Posts Tagged ‘ATC’

Diversions and aeronautical decision making

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Aeronautical decision making (ADM) first began to appear in the training lexicon in a heavy fashion in the mid-1990s. It was always “there,” but it wasn’t necessarily a separate subject. Instructors were expected to simply incorporate the decision-making process into each lesson whenever and wherever possible. This sounds great on paper, and at times it even seems logical, but the reality is that the old adage that says that the airplane is a terrible classroom exists for a reason.

Dealing with diversions is a subject in the decision-making process for which a formal classroom session has always made sense. Diversions can take two broad forms in flight. The first is a change in the route but with no change in the destination. The second is a change in the final destination. The first is far more common, but the second is usually more significant. After all, if you are flying to Baltimore and have to divert to Frederick  because of weather, you have new set of problems on your hands. Just as with any other aspect of your life, the impact of such a significant change in plans can make you more resistant to executing the change in the first place.

At the airlines, the decision is often a bit easier, because the rules are so cut and dried. But that doesn’t change the fact that pilots generally are can-do people, and when other people are counting on you, you don’t want to disappoint them.
But one area in which diversions at the airlines are so different is the level of communication. I bring all of this up because more airlines are using ADM scenarios as part of the interview process. You are placed in a hypothetical but fairly realistic scenario in which something goes wrong, and you have to make a decision. Sometimes, the basic diversion decision is easy (“the airport is closed, so you will be diverting”) and sometimes it isn’t (“something smells bad in the cabin, but I don’t if it’s burned food or worse”).

The pressure is ratcheted up in some other fashion that will force you to make a decision quickly. Southwest and United airlines both give you a seven-minute window in which to assess the problem, evaluate the options, and come up with a solution. In some of the scenarios, you are short on fuel. In some, weather is a major factor. In others, it’s the ambiguity of the problem. But in all of them, the goal is to see you make a decision and stick with it.

At the airlines, you need to communicate with multiple entities, and this is where the two-person crew comes in handy. Someone needs to talk to air traffic control, while someone else handles everything else. In the real world, the first officer usually handles ATC and the captain does what he gets paid to do. If you are in an interview, make yourself familiar with what airports that airline serves. You don’t need to commit them to memory, but have a general idea, because in the ADM scenario you will likely be using them.

So, who needs your attention? Assuming that you are not given a major catastrophe like a fire or a flight control failure, you need to talk the flight attendant(s) first, if for no other reason to tell them that there has been a change in plans and that you will get back to them shortly. That phone call should take less than 15 seconds.

Next you need to talk to the dispatcher, who is jointly responsible for your airplane and flight. The dispatcher can give you up-to-the-minute weather at your possible alternates as well as any notices to airmen you may need. He or she can also save you a radio call by contacting the two stations involved and letting them know your change in plans (hint: If the person playing the role of the dispatcher doesn’t offer this service, ask for it). If the dispatcher can’t (or won’t) call the station to which you are diverting, then you need to call (this may be thrown at you in one of the timed sequences). Cover your bases as well by telling the dispatcher that you will call once on the ground to clean up any loose ends.
If maintenance needs to be consulted, do it via dispatch, since the dispatcher needs to know of any issues that may affect performance.

Next, you need to advise ATC what you are doing. If critical fuel is going to play a part in the scenario, it will usually be included in the briefing. If it is, you need to remember to declare either minimum fuel or an emergency as the case may be.

Once ATC is in the loop, somebody needs to brief the flight attendants and the passengers. If the diversion point is extremely close, say Miami to Fort Lauderdale, then you may want to ask the flight attendant to notify the passengers, and to tell them you will provide more information on the ground.

Once you have operated in the airlines, and especially as a captain, you realize that the scenarios are really the same thing you do every day. As someone new to the industry, you need to show that you have some idea of how the system works—and it’s very similar from one company to the next.

ADM is a critical part of any pilot’s aviating career, and for those looking to go to the airlines or advance up the ladder, it becomes a bigger and bigger part each step of the way. Start mastering it early, and remember, conservative is always better.—Chip Wright

The December “Since You Asked” poll: Looking for the traffic

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

When air traffic control notifies you that there’s traffic in your vicinity, what do you do first? That’s the question posed to digital subscribers in the December 2012 Flight Training’s “Since You Asked.”

