Hi, I’m Bruce Landsberg and welcome to the Leading Edge. We’ll discuss safety-of-flight issues, procedures, techniques, and judgment. With the convective nature of Internet misinformation, and so much content that is over weight and out of balance, you need an experienced and trusted source. So, strap in and let’s go fly!

Getting Out of Dodge in IMC

September 25, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

Sweeps HuskyIf you’re a VFR pilot, this week’s blog may persuade you that doing clouds is a lot of work –sometimes. Feel free to do something more productive. But if you do clouds, then it might be worth following the twists and turns. It can be tough to make a graceful exit under instrument flight rules. It’s easy when there’s a control tower or a remote communications outlet (RCO) to speak directly with a controller who coordinates the airspace to fit you into the flow of traffic. It’s not so easy when merging into the cloudy skies involves remaining VFR before getting a clearance. Had an interesting question from a friend who needed some clarification when departing his grass strip which has no departure procedure.

“I recently departed my grass strip 12 nm south of (Big Airport) VFR and the controller refused to give me my instrument clearance unless I could visually clear obstacles up to 3500’ msl. Surface elevation around here is 950’ msl. The ceiling was 2000’, so I informed him that I could not maintain visual clearance with obstacles up to 3500’ because I will be in the clouds. He then denied my request for a clearance, even though he had given me a transponder code and had me in radar contact.”

Here is what one of our pilot-controller friends with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) had to say:

I will preface my response with a statement that I am not providing a legal interpretation for the FAA or NATCA.

As the rule is written, unless I know that you can’t provide your own terrain and obstruction clearance until reaching the appropriate altitude, I don’t have to ask. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that I do know or that you have told me.

This is the first step a controller will take in order to issue a clearance below the minimum IFR altitude/minimum vectoring altitude (MIA/MVA):

When a VFR aircraft, operating below the minimum altitude for IFR operations, requests an IFR clearance and you are aware that the pilot is unable to climb in VFR conditions to the minimum IFR altitude:

Notice the bolded text. The next step in the process depends on the answer to the following question:

Before issuing a clearance, ask if the pilot is able to maintain terrain and obstruction clearance during a climb to the minimum IFR altitude.

Again, the bolded text is my emphasis but you will notice there is no mention of maintaining VFR. If you answer “yes,” that tells the controller that you understand that you are responsible for the terrain and obstruction even if you are unable to do this in VFR conditions (ed. note: Bruce’s emphasis underlined). The controller can issue you a clearance PROVIDED no course guidance is included. If the answer is “no,” The controller will instruct you to maintain VFR and ask for your intentions.

Is it safe and legal? It is for the controller provided he/she has complied with the rules in our handbook. As a pilot, if I were to accept the clearance knowing that I have the responsibility to provide my own terrain and obstruction clearance, I would want to be able to see those obstructions OR plot out a course that would provide the required minimum IFR altitude for my route (in a large part of the country, that would be 1,000’ above the highest point 4 nm either side of the planned route). The point being is that unless the pilot is flying a published FAA procedure or the controller is vectoring in an approved Diverse Vectoring Area, the PILOT is responsible to avoid obstructions. The controller cannot accept that responsibility.

Vectoring to avoid obstructions and terrain is not necessarily a discretionary practice…these obstructions must be mapped. Towers that are shown on a sectional aren’t necessarily mapped on a radar map.

An assigned squawk code aids the controller in radar identification, and the AIM advises pilots that just because an aircraft is in radar contact doesn’t transfer the responsibility for terrain and obstruction clearance (ed. note: Bruce’s emphasis underlined).

In your example, I will assume that Class E airspace starts at 700’ agl. A departing aircraft would enter controlled airspace (class E) at 1,650’ msl. A 2,000’ overcast ceiling would put the aircraft 1,300’ below the bases. MVA altitudes are msl, so an MVA of 3,500’ in that area means the pilot would be responsible for terrain and obstruction clearance for 550’ of that climb. Our rules don’t allow for ATC to accept that responsibility. A controller who doesn’t issue the clearance is following agency rules and not avoiding liability. The expectation in this case is that the pilot wouldn’t deviate from required visibility rules.

So, by my understanding, if there’s a DP or ODP—great—you’re guaranteed not to hit anything by following the guidance. But if there is neither for the airport in question and you can’t make it to MIA/MVA while VFR, there are two options:

1) Call for a void time clearance. If your cell phone works in those environs and you can hear in the aircraft, call from the aircraft at the end of the runway. This works when VFR isn’t an option due to low clouds.

2) Depart VFR, make radio contact, and verify with the controller that you can maintain terrain/obstacle clearance (notice we didn’t say anything about staying VFR) and make absolutely sure that there is nothing that would get in your way on the way up to safe skies.

Coordinate with ATC what your heading will be as you emerge into controlled airspace so they know where to expect you.

It might involve circling up over the airport—that happens a lot in mountainous terrain. Just be sure that there’s nothing in the way. With GPS, staying close to the departure waypoint is pretty easy.

Now, who said this was complicated?

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz

Going With the Flow

September 17, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

traffic flow 2One of last month’s really sad accidents involved a Piper Malibu that for reasons unknown decided to land counter to established traffic at a nontowered airport. There were five fatalities including three children.

