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GA Safety in Alaska: A conversation with Robert Sumwalt and Richard McSpadden

Robert Sumwalt, Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, is himself a pilot with extensive experience in the airline world.

The Alaskan Aviation Safety Foundation and Alaska Airmen Association are continuing their Hangar Talk seminar series with a conversation on general aviation safety in Alaska. Taking advantage of having NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt and AOPA Air Safety Institute Executive Director Richard McSpadden in Alaska, you are invited to join us for a discussion on this topic. Moderated by the Airmen Government Affairs Liaison, Adam White, this session provides an opportunity to explore how Alaska aviation safety compares with the rest of the country, the unique challenges we face, and possible mitigations to help increase aviation safety in the state. It also provides a chance to understand how NTSB and the AOPA Air Safety Institute function and address aviation safety challenges. Bring your questions and join the conversation!

Richard McSpadden, Executive Director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute, has a strong background in GA, corporate and military aviation.

The session will be held on Thursday, Sept. 5, 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Alaska Airmen Association Building on Lake Hood.   Refreshments will be served. The session will also be broadcast by the Airmen on Facebook Live.

This event precedes the NTSB Roundtable: Alaska Part 135 Flight Operations, which takes place the following day, Sept. 6.  For information on that event see the NTSB Notice.

They Almost Always Make It

BAE 146 flightThe crash of chartered BAE 146 Avro RJ85 near Medellin, Colombia, took out most of a small Brazilian city’s championship soccer team, team management, and accompanying journalists. While general aviation has been plagued for decades with pilots trying to substitute low-octane air for high-octane avgas, it’s very unusual in the airline world where they have rules, checks, and balances. GA has rules too, we get to write lots of checks and the balance of decision-making is largely left up to the PIC. What follows is a quick early synopsis but of greater interest to me is the state of mind of the captain and how this spiraled into such a disaster. First, the facts as they are known.

The investigation may uncover more—so my standard disclaimer on preliminary accident status applies. The BAE 146 was chartered to fly from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Medellin, Columbia. The aircraft range is about 1,600 nautical miles, just about the distance between the two cities, and the reported flight time was almost exactly the endurance of the jet. Seems pretty obvious that a fuel stop would be needed but there were only a few places along the way. This is mostly mountainous country with lots of jungle so the choices were extremely limited. A small airport, about midway, would close after dark when the flight was expected to pass in range. The other option was Bogota, only 40 minutes away from the final destination.

International rules require turbine aircraft to have a minimum of 30 minutes of fuel remaining—taking into account any contingencies—and if an alternate is required, the ability to get to the alternate after an approach with that amount of reserve. It also states that the reserve has to be calculated at 1,500 agl, an altitude at which turbine engines become extremely thirsty.

There were a couple of other commercial flights ahead of the BAE 146 and the pilot, while explaining that they were low on fuel, did not initially declare an emergency that would have granted landing priority. As bad luck would have it, another aircraft arrived at Medellin at about the same time and asked for priority because of a fuel leak or possibly some other emergency. After several exchanges with the controller, the pilot frantically explained the situation, and shortly after that the aircraft went down. The Flight Data Recorder has been recovered and will tell the tale.

It was noted in some reports that a dispatcher at Santa Cruz airport noted that the aircraft range and distance were the same and objected. A crew member dismissed her concerns saying the captain was confident they had enough fuel. There was some time pressure to get the team to Medellin earlier in the evening and a fuel stop would have been “problematic.” The investigation will likely reveal some international political intrigue, as well. The captain was a part owner of the charter airline that was trying to build up its business ferrying sports teams. His partner—and the airline’s co-owner—a retired Bolivian Air Force officer, was aboard. The general’s son was the head of the country’s aircraft registration authority. Note that by some countries rules if a flight declares a fuel emergency there are often sanctions for the pilot and the company.

A few observations: This will be a well-documented crash that bears strong resemblance to way too many light GA crashes where pilots run out of fuel. When the Air Safety Institute started a fuel awareness campaign, years ago, there were about three crashes per week. It has gradually come down to about one per week. That’s progress but the reasons haven’t changed. You can probably recite them so I won’t belabor the point. The Air Safety Institute’s Fuel Management Safety Spotlight is highly recommended.

