Tuesday, July 23, 2013

By the Numbers

I'm descending out of the flight levels on a sunny day. The airspace I'm descending through is green on the IFR chart, meaning that it's uncontrolled even above FL180, so I have been working with only a company flight itinerary, no IFR flight plan, just me and the company flight follower.The sky is littered with little puffy clouds, based around ten thousand feet, but the scenery is clearly visible below. I can see a ridge of trees, a long lake with a river at each end, a little settlement, and a runway parallel to the lake. It's just as the CFS and sectional say it should be.

I advise traffic of my presence and intentions on 126.7 and on the aerodrome frequency, but there doesn't seem to be anyone around. Through ten thousand feet, oxygen selected off. My oxygen mask is on underneath my headset so I can't take it off without taking off my headset, and that will also knock my glasses off, so for now I'll just plummet, breathing now the ambient air that sucks into the mask. Altitude falling, temperature rising, runway coming into view. I glance again at the diagram I've scribbled on my kneeboard to remember the runway numbers and the location of the exit taxiway. I advise traffic I'll be downwind for my chosen runway, and I join the circuit, a thousand feet above runway elevation, parallelling the runway just far enough away to see it by my wingtip. Flap speed, approach flap set. Abeam the touchdown point, gear speed, gear selected down. Three green lights, turn base, continue descent and increase flap to one half. Turn final, roll out. I can see the runway straight ahead, a sawmill underneath and the lake beside me. I call final to the traffic that isn't there to hear me, and add the last increment of flaps, letting the speed bleed back to blueline and then below as I ease over the threshold and ...

What? The runway number is not the one in the publication. It's not the opposite end either, nor is it freshly painted. I haven't been here in many years, so don't remember the airport layout, but there's no way I'm not at the right airport. I let the main wheels clump onto the runway and then lower the nose for the rollout. I have to backtrack to exit, so I have opportunity to see again. No, this is definitely not the runway number that appears in the book.

After shutdown I look at the CFS again. Yup, I have the right airport. I recheck the date on the CFS, even though I know when all my pubs expire and this set is fine. Yup, the CFS is current. I pull up NOTAMs on my phone, looking for the one I must have missed. Nothing for this airport at all.

I call Flight Services and ask if the NOTAM has been accidentally deleted or misfiled or something. They tell me I must have out of date publications. I assure them I wouldn't call them if I hadn't checked that, and that despite being a pilot I do know all my numbers, and the ones painted on the runway are not the ones in the book. The most disturbing thing about the whole conversation is how little the flight services specialist seems to care. This is a big deal. This is a major identifying characteristic of the airport. A friend said that if he came down an ILS and the numbers at the bottom didn't match the numbers on the chart, he would put in the power and go around. If the official publication is wrong about the numbers, how do I know I can trust what it says about runway length, elevation or anything else? The numbers aren't even newly painted. Am I the first pilot to care enough to report this, or has it been ignored so long?

Yes, every once in a while they have to change runway numbers. This happens either because the shift of magnetic north is sufficient that the runway is no longer aligned within a fair tolerance with the heading its number designates, or because the airport is building more runways and what was once plain old runway 14 is now runway 14L. But this sort of thing should be accompanied by NOTAMs, probably beginning with runway 14/32 closed for maintenance followed by amend publication: runway number 15-33 vice 14-32 and finishing off with a new cycle of publications that all show the correct new runway number. It should be a pretty standard process.

I depart the next day, this time calling the runway by the number painted on the pavement, and climb through ten thousand feet before I can get a hold of centre. I really feel like I'm in the land beyond civilization. I leave it behind and end the day at a little airport in another province. And it also has the wrong runway numbers! Is someone trying to drive me insane? I report this one too, and either they care more about such things in this province or the ranting lady tone in my voice warns the specialist to humour me, because he seems to appreciate more than the previous one that this is something that Should Not Happen. I'd never seen that in my whole career, and then I get two on consecutive days.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Amazing. -- Ben Read

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post.

World'sMostAnxiousPerson said...

That is scary stuff. In uncontrolled airspace like that , you can often have people making calls for different airports . All on the same frequency. One of the ways I figure out if they are in my way or not is if we are talking about the same set of runway numbers. It's not fool proof but its a good filter to start with.

yeuch!

david said...

Agreed - it's a big deal even if you're VFR. If there's a chance you're at the wrong airport, then there's a chance the runway is too short for your plane, or that it's closed by NOTAM for a local drag race, or that there's a hidden power wire you don't know about 500 ft before the threshold. They should never change runway numbers without telling all the appropriate authorities.

majroj said...

Calling Steven King, calling Steven King...