic for another time. I have to create an account.

The site requires me to:

Choose a username
Create a security question and answer
Specify a password (twice)
Submit the application
Receive an email
Click the link therein
Specify a phone number and choose whether to receive a voice or text confirmation code
Enter that confirmation code
Log in with the username and password

So, a bit more security than before. The days of being able to virtually repaint someone's airplanes are apparently over. I follow all those steps and am given the choice of creating a Flight Plan or a Flight Template. The template allows me to specify whatever I want for the defaults for every field in the flight plan, which is kind of cool. So people who fly the same airplane to different places can fill in all the airplane details and leave the route blank. Those who fly different airplanes to the same place by the same route can do the opposite.

Canadian flight plans are different from US ones and don't conform exactly to ICAO standards either. Different geography, different types of aviation, different needs. There are some bugs. For example, to enter the letter codes for various types of navigation equipment I can enter it as SDFG/C or I can click on a symbol beside the entry field and get a popup window in which I can select individual checkboxes next to VHF, VOR, ILS, ADF and GNSS. But I can't exit that window and return to the form. I have to reset the whole form and start over to escape. As I work my way through the familiar fields I see a new one: the Tracking URL. I'll let Nav Canada explain it to you.

Many pilots are now using GPS tracking units, such as Spot or Spidertracks, which convey position information automatically to satellite based receivers and to a unique website address (the ‘Tracking URL’). Information about the location of the GPS tracking unit can be found on the internet using this URL.

Pilots want to include the Tracking URL with their flight plan information.

Prior to this release of NAVCANplan such URLs could not be included in flight plans or flight plan templates as they often contained lowercase letters and reserved words such as ‘com/’. NAVCANplan will now accept the full Tracking URL in the flight plan form.

To be included in the flight plan, the full URL is entered into the Tracking URL field

If you're a non-geeky reader of this blog (apparently there are some) and you have persevered this far (well done) hoping for a good bit, then here you are: ATC for birds. That's your reward. The rest is just geeky rambling. Nav Canada continues:

NAVCANplan automatically transforms it into a shortened, uppercase alias to the original URL. For example, becomes HTTPS://PLAN.NAVCANADA.CA/U/YHTJA.

The shortened URL is not visible on the flight plan or flight plan template forms.

The shortened URL is included in transmitted flight plans in the Survival Equipment Remarks section (i.e. included in field 19 as part of N/).

The shortened URL is also included for pilots and dispatchers in the Details view of the flight plan.

The shortened URL is included in FIMS flight plan templates in the Survival Equipment Remarks section (i.e. included in field 19 as part of N/).

When the shortened URL is accessed, the request is redirected to the original Tracking URL.

The alias between Tracking URL and a shortened URL is created when a flight plan is filed and when a flight plan template is saved.

This all suggests to me that the web interface is still talking to an underlying flight plan processing engine so ancient that it ONLY KNOWS ABOUT CAPITAL LETTERS. I wonder when it was first programmed. It doesn't seem that complex from here, but I suspect it interacts with radar computers and other programs that range so dramatically through the ages that they're terrified to touch it. All the information about how and where the URL turns up isn't really important to the user. I think it's in there mainly because they're bursting with pride for having figuring out how to shoehorn a URL into the data despite the limitations of the way it's stored.

I think birds probably do crash into one another now and again, but they are softer and slower so they keep flying.


Majroj said...

click here

click here

Yeah gentle.

Sarah said...

Cool. ( I guess I'm a geek.) But as Neil DeGrasse Tyson ( see, I'm a geek ) recently tweeted, it's disappointing that does not abbreviate better.

The FAA also has such a Master Flight Plan concept - the FSS can set up defaults in the flight plan - and more recently has apparently copied Canada's idea about satellite trackers, at least in Alaska. See
the FAA's news.

I can see the value of spot & the like when flying over cold, desolate hostile terrain. Like the eastern US this weekend.