Sometimes circumstances conspire—such as having two air carrier aircraft arrive simultaneously with fuel emergencies. But it doesn’t take much imagination to anticipate stronger headwinds, a fouled runway due to a gear-up landing or other mechanical problem, winds exceeding the crosswind capability of the aircraft, weather below landing minimums, etc., etc.

A couple of self-inflicted rules have been helpful to me: If the weather is really lousy or I’m going to a place where there are not a lot of nearby options, about 50 percent of the fuel gets me to the intended destination, 30 percent to a real alternate (not the paper one), and 20 percent is “Aw Shucks” reserve. In less critical circumstances where there are more good options, the ASI Golden Hour will serve piston aircraft pilots well—one hour of fuel on landing, not when you start to think about diverting. Your mileage may vary, pun intended. If a fuel stop is needed, make it about midway on the trip. It’s against human nature to get almost to the destination and suddenly decide to divert. The blog title is applicable in nearly every case of fuel exhaustion.

In the U.S., we are gradually moving away from enforcement to emphasize compliance. There are times when punitive action might be appropriate, but for most first-time offenses a better approach is to educate a misinformed pilot as to why it’s a really bad idea to stretch fuel. If a pilot made an honest, even stupid mistake, government retribution might be viewed as “piling on.” While it’s supposed to act as a disincentive to create the problem in the first place, too many times it serves to dissuade pilots from recognizing that they need to confess and get some help. Obviously, a habit of bad decision-making is not condoned. The mark of a professional is to do the right thing when nobody’s looking! Deliberately making a bad decision may need some additional scrutiny from the authorities.

Aircraft fuel and human life are similar. Both are finite, while our ability to rationalize is infinite. Understand the distinction.

Note:  This will be my last regular blog but I’ll look forward to seeing many of you at various aviation events and will occasionally blog or write when absolutely unable to restrain myself. Stay in touch—you can email me at [email protected] Safe Flights!

An Ill Wind

A wind sock in a stiff breeze.

What’s not to like about tailwinds? They’re usually a good thing, giving us better ground speed, less fuel consumed, and reduced trip time. But sometimes I’ll have a headwind on a round trip in both directions on the same day. Thought there was a constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy!! At altitude, tailwinds are wonderful but they are very bad in three places: takeoff, landing, and base leg.

On takeoff, the ground roll and climb are extended—significantly. There are a few places in the outback where you have to take off downwind (usually downhill) because of rapidly rising terrain. One of our longtime readers in Alaska asked if there was any guidance from an official source regarding tailwind takeoffs and landings. The FAA had little to say other than to ask the locals and, “Y’all be careful.” So a phone call when going to one of those strips would be a really good idea.

Much the same for landing: There doesn’t seem to be much engineering data on the effects of tailwinds, other than to not exceed 10 knots of tailwind component. Cessna’s 182 POH (1979 model) says that for “tailwinds up to 10 knots, increase takeoff distance by 10 percent for each 2 knots.” To clear a 50-foot obstacle at a 1,000 foot elevation and 10 degrees C, requires 1,430 feet with everything working perfectly and with no wind. A 6-knot tailwind theoretically adds another 430 feet. Landing under similar conditions with the same tailwind and 40 degrees flaps, which the newer C182s don’t have, increases landing distance from 1,365 to 1,775 feet. The strut-based Cessnas have rather draggy airframes, despite other endearing qualities, so your distance will definitely vary in a cleaner machine. Another way to figure this is to add about 100 feet per knot above the recommended no-wind landing speed. A 5-knot tailwind adds, very roughly, 500 feet to the landing distance.

Consider the Air Safety Insitute’s 50/50 solution to a no-wind condition and add or subtract from there: To clear the 50-foot obstacle, either on takeoff or landing, add 50 percent to whatever the POH says. That provides the margin for all the caveats that the perfect aircraft, flown by the perfect pilot, under perfectly known conditions would achieve but you and I probably will not. In addition to that, add the tailwind factor—and if the runway is contaminated or wet, reconsider Dude!

