Posts Tagged ‘ILS’


Monday, April 16th, 2012

Aviation, if you haven’t noticed, is loaded with abbreviations and acronyms. There are FARs, the AIM, MAPs (not to be confused with maps), ILSs, and DHs, METARS, TAFs, and NOTAMS. Airspace used to have TRSAs, ARSAS, and TCAs…and I haven’t even mentioned NASA, which speaks acronym-ese. Speaking of NASA, all pilots are able to participate in the ASRS program, which brings me to ASAP.

ASAP stands for Aviation Action Safety Program, and it is commonly in use at Part 121 air carriers. At first glance, it appears to be just like the ASRS program, and it is…sort of. Like the ASRS, pilots and other participating employees can self-disclose when they make a mistake. For example, if a pilot taxis two feet over the hold-short line for a runway, he is guilty of a committing a runway incursion. Now, it is possible that the controller never saw it because of the vantage point of the tower. It’s also possible that no other aircraft was affected.

But the pilot still made a mistake and inadvertently violated a federal aviation regulation. Worse, it’s an area in which the FAA has been aggressive in the last few years to change pilot behavior because the safety ramifications and some accidents.

With ASAP, the pilot is able to fill out a form (usually online) and explain what happened, and if possible, why. In this case, it might be something simple (“I just screwed up.”) or it might be a previously unknown safety issue (“The paint was difficult to see, especially at night,” or “The flashing lights were not working”). The report then goes to a central data base where it is reviewed by a committee.

The committee can be called any number of things, but what’s important is who is on it. At unionized carriers (which is almost all of them), the committee consists of a representative from the FAA, the airline’s safety department, and the safety committee of the union. You typically won’t see chief pilots or anybody who can impose discipline on the pilots. The reason is that the program is built on trust and confidentiality.

Once the report is opened by the committee, they discuss it in detail, and decide how to act on it. If, in the above case, they agree that the incursion was simply inadvertent, they may close the report. Or, if they suspect something else may have been involved, such as fatigue or poor judgment, they may call one or both pilots in for questioning to see what might be done to prevent similar problems in the future. If the problem is poor paint or broken lights or a bad airport diagram, then the information is forwarded to the appropriate people as quickly as possible.

The only time a pilot can face discipline is if the committee agrees that the pilot deliberately violated a FAR or exercised poor judgment, or if the infraction was reported from someone other than the pilot (the assumption then is that the pilot may have gotten caught anyway, even without participation in the ASAP program). Acknowledging that you crossed a hold-short line because you were discussing impact of artificial turf on the lifetime batting stats of career designated hitters is bound to get you not only called in, but also may lead to a Letter of Warning from the FAA.

The overwhelming number of reports in ASAP files fall under “Oops!” banner, but many go deeper than that. Pilots can also report on any aspect of their company or FAA operation that they feel needs to be addressed. Examples run the gamut: Poorly designed approach and arrival procedures have been flushed out; better operational practices have been developed; charting errors have been corrected more quickly; and most importantly, better training has occurred because of the ASAP umbrella. ASAP is not a get-out-of-jail free card. It’s a tool that is used by the airline, the FAA, and the pilot community to maintain the highest level of safety.

There is much more to the program than what I have described, and it goes beyond pilots. Mechanics, dispatchers, and flight attendants can also craft ASAP programs, and the air traffic controllers also have their own. There have been a few instances when ASAP programs have been shut down by a participating group, and when that happens it almost always comes down to the suspicion that the necessary level of trust has been breached. Airlines and labor don’t always get along, but with ASAP, the level of trust is high, and the real beneficiary is not the participants, but the traveling public.—By Chip Wright

Truly rare events

Friday, April 6th, 2012

For more than 20 years I’ve been flying airplanes, 15 of them for an airline. As a student and a flight instructor, one skill I practiced repeatedly was the missed approach (or go-around for VFR flying). It’s a critical task to be able to do in any possible landing configuration in any airplane. If you want proof, try doing one in a heavy Cessna 150 with 40 degrees of flaps on a hot day. It’s a challenge, to say the least, and it requires a fair amount of finesse to do well. As an instructor, I probably did no fewer than five go-arounds or missed approaches on a given day. Any that were done for real were almost always done because the preceding traffic was still on the runway.

In airline flying, however, they are exceedingly rare. Controllers handle the spacing, and even when there is a snafu, the missed approach is almost always done in visual meteorological conditions, and it almost always starts from an altitude of 500 feet or above.

What is even more rare, though, is to do one because of weather. I can recall doing fewer than 10 for wind shear or a microburst that beat me to the airport. And I have only done two—two—because we could not see the runway. The first one was an ILS in low ceilings but with good visibility beneath in Charleston, West Virginia. In fact, we saw the runway on the go-around. We came back around and landed on the second try.

The most recently was in January 2012. I was flying the right seat with a simulator instructor in the left. Both of us were slightly out of our element. The weather everywhere that day had been lousy, and we’d already done three ILS approaches to minimums, including our previous leg into Cincinnati that morning. The weather was down to a ceiling of 100 feet and a reported visibility on Runway 18L of a half-mile with the runway visual range hovering at 2,400 feet. The previous aircraft got in, but the crew reported that it was awfully close. We quickly reviewed the missed approach procedure again and went over the calls.

Since I was the nonflying pilot on this leg, it was up to me to make the altitude calls, and it would be up to me to call for the missed approach if the captain did not see the approach lights or the runway. One thing that experience teaches you is that the color of the clouds changes fairly dramatically when you near the base and will break out. These clouds stayed battleship gray. Further, we were flying into the sun, which did not help. The radar altimeter told us when we were crossing the Ohio River. The river and its deep valley have a stark impact on the local weather, and today was no exception. There was no sign of the runway at 500 feet above the minimum descent altitude. No sign of it either at 200 feet or at 100 feet. At the MDA/decision height, I called missed approach. We never once saw the ground.

Normally, an airline crew going missed is all thumbs because of the lack of practice. This one, though, was right out of the book. We had to deal with a flurry of activity in the ensuing minutes as we planned our next course of action. The flight behind us also went missed, and the controllers immediately turned the airport around, which opened the Category II approach to Runway 36R; the RVR was down to 1,600 feet, and the ceiling was holding steady. Our immediate concern was whether or not we had the fuel to do another approach and still safely divert. A call to our dispatcher confirmed that several airports within close range had VFR weather. His fuel computations matched ours, so we decided to try it again.

They only procedure that is on par for me as an unseen runway is a Category II ILS. This was only my fourth one, and it was my first from the right seat (we fly the CAT II as a captain’s-only maneuver). Being two miles from the top of the river valley made all the difference. We got the lights in sight just before reaching our DH, and in the blink of an eye, we had the runway in sight.

There is a lot of satisfaction in executing a difficult maneuver correctly, and a go-around can certainly qualify, especially with tail-mounted engines and wings with no slats. But the training and practice pay off, and that is critical when you are starting the maneuver so close to the ground that you might actually bounce. I haven’t done that yet, so I can’t help but wonder what it’s like…—Chip Wright