A reader asked Rod Machado whether he is expected to look first and then reply to such a call, or immediately key the mic and indicate that he’s looking. Rod’s response:

When air traffic control calls out traffic for you, the first thing you should do is direct your attention in the direction of the traffic. So look for the traffic first. There’s no need to clog the airwaves by telling the controller that you’re “Looking,” either. The controller knows you’re looking, assuming you received the message.

I’ve automatically hit that mic key and said “Looking” while straining my eyeballs, so, ATC folks, I’ll back off on that one. Rod continues:

It typically takes only a few seconds to identify traffic if it’s close, at which point you’ll identify yourself to the controller and say either “Contact” if you see what was called, or if the traffic is converging on you and you don’t see it you can say “No contact.” If the traffic is close and you don’t see it, then request an avoidance vector. [Editor's note: Since this column was published, a reader pointed out that the correct phrases are "negative contact" and "traffic in sight."]

So, how did readers respond? Oddly, it was almost split right down the middle. Forty-nine percent of respondents said their first response is “Looking for traffic.” And 49 percent said they look for the traffic and then respond. Just one person said their first response is “Tally ho,” so congrats to the rest of you who didn’t pick that. To the one person who did pick it: You get a pass if you happen to be a fox hunter. Remember, if it’s not in the FAA’s Pilot-Controller Glossary, you probably shouldn’t use it.

January’s digital poll is on one of your favorite topics: landing. Don’t forget to cast your vote on p. 14!—Jill W. Tallman

“Since You Asked” polls appear monthly in the digital edition of Flight Training. If you’d like to switch your magazine from paper to digital at no additional charge, go here or call Member Services 800-USA-AOPA weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern.

Holding

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

When I was working on my instrument rating, one of the first skills I learned was how to enter and fly a holding pattern. I sometimes had a devil of a time figuring out the proper entry—and at that time, there really was a requirement to get the proper entry and enter the hold properly—and sometimes I had bit of (or a lot of) trouble figuring out the best time or wind correction angle for the outbound leg. It didn’t take long to master, but I do remember thinking that I would so rarely hold that the whole thing was kind of a stupid exercise.

Little did I know.

Airline flying, especially in the Northeast, consists of more holds than one would imagine. Most of them are for weather—either weather moving through in the way of a summer thunderstorm, or as a result of weather totally muddying up the works earlier in the day. Snow plows created holding as well. Low vis will produce holds because airplanes are slow to clear the runway, and if the airport doesn’t have ground-based radar, everything takes twice as long.

Airport volume drives holding more than weather, though, and it is that kind of holding that is more unpredictable. Clear skies, low winds and…expect further clearance (EFC) times that are an hour or more away will drive you batty. They will also force a lot of diversions unless the dispatcher was able to load you up with a lot of extra fuel.

But some holds just crack you up or are “plane” unusual. More than once I had to hold (both on the ground and in flight) so that Air Force One (or One-and-a-Half [First or Second Lady] or Two) could take off or land. I once had to hold so that the Air Force Thunderbirds (or Blue Angels, I can’t remember which [and for the record, the Blue Angels are a far better show]) could finish their performance. On my last trip with Comair, I was trying to get into Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and we held for 30 minutes because the airport had to clean up some dead birds.

Apparently, there were a lot of them, small ones, that had been hit by a previous arrival and departure. I’ve also held so that airplanes dealing with an emergency could land in front of me. Perfectly understandable.

Back in the day, flying a hold could be a bit of work, and when I was learning to do it, my instructor would occasionally make me do the entry and the hold on a single radio just to keep me on my toes. When I was flying the Brasilia, we had an autopilot, but we still had to fly the turns with the heading bug. The CRJ had a flight management system, and we had an entire module of training that focused on holds. The point of that was to get the crews proficient enough to get a hold built and executed in the shortest time possible.