Dangerous Tailwinds!!

Now there’s a more dangerous condition that gets scant attention, in my view, in most training handbooks and by CFIs—the tailwind on base leg. We’re always told to be careful about the base-to-final turn, but what are we to be careful of? You know the drill…overshoot the final approach course, which leads many accident pilots to maintain a roughly 30-degree bank angle, use too much inside rudder to slew the nose around, and hold back pressure to keep the aircraft from descending. You know what comes next…from which there is usually no recovery.

In scanning accident reports, we don’t often see what the wind in the traffic pattern was at the time of the stall, but I have a strong hunch that there was a tailwind on base in a number of crashes that may have contributed. If one flies downwind at the usual lateral distance, that crosswind on final may have a tailwind component on base leg and becomes the perfect set up for overshooting final. It all depends on whether the wind is coming from the same side as the downwind leg of the pattern. Some pilots stand accused of adding cross-country time to their logbooks while in the traffic pattern. In a light-wind condition perhaps some gentle “guidance” is appropriate (but not on frequency). However, if there’s much tailwind component on base, be tolerant and perhaps appreciative that the pilot ahead of you, who is wide, is providing some maneuvering room to make that all-important turn.

Now, a question: If there’s a strong crosswind component on base, what do you think about flipping the pattern to the opposite side? Two thoughts come to mind:

  1. If the wind is that strong, only mad dogs and Englishmen will be flying, so it’s unlikely there will be many, if any, other aircraft in the pattern.
  2. How strong should the wind be for one to go contrary—if, in fact, you think that makes sense?

IF this makes any sense, it should only be done with aircraft equipped to so announce on CTAF (unlikely that many NORDO aircraft would be flying on such a day).

I suspect there will be strongly held opinions on both sides—so let’s hear from you. Be tolerant and respectful of alternate viewpoints.

Safe pilots are always learning, and the Air Safety Institute’s goal is to ensure pilots have a wealth of information to keep flying safely—like this Takeoffs and Landings Safety Spotlight. Help us to keep educating pilots on safety issues by donating to the AOPA Foundation today.

Too Hot to Handle

fire_burn_flames_213827Lithium-ion (LI) batteries occasionally catch fire. That’s not news. The problems have been well documented early on with Boeing’s 787s having some serious battery overheat problems, to the point that they were grounded while a fix was implemented. More recently, Samsung’s latest smartphone has been self-immolating so frequently that they’ve been recalled and the airlines have asked that they are shut down during flight. In light general aviation aircraft, a cabin fire from an LI battery device could become immediately catastrophic.

UPS lost a 747 and its crew in Dubai in 2013 when a shipment of batteries caught fire. There have been a number of incidents on passenger flights where cabin crews have responded to douse an overheated device, but in light aircraft we often don’t have much space to resolve the problem. Some of us have had an iPad shut down at inconvenient times (see iPaddy Melt). I’ve had two overheats where the iPad behaved exactly as programmed—it went to sleep. But what to do if it occurs during an IMC approach and what if it should go into thermal runaway mode and catch fire?

The IFR approach issue is relatively simple to resolve: Carry some paper approach charts for the destination/alternate and have a backup device available in case the primary fails.

A thermal runaway is a much bigger challenge. Briefly, LI batteries have very high energy densities and under certain conditions can overheat, especially during charging. According to Battery University (there is such a place!), the LI battery has “…the potential of a thermal runaway. The temperature would quickly rise to the melting point of the metallic lithium and cause a violent reaction.

“The high energy density comes at a price. Manufacturing methods become more critical the denser the cells become. With a separator thickness of only 20-25µm, any small intrusion of metallic dust particles can have devastating consequences…Sony Energy Devices (Sony), the maker of the lithium-ion cells in question, says that on rare occasions microscopic metal particles may come into contact with other parts of the battery cell, leading to a short circuit within the cell. Although battery manufacturers strive to minimize the presence of metallic particles, complex assembly techniques make the elimination of all metallic dust nearly impossible…During a thermal runaway, the high heat of the failing cell can propagate to the next cell, causing it to become thermally unstable as well. In some cases, a chain reaction occurs in which each cell disintegrates at its own timetable. A pack can get destroyed within a few short seconds or linger on for several hours as each cell is consumed one-by-one.”

