Sunday, August 04, 2013

A Story In Radio Calls

A light has illuminated to tell me that my landing gear is safely stowed in the wings and nose, and the gear handle has returned to neutral. Climb power is set and the airplane is trimmed for about ten knots above best rate of climb speed, a speed approved by the manufacturer and one that experience has taught me will get me to my altitude and destination in an expeditious manner without any of the little temperature and pressure needles hitting their yellow or red extremes. I have made the slight left turn which I advised the local radio operator I would make, and according to the little green circle depicted on the GPS, I am clearing their zone. I press the button on the radio that swaps the active and standby frequencies so that I'm now listening on the Centre frequency, as I confirmed I would when I read back my IFR clearance before departure. I listen before speaking, because on the radio just as in real life, it's poor form to interrupt a conversation or speak at the same time as others.

The controller is advising a pilot of conditions somewhere, by telling him that a particular carrier "got in". That means the weather is poor there, near the minimum required for a safe approach and landing and that there was some doubt as to whether he would or not. It's good where we are, and where we're going. I call up with my current and cleared altitude and get the rest of my clearance. A few thousand feet later I'm asked to squawk ident and say altitude, so I push the IDENT button and tell him the altitude I am now climbing through, and he tells me I am now radar identified. For a while, anyway. Two and a half hours later I'm no longer on radar and I'm asked to state my position and direction of flight. I think the controller actually said, "GPS position," knowing we all have these magic boxes. I twist the middle knob all the way to the last nav page and read it off, rounding to the nearest minute of latitude and longitude. I don't even like to think what a pain that would have been to do the old fashioned way, with charts.

My position must not have been an issue because an airliner is cleared to descend for an approach. The pilot says he will be on the ILS but will be flying the missed approach for the corresponding RNAV approach because the ILS missed is not in his database. That sounds lame, but I know from the NOTAMs that the missed approach has recently been modified, so it's plausible that the onboard database doesn't reflect that and that the pilots aren't allowed to fly procedures that aren't in the database. It's professional to figure out what issues you're going to have with an approach before you're actually experiencing them. The controller accepts the pilot's suggestion and clears him to fly it "in the event of a missed approach."

A few minutes later the pilot is back. They missed. That is, they followed the instrument landing instructions, flew as low as the procedure would allow them, but didn't see the runway, so followed the RNAV instructions for what to do in this case. They ask for a hold, suggesting that it be at a particular NDB, inbound on the 185 track. The controller doesn't understand at first, probably because he isn't in an airplane thousands of feet above and with a straight line to the one that is asking. The pilot repeats the request and the controller clears him to do it, so the pilot repeats back the clearance, the one he asked for in the first place. The 185 track to the NDB is probably a direct entry to the hold for him, so he can cross the beacon and turn outbound to 005 right away, but I automatically look at my heading indicator to see how I would enter that hold were I direct the beacon on my current track. It's in the parallel sector for me, so I would turn left to 005, left direct the beacon, and then right outbound to 005, so I could turn right and track 185 inbound.

The airliner enters the hold. The centre controller checks on them from time to time, asking if they want weather. Nope, they're fine, they are monitoring a continually updating AWOS recording which tells them the visibility and ceiling down there at their destination. They tell the controller that the visibility is now good enough, but that they'd like another hundred feet of ceiling. It sounds so bush. I imagine them sitting there in the cockpit telling 'so there I was' stories about holding over Moosonee, expecting it to clear, but having to decide whether to expend the precious fuel on flying to Timmins, which might itself fog in, or maybe make a run all the way to Rouyn. Meanwhile their automatic airplane probably flies the hold for them.

There's another NDB NOTAMed out of service somewhere, possibly just went down today, as pilots keep asking for an approach that uses it and asked for their intentions vis-a-vis the unserviceable nav aid. Most of them seem to not have heard about it. Someone asks if he can get vectors for the ILS and the controller says no, you have to fly the full procedure, can't see you down there.

The airline crew asks for the approach, and are cleared for the same combo plate conventional ILS approach with an RNAV missed. "Have a good day," says the controller, an oddly non-specific salutation for the situation, and the pilot says he hopes not to talk to the controller again very soon. We don't hear that airplane again, before we ask for our own descent, into somewhere else, so presumably he got in that time.


DataPilot said...

When I was a student pilot, I remember being impressed by how polite the ATC folks were. They were obviously very busy, but they still had time to say "Good Day" to everyone.

I was a bit deflated when I learned that "Good Day" in ATC-speak means "I'm done talking with you. Go away."

Sarah said...

The distant drama was entertaining... and surprising. The airliner was suggesting missed approach instructions? In the states, I think you're more likely to be told what to do. Like this, even.


Aviatrix said...

The airport is in uncontrolled airspace, so until the airplane climbs back into controlled airspace the pilots have to just do what's safe for them. Often controllers will dictate missed approach instructions if there's a NOTAM or other issue affecting the published missed, but I could advise ATC of something I planned to do in the event of a missed, and as long as it guaranteed safe altitudes and didn't conflict with traffic or airspace, I can't think why it would be denied. I thought suggesting their own hold was amusing, but then last time I asked for a hold for training purposes the controller just told me to hold however I liked.

That 300' above minimums alternate missed was just unfair. I would have said something like, "Unable. I'm single pilot. I will fly the publish missed now if you are unable vectors." I've said similar when I was single pilot ON THE GROUND at an unfamiliar airport, with a controller trying to get me to hurry up. There is only one of me and the B737 pilot has someone else sitting beside her to complete the after landing checklist and look up where taxiway L7 is, while she drives the plane.