Once the hold was “in the box” and the pictured verified on the multifunction displays, the flight plan could be executed and the aurplane would do its magic; it would even figure out the entry, which was ironic, because nowadays the entry doesn’t really matter so long as you get established quickly. If for whatever reason the crew doesn’t like the entry, it can be over-ridden by flying the entry in a heading mode, and then joining the hold. I did that once or twice just to stick it to the aviation deities. It’s the small battles…

The flip side to getting into a hold is talking your way out of one, or better yet, out of even starting one. When I was based in New York, I became quite adept at avoiding holds altogether. Thanks to high gas prices, tankering extra fuel was frowned upon if it wasn’t deemed absolutely essential.

Diversions create work and headaches for ATC, so I learned how to be perfectly honest about our situation and tell them we simply couldn’t hold. Most of the time, they could find a way to fit us in. Sometimes they couldn’t, and we did indeed divert.

Once that happened, my dispatcher would invariably want to talk. I always smiled, and told them they would have to stand by and hold…—Chip Wright

Jumpseating

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

I’ve written on this blog about the general issue of nonrevenue travel and commuting as an airline pilot, but I’ve not touched a great deal on the specific issue of jumpseat travel.

The jumpseat is the term for the third seat in the cockpit. Every two-person airliner, with the exception of some smaller turboprops, has a cockpit jumpseat. Some jets, such as the Airbus family and some Boeings, have more than one. Many also have a flight attendant jumpseat in the cabin. Beyond the first jumpseat in the cockpit, the installation of additional jumpseats is a decision usually made by the airline that took delivery of the airplane from the factory.

The intent of the jumpseat is for the FAA or company check airmen to observe or evaluate operations in the cockpit. This means that the overwhelming majority of the time the jumpseat is empty.

When it is not in use for another purpose, the jumpseat is usually available for pilots of any reciprocating airline to use as a seat to get to or from work if the cabin is full. As the airlines have reduced capacity, it has become more and more common for commuting pilots to have to use the jumpseat not just as a term, but in the literal sense as well.

The protocol is pretty simple. Access to the cockpit jumpseat is based on a mutual agreement between airlines and/or pilot groups to accept each others’ pilots. That is still in place, but in the post-9/11 world, it is no longer that simple. There are certain security requirements that must be met, so I won’t disclose them here. But the general rule is that the person looking for a ride must ask the captain of the flight for permission to “ride your jumpseat”; you do not say, “I am taking your jumpseat!”

Assuming no weight and balance issues exist and the jumpseat is not deferred for any reason, the answer is almost always yes. If a seat opens up in the cabin, the jumpseater is almost always offered that seat instead—that third seat in the cockpit is almost universally uncomfortable.

The rule of thumb is that pilots of the airline operating the flight get first dibs, usually in seniority order, but in a few cases it is first come, first served. After that, there is often a pecking order that is followed, but for the most part it is first come, first served. Even if you can bump a pilot from another carrier that has higher rights than you, it is considered poor form and only done in dire situations. Universally, you must be at the gate by a designated time, and you must treat the gate agents with a great deal of respect. Some resent the extra work created by jumpseaters, and others just resent that only pilots can ride in the cockpit. Most, however, are more than happy to help.

Rules vary from company to company. Some airlines will only allow as many jumpseaters as they have actual jumpseats installed. Others will allow as many jumpseaters as there are empty seats. This is definitely the best rule, and the goodwill it generates is tremendous. There are also certain dress rules. Back in the day, it was expected that you would either be in uniform or a suit. Now, the uniform still always works, and the dress code for the most part is business casual; shorts and sneakers need not apply. Once in the seat, you are expected to act as a third crew member, which means honoring sterile cockpit procedures, looking for traffic, and if possible, listening to ATC and (gently) pointing out a potential error by the crew.

Most airlines prohibit the use of jumpseating for anything other than leisure travel or getting to or from work. Using them in the pursuit of business interests is risky, but it has been done. If you work for one airline, and are going to an interview with another, then riding their jumpseat is a great way to learn about the company.