Caution areas: A short circuit within the battery itself or a faulty charger can create a runaway. Static electricity or a faulty charger can destroy the battery’s protection circuit and will be undetectable by the user. A battery with a failed protection circuit may function normally but cannot provide any protection if it’s damaged . Once the cell is in thermal runaway mode nothing can stop it once triggered.

Revelation! Consumer-grade lithium-ion batteries should never be charged below 0°C (32°F). Battery University, “Although the packs appear to be charging normally, plating of metallic lithium occurs on the anode while on a sub-freezing charge. The plating is permanent and cannot be removed. If done repeatedly, such damage can compromise the safety of the pack.”

Other concerns: Wedging the device into a suitcase or flight bag ? Bad idea ! The battery becomes more vulnerable to failure if subjected to impact or crush, or high rate charging from high capacity chargers. Many off brand replacement batteries often don’t employ the same high safety standard as the original manufacturer. This is NOT an area to go cheap!

Some other common sense thoughts: Try to keep the devices out of direct sun and in an area with good airflow. Strategically directed air vents will help with garden variety overheating but not with a thermal runaway. If that rare and really bad luck situation occurs, use a fire extinguisher—but understand that it may not work! Equipment is available for airline and corporate aircraft that resembles a metal envelope to contain an overheated device but they are pricey—as in several thousand dollars. For light aircraft, until someone comes up with a better solution, perhaps a fire mitt used for grilling (anyone who’s ever had one of my steaks will understand immediately) may allow you to grab the smoldering device and heave it overboard. (Caution, however, in a thermal runaway the cab temperatures can reach 1,000 °F, so the standard grilling mitt may not work well.) I’ll deal with the open door or window! If the aircraft is pressurized, you’ll need another solution.

This problem shouldn’t be overstated—there are tens of millions of LI devices in use, and as pilots we depend on them. But low probability/high consequence events should not be ignored. As far as nonflight-essential devices are concerned, probably best to just turn them off. Passengers may need to become re-acquainted with that rare activity of looking at something like a magazine or book! Or, just enjoying the view from on high.

Airshow Fuelishness—again

At Oshkosh, we get to see the whole gamut of airmanship from the absolute best to some that’s clearly questionable. This year was no exception.

Perhaps the more interesting stories are those where nothing happenedbut almost. A friend who had flown from Denver arrived at OSH Sunday afternoon, which is prime time. He had an IFR reservationa good thing as the weather was marginal with a 1,500-foot, or so, overcast. Both runways were in use, one for VFR and the other for IFR. Everything was working as planned until one IFR pilot had a bad landing day. The runway was fouled with arrivals stretching out for hours to come. The choreography was busted.

The IFRs couldn’t cancel because of the overcast they were in, or above, and the VFR pattern was it’s usual craziness, so diverting IFR flights to a different runway was not so easy. Holding instructions were issued with an indefinite expect-further-clearance time. It was one of those scenarios where one never quite knows if they’re going to roll the bulldozers to clear the runway or the owner has managed to plead his case to preserve what’s left of his pride and joy. The inbounds were stacked up at various holding fixes at 1,000-foot altitude intervals just as they used to do at O’Hare, La Guardia, and LAX before flow control came into being (mostly).

My friend had several hours of fuel on board, so he elected to hang out for a bit. One thousand feet below, ATC was asking a pilot his intentions. The pilot indicated that he had one hour and 15 minutes, which the controller may have interpreted to be non-reserve fuel. Well, not exactlythat was until dry tanks, but that wasn’t said. The pilot said he would “wait for a bit.” Somewhere, well into the remaining fuel, my friend heard the pilot below in a “heightened stage of enthusiasm” declare minimum fuel.

