Aprominent aviation-training company promotes its services with a slogan about the well-trained pilot being the best safety system available. Despite the plethora of tools available in and out of the cockpit- there’s a true nugget of wisdom in that approach. But to take the illustration further- sometimes the best tool is an overly prepared pilot – one who recognizes that hidden- offthe- wall- unusual and unexpected threats can sometimes reach up and bite us on the empennage.

Dave Higdon  |  01st November 2009
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Dave Higdon
Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon is a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who has covered all...

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Pilot Situational Awareness:

You can never know too much.

Aprominent aviation-training company promotes its services with a slogan about the well-trained pilot being the best safety system available. Despite the plethora of tools available in and out of the cockpit- there’s a true nugget of wisdom in that approach.

But to take the illustration further- sometimes the best tool is an overly prepared pilot – one who recognizes that hidden- offthe- wall- unusual and unexpected threats can sometimes reach up and bite us on the empennage. Collision-avoidance gear- ground-proximity warning systems- weather information sources- and even air-traffic controllers can protect us only so far as the pilot is tuned in to respond to posted threats.

Sometimes- despite all these systems and devices- bad things happen to otherwise good pilots – and that- in turn- means bad things happen to the occupants and the aircraft. Too often- the determinant is the attention level of the flight crew and their awareness of their particular situation – and whether the peculiarities of the location or situation were made part of the pre-flight preparation.

A couple of recent accidents- one involving a charter sight-seeing helicopter pilot and a private plane- the other a sole airplane- bring to light the issue.

The tragedy occurred on August 8th this year- in one of the nation’s busiest pieces of airspace – the complex sector encompassing Manhattan- North New Jersey- the numerous airports in the region and the Hudson River.

The accident occurred right around noon that day- a Saturday and not one of the busiest days of any given week- when a Piper PA-32R Lance departed New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport en route to Ocean City- N.J. collided with a Eurocopter AS350 that had launched from Manhattan’s West 30th Street Heliport at about the same time. The Lance carried the pilot plus two; the AS350 bore five tourists from Italy and the pilot on a sight-seeing flight. While the NTSB investigates and the FAA has received recommendations for changing operating rules- routes and altitudes in the VFR corridor over the Hudson- a few points became clear:

• After the Teterboro controller handed off the Lance to a controller at nearby Newark Liberty International- the pilot never re-established contact with the EWK controller;
• The helicopter may have been cruising at an incorrect altitude for the flight and was apparently not following designated helicopter routes; and
• Apparently neither aircraft carried any kind of anti-collision equipment- which could have given both pilots indications of their convergence.

This area- as noted- is among the nation’s highest-density traffic areas- thanks to the proximity of EWK- TEB- Kennedy International (JFK)- LaGuardia (LGA) and White Plains Westchester County Airport (HPN).

To help pilots who need to transit the area- but who want to avoid the complexity and complication of filing IFR and/or entering the positive-control airspace above and around it- the FAA provides the so-called Hudson River corridor- which is essentially a VFR flyway up and down that stretch of the Hudson immediately west of Manhattan.

The back-side of the New York Terminal Area Chart (TAC) contains high-detail graphics on the corridor- including suggested routes and altitudes for tour helicopters and- separately- aircraft transiting the area- in an attempt to provide natural separation.

The failure of the Lance pilot to establish contact with the controller at EWK could have been for a variety of reasons – high density radio communications “stepping” on his own transmissions- entering an incorrect frequency or innocent politeness waiting for a chance to get a word in edgeways on a business frequency. As a pilot- the first and third can feel dangerous and frustrating when flying in any airspace- but particularly in high-traffic airspace such as this.

The finding that both the TEB and ESK controller tried and failed to re-establish contact with the Lance could mean nothing more than the pilot had the bad luck of bad timing- and was attempting to call one of them at the same instant they tried to contact him. It happens; it happens enough to be well-known- and often enough to make a pilot in that position to feel vulnerable and to begin to question the frequency entered in the radio.

The helicopter pilot was overtaken- it seems- and may have been distracted by providing tour commentary and pointing out landmarks or talking about the planned route. The helicopter pilot may have departed from the suggested helicopter-tour altitude to accommodate a request by one of the tourists for a better angle for a photo.