Preliminary reports, which are just that, noted that there were several aircraft in the pattern when the pilot approached to land on Runway 33. Winds were reported to be 160 degrees at six knots. Another aircraft was departing on Runway 15. The Malibu made an evasive maneuver to avoid the departing aircraft and appears to have lost control and stalled.

According to the FARs, landing aircraft have the right of way. Now, we get into a hash over when one becomes a “landing aircraft.” Could it be a one mile final, half mile final, when below pattern altitude, other? If the winds favor the opposite runway where does one draw the line? How much wind is “drawing the line”? If a calm wind runway is designated, how does one find out and when is calm not really calm? When does exercising my prerogative to land cross the “careless and reckless line?”

Manufacturers do not provide landing distance information beyond a 10-knot tailwind. For light aircraft you may see something like “increase landing distance by 10 percent for each two knots of tailwind up to 10 knots.” The cleaner the aircraft, the worse it gets. In the PA-46 POH, Piper only gives guidance for up to five knots of tailwind—if I read it correctly. That adds more than the length of a football field: He’s at the 30, the 20, past the 10; he’s into the end zone. It’s a touchdown—but it’s not on the runway. There is nothing good to say about tailwinds on landings. (I do approve of them
en route, however!)

The attorneys will get into this in great detail, but our interest is denying them the opportunity because loss of life is usually involved. 

When approaching the runway at right angles it’s pretty easy to go either way. Ditto if coming from the “wrong” end. Merely angle out a little and then set up for a standard entry. My rule is to generally go with the established flow, and if the tailwind is even slightly significant I suggest on the CTAF that I will be waiting for the others to clear and then land the other way.

Pattern etiquette is one of those sure conversation starters, and we have some suggestions in ASI’s Nontowered Airports Safety Advisor. Playing chicken in cars is dumb—so it is with airplanes.

A core tenet of the Air Safety Institute is to help pilots improve their skills and enhance GA safety through free educational programs. AOPA membership dues don’t cover these programs—donations do, but only six percent of AOPA members actually donate to the AOPA Foundation. Whether you’re a member or a friend of GA, please consider contributing today to support the institute’s important work. Imagine if GA operated on only six percent…www.airsafetyinstitute.org/PSA-sixpercent. 

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz

Not a happy ending to summer

September 10, 2014 by Bruce Landsberg

We’ve had bad weeks before, but late August and early September were as bad as any in recent memory. There were 10 fatal GA accidents in seven days. We were on track to make an FAA not-to-exceed goal for accident reduction, but as we approach the end of the fiscal year it looks like we’re going off the end of the metaphorical runway. Damn!

There was no particular pattern as summer wound down except for two accidents that appear to have been caused by pilot incapacitation due to hypoxia. Both aircraft fell into the ocean and may never be recovered, so the probable cause is likely to be undetermined. My usual speculative disclaimer applies to this entire discussion.

This “spike” is unusual since GA averages about one hypoxia accident annually where oxygen deprivation is suspected. My suspicion is that many more mishaps occur because the pilot is semi-oxygen starved. The obvious cause may be a gear-up landing, a stall, or anything else, but the root cause is a semi-functional brain (of course we could say that about many that have nothing to do with oxygen). Generally, flying an unpressurized aircraft at altitude carries higher risk. In pressurized aircraft we might see one or two crashes per decade—maybe.

OxygenThere are some sobering reminders: Both pilots were highly experienced but new to the model of aircraft involved. Both aircraft were nearly new. In the case of the pressurized aircraft, a TBM 900, the pilot noted a problem at FL280 and asked for a lower altitude. ATC provided a descent to FL250 and was working on lower with no further contact. The only drill at high altitude is put on the mask immediately, advise ATC that an emergency descent is needed, and then start down—fast. It’s not the time to troubleshoot or consider options—it may be only be a false indication, but incapacitation can take you out with stunning quickness.

ASI put out a rare safety alert last weekend with some recommendations.

With the other crashes—unfortunately it’s many of the usual suspects and we have few details at this point:

  • Stall in a Lancair IVP after a catastrophic engine failure
  • A near head-on collision in the traffic pattern in a Malibu that appears to have gone against prevailing traffic flow and resulted in a stall
  • A heavily loaded homebuilt that may have suffered a power failure after takeoff and stalled
  • Another homebuilt that crashed under unknown circumstances
  • A Cessna 421 that was fueled with Jet A and suffered engine failure shortly after takeoff
  • A banner tower that may have suffered engine failure shortly after takeoff
  • A heavily loaded Cessna 172 that may have suffered an engine failure and stalled during an impossible turn maneuver
  • A Cessna 180 that crashed in Canada

There are a lot of purported engine failures during takeoff, so that will bear some extra scrutiny. In the meantime, anticipate that the engine may fail during takeoff and plan your actions accordingly: Good maintenance, a plan to reject the takeoff, a place off airport (only 30 degrees or so from runway heading) for an off field emergency landing, and finally, a maneuvering altitude where a reasonable, not perfect, execution of a turn back to the airport will not result in a stall/spin.

Bruce Landsberg,
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

ASI Online Safety Courses  |  ASI Safety Quiz