He needed to go to Fond du Lac about 20 miles south. ATC advised that they were landing north on approaches and would sequence the flight into the daisy chain. No: he needed to land straight-in on the approach to the south with no delay. That wasn’t minimum fuel but a fuel emergency and completely self-inflicted. With considerable disruption and inconvenience to all concerned, it seems to have worked out. The pilot deserves a pat-on-the-back for clearly stating his urgency and a boot-in-the-butt for getting into that predicament.

As a reminder, the Aeronautical Information Manual notes:

Minimum fuel, “Indicates that an aircraft’s fuel supply has reached a state where, upon reaching the destination, it can accept little or no delay. This is not an emergency situation but merely indicates an emergency situation is possible should any undue delay occur.”

The controller’s manual, in a note says: “Use of the term ‘minimum fuel’ indicates recognition by a pilot that his/her fuel supply has reached a state where, upon reaching destination, he/she cannot accept any undue delay. This is not an emergency situation but merely an advisory that indicates an emergency situation is possible should any undue delay occur. A minimum fuel advisory does not imply a need for traffic priority. Common sense and good judgment will determine the extent of assistance to be given in minimum fuel situations. If, at any time, the remaining usable fuel supply suggests the need for traffic priority to ensure a safe landing, the pilot should declare an emergency and report fuel remaining in minutes.”

An FAA inFO document provides additional guidance:

When things start to really unravel, “The point at which, in the judgment of the pilot-in-command, it is necessary to proceed directly to the airport of intended landing due to low fuel. Declaration of a fuel emergency is an explicit statement that priority handling by ATC is both required and expected.”

Reserve fuel, “The act of using a portion of the reserve fuel assigned to a flight is not, in its self a cause to declare a minimum fuel state with the controlling agency. Regulations require reserve fuel to enable aircraft to maneuver, due to unforeseen circumstances. Many aircraft safely arrive at their destination having used a portion of the fuel designated as reserve. There is no regulatory definition as to when, specifically, a pilot must declare ‘minimum fuel’ or a fuel emergency. Air carriers typically develop such guidance for their pilots and include it in their General Operations Manuals; such guidance generally falls along the following lines:

• Declare ‘minimum fuel’ when, in your best judgment, any additional delay will cause you to burn into your reserve fuel.

• Declare a fuel emergency at the point at which, in your judgment, it is necessary for you to proceed directly to the airport at which you intend to land.'”

Why recount this again? Because at this writing, we’re cracking up about one aircraft a week due to fuel mismanagement. Air shows, fly-ins, and grungy weather are almost guaranteed opportunities for delay so why not plan accordingly? A good rule of thumb is to use 50 percent of your fuel to get to planned destination, 30 percent to go to a reasonable alternate (not necessarily the one you filed), and 20 percent as emergency fuel if unforeseen circumstances force the issuebut they have to be truly unforeseen. The Golden Hour doesn’t just apply to medical trauma but to our fuel state, as well. Be on the ground with one hour of fuel remaining, not just starting to think about where you’ll go. It cuts down tremendously on future explanations and paperwork.

The AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Fuel Management Safety Spotlight has more on this topic, including this “Ask ATC” segment on minimum fuel vs. a fuel emergency.

Ramped?

single-engine cessna airplane on the tarmac in St. George, Utah. Toned in Photoshop, taken with Canon 40D

A U.S. senator recently held a news conference to announce that he wanted the FAA to start conducting more ramp checks at GA airports. There had been eight accidents since the beginning of the year in his state. He was concerned that the number of ramp inspections in the last decade had fallen from 2,000 to 748, a 73 percent decrease. FAA personnel funding increased significantly during this period according to the DOT inspector general. Parenthetically, the senator noted that there might be no correlation but the FAA should ramp up ramp inspections to check for compliance, ostensibly, to stop the “surge.” 

A casual pass through this year’s NTSB preliminary reports for the state-in-question revealed the following:

1) A student pilot lost control on a touch and go, drifted off the left side of the runway despite reportedly applying right rudder, whacked nearby signage with each wing, breached both fuel tanks, and managed a successful off-airport landing after dodging two sets of power lines. No injury. That would have made an interesting social media post for sure.