Much will remain unknown since neither aircraft carried – nor was required to carry – cockpit-voice or flight-data recorders. Nonetheless- there are lessons here – particularly when some business flights don’t always proceed according to a filed flight plan- or a published departure or arrival.

Absent anti-collision equipment- an aircraft flying in Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) on a Visual Flight Rules (VFR) flight plan will not generally receive the same level of separation services as pilots on an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan – particularly when flying in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC).

That means responsibility for maintaining proper separation belongs to the pilot- even when ATC is assisting with VFR Flight Following. And that puts the entire burden for collision avoidance on what ‘old-time’ pilots like to call the Mark II-EB system: our two eyeballs.

In all cases- that means the pilot should worry some about traffic in every direction – above- below- in front- behind- and all the possible permutations. Such a situation requires the pilot to fly the trip differently than possibly out in uncrowded skies- where a detour may be needed for airspace clearance- but where these days most pilots can - and will - fly direct. And by flying the trip differently we mean taking extra steps to check for threats in directions not immediately visible. The helicopter over the Hudson- if at the incorrect altitude- was likely something the Lance pilot never looked for; the low-wing of the aircraft and the rearand- above approach may have put the helicopter in his blind spot.

Many a pilot flying in a similar situation will go to extraordinary lengths to expand the field of view available: from lowering a wing to yawing for a better view aft – the threat isn’t always ahead – to enlisting passengers to watch for traffic and shout out a direction if something is spotted.

In particularly crowded skies- making a shallow 45-degree turn takes only about 15 seconds using a standard-rate turn- and can open up a great deal of air to view – air otherwise hidden from view. That turn can also make an airplane far more visible to converging traffic- helping the other pilot to see and avoid.

Staying focused on the skies around you is absolutely paramount- even when the frustration of a failed radio-contact attempt provides an immediate distraction.

The same applies to other post-departure distractions- such as cranking in a new routing- dialing in an altitude change or simply struggling to keep track of your location on a chart or plate.

Despite the sound and fury that followed this accident- clear-air collisions remain relative rarities. But those that do occur still tend to occur within a few miles of an airport used by one- or both- parties.

And that means- positive control notwithstanding- maintaining maximum situational awareness is paramount- particularly in airspace like New York’s- Washington- D.C.’s- Atlanta’s- Chicago’s- and a host of other cities with multiple airports in close proximity and even only moderate traffic saturation.

Just three days short of exactly a month after the Hudson River mid-air- another PA-32R was lost in a departure accident in Oklahoma and this accident also occurred because of an in-flight collision  just not with another aircraft. In this instance the conditions were IMC- the flight was filed as an IFR flight and conditions made the viability of eyeballs questionable. Like the Hudson River accident- however- this accident also highlights the necessity of solid situational awareness.

It happened on Saturday- September 5- at about 10:42am- on a flight that started about 7 minutes earlier at Tulsa’s Richard Lloyd Jones- Jr./Riverside Airport (RVS).

Weather at RVS at the time of the departure called the ceiling at 600 feet and visibility of about 4 miles – dangerous weather for scud-running below the clouds- but weather benign enough for an easy IFR flight of only a couple hundred miles. For some reason- though- the flight never reached an altitude safe from the threat of obstructions on the ground.

Filed for Dallas Love Field (DAL) in Texas- the aircraft carrying a pilot and four passengers struck a bracing wire for a 600-foot tall radio tower; the wire was struck at about 150 feet above the base of the tower- which reports say- is on a hilltop west of Tulsa.

The wire severed at about 50 feet from its attach point on the tower- and 300 feet of the heavy cable was wrapped around and went with the aircraft to the crash scene about one-quarter of a mile away. The aircraft was destroyed on impact; a post-crash fire consumed much of the fuselage- and all five people on board perished.

Visibility that day was - as described by the observations - limited; fog and haze drifted by in varying densities. Safety authorities say that recognizing a threat- processing the threat- deciding on an action and executing that action can take 12 to 15 seconds – and that’s a long time at the 110-knot cruise climb of an airplane like this one.