On occasion, stories crop up of a pilot getting in trouble for misusing or abusing the privilege, and it is just that—a privilege. Likewise, there have been “jumpseat wars” in which pilots try to use the jumpseat as a political weapon by denying it to pilots of another carrier during a dispute. This is almost always a bad decision made by a pilot who doesn’t commute. Commuting is hard, and pilots who don’t commute don’t appreciate the challenges that it presents. To try and make a point by denying jumpseaters not only makes you look bad, but it stands to punish and ostracize your fellow co-workers who may totally disagree with your particular point of view.

Jumpseating is a great perk of the job, and at some point as an airline pilot, you will probably need it. I’ve been coming home from vacation with my family, and I had to use it in order for all of us to get on. I routinely use it to get to and from work. It’s fun to see other airplanes I don’t fly, or to see how other companies operate the airplane that I do fly.

If you ever have the opportunity to fly for an airline, embrace the jumpseat and use it as intended. And take some Advil before a long flight in one. Your back and legs will thank you.—Chip Wright

Editor’s note: The accompanying photo of a Boeing 767 cockpit and jumpseat was taken by Kent Wien and appeared in the April 13, 2009, Gadling blog Plane Answers.

Pilots who teach you how not to be

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

I love flying with other pilots because I always learn something from them. Whether it is an especially smooth radio communication style, a conscientious adherence to checklist usage, or simply confidence in the cockpit, these are pilots I like to emulate.

Then there are those pilots who teach you how you don’t want to be. Thanks to YouTube we have a front row seat (or right seat, if you will) to these individuals’ antics, because everybody has a cell phone with a camera.

The most recent YouTube debut is a gentleman whose behavior toward a New York Center air traffic controller has to be heard to be believed. As a bit of background, he’s on an instrument flight in some very busy airspace. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for us, we can listen to the whole episode. The YouTube poster even provided captioning for the sometimes-hard-to-understand exchange.

http://youtu.be/ja9B3OwydNo

Have you ever witnessed (or overheard) pilot behavior you knew you didn’t want to copy? Please share in the Comments section.—Jill W. Tallman

The April “Since You Asked” poll: Talking on the radio

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Rod Machado’s discussion of listening to ATC and ATIS reminded us that we get many, many questions from student pilots about talking on the radio. So that’s why we posed the following question in the April Flight Training: How comfortable are you when communicating with ATC?

If our poll results can be extrapolated, many of us are comfortable in the ATC environment–but only because we train or fly in the system regularly. A good many of us are still struggling to sound like Joe Cool, and some of us won’t talk to ATC at all. Here’s how things stacked up:

  • 50 percent of respondents to the poll said they train at a towered field, so they’re OK.
  • 25 percent said they stumble on the radio.
  • 19 percent said they fly out of a nontowered field, but their communication skills are OK.
  • And 6 percent said they don’t talk to ATC.
It bears repeating, so we’ll pass along several tips we’ve collected over the years.
  • Listen to the pros. Use LiveATC to listen in to any number of airports big and small. (A feed for our own homedrome, KFDK, was just added!) Alternatively, a sunny afternoon and a bench at the airport with a handheld transceiver can be a great way to spend your afternoon and pick up communications tips. If you can, ride along with a pilot friend. Don’t do anything in the right seat except focus on how he or she talks on the radio.
  • Understand what you’re trying to communicate, and why. Bob Gardner’s Say Again, Please, is one of the best books available to help you with this. It’s available at many aviation retailers. ASA also sells a companion tutorial that can be played on a computer or MP3 player. The Air Safety Institute’s Say It Right: Mastering Radio Communication is a FREE interactive online course. (It does use Flash.)
  • Practice, practice, practice. You can go whole-hog with something like Comm1′s VFR Radio Simulator, which lets you practice dialogue using a headset and your computer (and is a very neat program that’s been on the market quite a few years). Or you can keep it simple by practicing your radio calls in the car or in the shower. I’m told that you might accidentally tell your spouse that you’re turning base when you crank the steering wheel in the car toward the driveway.

What did we leave out? Share your best tips for improving your radio technique in the Comments section.

“Since You Asked” polls appear monthly in the digital edition of Flight Training. If you’d like to switch your magazine from paper to digital at no additional charge, go here or call Member Services 800-USA-AOPA weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern.—Jill W. Tallman