2) A V35 Bonanza suffered an in-flight breakup from a reported vacuum system loss in IMC (discussed in one of my previous blogs).

3) A Stinson 108  ground-looped during a precautionary landing after the engine began to miss. The aircraft had an approved STC to use autogas—but not with ethanol—according to the preliminary report. The pilot reported that the engine had missed on several prior occasions. No injury.

4) A Cessna 172 stalled shortly after takeoff from a private grass strip that was just over 1,100 feet long. Two fatalities and one minor injury.

5) A Piper Cherokee lost power shortly after takeoff and crashed. Both occupants sustained serious injuries—the engine is being inspected.

6) A Cirrus SR-22 suffered a power loss in cruise flight and although the pilot switched tanks (both of which contained fuel), there was no restart. The parachute was pulled and no injuries resulted. A preliminary engine teardown showed valve strikes on the tops of all cylinders.

7) A Piper Cherokee suffered an engine stoppage at night during an instructional flight and ditched just off the shoreline.  The aircraft had flown 5.1 hours since the last refueling. There were three minor injuries and one presumed fatality.

8) A Cessna 152’s nosewheel impacted a snowbank just off the end of a runway. The aircraft nosed over and crashed on the runway, caught fire, and was destroyed. The pilot was uninjured.

It’s a typical potpourri of GA mishaps and tragedies. The usual disclaimer applies to these preliminary reports as no probable cause has been determined, although it seems at least somewhat self-evident in several cases.

Regarding the efficacy of ramp checks, in the skill-based accidents, they might have been prevented—but only if the inspector happened to observe poor airmanship just prior to the mishap and was able to flag the aircraft down.

In the maintenance arena, there might have been an opportunity to ground an aircraft if it had not had the proper inspections. But it’s a bit of a stretch for an inspector to determine if an aircraft has ethanol in the fuel or an internal cylinder condition. We are not required to carry maintenance logbooks onboard but the aircraft should be airworthy and safe to fly. Sadly, a few of our compatriots pay scant attention to maintenance and fly with bad tires, poorly rigged flight controls, inoperative instruments, etc.

So, there’s an effort to do something, anything by government and the regulatory hammer is often the tool of choice. In my view, the real opportunity is ongoing and proper education since it’s the pilot and passengers who arrive none-too-gently at the scene of the accident first. It’s also the rest of us who pay increased insurance, and there is litigation and bad PR.  Perhaps a ramp “check” isn’t the best tool but merely a courtesy “discussion” by inspectors since the FAA is moving into compliance, as opposed to enforcement these days. If someone is a consistently bad actor, then enforcement is completely appropriate.

On training: Touch and goes by solo students should be carefully considered. There’s a lot going on during both takeoff and landing, and to string them together occasionally overwhelms the new aviator. Directional control should always be stressed. Adequate fuel and runways are essential for all flight—seems we have to remind pilots of that. 

On maintenance: Unless you’re flying a sailplane or a balloon, a fully functioning engine is essential to repel gravity—there ain’t no shortcuts here. Unfortunately, a few of us don’t just believe in luck, we rely on it, usually to save a buck. It’s a false economy.

Looking back at this group of accidents, do you think GA pilots could do better?

Would additional enforcement make a difference? If not that, what? Let’s hear your thoughts.

Speak up Early & Often

For pilots, a visit to an ATC facility often results in a mental sunrise on why things are done as they are and how to get the best service.

A local group of pilots visited an ATC facility and observed:

VFR flight following: At a moderately busy Class C facility, on a nice VFR Saturday morning, the amount of traffic was impressive—especially around the edges with clusters of aircraft who weren’t speaking to anyone.

At a satellite airport outside Class C airspace there were several VFR targets in the pattern or nearby. As an IFR Cessna 210 was picking up his clearance on the ground, the controller advised him of the nearby beehive. It got more exciting because although the winds were light, the 210 elected to depart against the prevailing flow—his prerogative. The controller advised of the nearest targets, altitudes, and that there was a Hawker jet setting up for an RNAV approach to the opposing runway. The 210 launched uneventfully and avoided everyone. We’ll catch up to him momentarily.

The Hawker was advised of “the hive” and the controller reminded him to cancel when appropriate. A thin layer of clouds precluded it right then and the controller asked for a pirep. Two minutes later the Hawker reported bases broken at 1,300 and canceled. The controller now had a better picture on what was going on and where a conflict might develop recognizing, of course, that everyone was adhering exactly to the prescribed cloud clearances. Right! Pireps are important—make ’em!

For pilots, the mantra is Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. For controllers it’s Safety, Efficiency, and Pilot Requests—in that order. Controllers may be working two or more frequencies, and we only hear one side of the conversation. Be patient since ATC’s highest priority is avoiding a paint swap before they can get to our request.

On an initial call for VFR flight following, just the call sign and possibly “flight following” is all that is needed. Don’t unload that you’re “a Buzzard 110 at 2,000 somewhere northeast of Mudville headed up to see Aunt Tilley who has a world class twine collection.” ATC will reply when they can with a squawk—and then it’s time to provide type, altitude, and destination.

The IFR Cessna 210 was headed northbound and assigned 7,000 but the Mode C readout showed 7,300 and climbing. The controller provided the altimeter setting and asked the pilot to check altitude. He reported level at seven and when the Mode C showed 7,700, ATC requested him to stop altitude squawk.

Meanwhile, an inbound RJ was descending out of 10,000, which the controller stopped at 9,000 just to be sure. The 210 was handed off to the adjacent sector and told to start squawk again, to ascertain the problem. The 210 showed level at 7,000, which points out that sometimes there are intermittent gremlins in the system. A good reason for the biennial altimeter/transponder check and the need to check anomalies in several locations/times. Perhaps in the distant future we’ll be using GPS-derived altitudes, at least in some airspace.

Approaching even moderate high density airspace, don’t wait until arriving near the boundary before calling. It’s a three-dimensional chess game of time, speed, and distance—the pieces are constantly moving. It’s even more complex when ATC has to anticipate what the non-participating players might be contemplating. ATC is managing considerable traffic 40 to 50 miles out from the Charlie or Bravo boundary of mandatory communication and typically up to 10,000 feet. So there is opportunity for unpleasant encounters even though communication is not required, as described in the accident below.

Arrival and departure gates are often a mystery to VFR pilots who sometimes believe staying clear of Charlie or Bravo airspace should eliminate any conflicts. Not so! The fast movers need to get into and out of the communication airspace (which AOPA works hard to keep as compact as reasonable). Choice of altitude becomes critical. A midair collision last year in the Charleston, South Carolina, area outside of Class C between an F-16 and a VFR Cessna 150 illustrates this point.

Minimum vectoring altitude, in this case, was 1,600 as the fighter was being guided to the final approach. The Cessna had just departed on a cross-country and was not in contact with ATC. While several traffic calls were made to the jet, the defensive approach would have been for the Cessna to level at or below 1,400 until establishing contact and to listen on the ATC frequency. It’s good to know those arrival and departure gate altitudes in areas where you fly a lot.

Some pilots are uncomfortable talking to ATC, being uncertain about what to say or that, somehow, there’s a violation lurking for the least little foul-up. As they say in Jersey, Fuhgettaboutit! ATC is there to help, and it’s seldom that controllers will be anything but helpful. Just tell them you’re a student pilot. I’ve used that to good effect in high-density IFR traffic in the Northeast, which always gets their immediate attention. (Just kidding!)

Say It Right-NEWThe AOPA Air Safety Institute’s recently updated Say It Right: Mastering Radio Communications is an excellent free online course to help you feel better about it. You’ll be talking like a pro in no time.

Post your thoughts about using Flight Following in the comments section:

a) I always use Flight Following – when available

b) I stay away from the busy airspace

c) My eyesight is excellent and I have lightning fast reflexes to see and avoid any traffic

d) Other comment