In 15 seconds- the plane could travel a good half mile; throw in hazy conditions that make easy recognition of an obstruction and the time could be wholly inadequate. Add in the threat of nearly invisible wires- and even recognizing the tower in time could leave the pilot with too little time to avoid the array of guide wires.

Although not generally depicted on instrument en route charts- obstacles that impact operations at nearby airports are more-or-less accurately portrayed on instrument approach plates. Today’s crop of compact- high-performance panel-mounted and hand-held GPS navigators typically include obstructions listed in their databases and displayed prominently on their navigation screens.

Our old friend- the humble VFR chart- also depicts towers- tall structures and other permanently installed threats; further- local Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) and localweather reporting systems at airports will generally mention temporary threats.

For the business pilot departing an airport in IMC- awareness of possible obstruction threats is a must; ATC can’t always- won’t- or doesn’t always- let us climb straight away; sometimes the climb away requires a heading change merely to miss terrain or an obstruction - particularly if the aircraft or the situation can’t support a climb rapid enough to assure safe clearance.

Separation standards in IMC and the presence of other IFR traffic – or even an errant VFR scud runner – may require the controller to issue an altitude restriction- or a heading change. Throw in even a small course deviation- and the pilot can find the plane head-on with a tower- building or tall hill- while under the distraction of dealing with the controller’s change in plans for the flight. And facing an imminent encounter with an obstruction or terrain- the smart response is a turn away or a climb above – even if it may clash with the controller’s instruction.

Inform the controller as you make the correction; the controller will act quickly to warn of other traffic – but the odds are- the controller is keeping you well separated when you are IMC.

On an instrument departure from Jackson- Mississippi- many years ago- an inbound IFR aircraft with an in-flight emergency prompted the controller handling us to stop our departure climb until the traffic passed. In the few moments at that altitude- stiff crosswinds drifted us left off course – which was noticed and corrected by the pilot…but not before getting uncomfortably close to a tower much taller than the one at the center of the Tulsa crash.

While aware of the tower prior to departure – it was circled in red on my chart – the swiftness of our drift took us close enough- fast enough to prompt a sigh of relief once we knew it was behind us- a moment which came about the same time the controller called to make sure we knew its location...

Because of the extra time taken to vent this pilot’s paranoia by finding and marking all the low-altitude threats- and thanks to a little luck and panicked correcting- we avoided a fate similar to that of the Tulsa PA-23 - but not by enough to keep us from feeling relief.

While none of these recent accidents involved business-operated aircraft- the circumstances can befall any pilot- any aircraft- at almost any time. Flight happens – but it doesn’t always happen per our plans or our desires- before things get back on track.

On a business flight returning to Dallas from the Houston area a decade ago- we crossed the Waco VOR - the starting point for the STAR that would get us around DAL and into Addison Airport (ADS) on the north edge of Dallas. It was night- VMC- thankfully- but we filed an Instrument Flight Rules flight plan because of the ease it provided for transiting the DFW Class B airspace. Filing for the flight to ADS also gave controllers time to decide on a routing best for their needs.

Based on adapting to their needs in the past- my expectation was for a routing that would take us well east of DAL- up Dallas’ eastern limits- then back to the west once we had passed abeam ADS. But while still about 20 miles south of DAL- and awaiting the expected vectors- the controller handling us suddenly asked about my familiarity with the airspace- the airports and crossing altitudes available.

After my affirmation of familiarity- and showing my knowledge of the local airports and airspace- the controller offered me a shortcut: “If you’re comfortable with a direct heading to ADS that will take you directly over Love…cleared direct.”

The controller made it my option- based on my comfort level- and my confidence in my knowledge and ability to essentially thread an airspace needle. After affirming the clearance and starting the turn- he added a cautionary: “You really must mind your altitude- in particular- and your heading; we’re in the middle of the evening ‘push’ for Southwest.”

The Southwest “push” meant dozens of airplanes plying the sky over and around Love Field in an aerial ballet of arrivals and departures- takeoffs and landings. But even with all those aircraft movements- a virtual tunnel clear of any traffic existed for us to use going northbound.

The STAR and approach plates for ADS and Love were already on my lapboard; my mind raced through a quick check of important items: gyro compass matched with the whiskey compass- check; current altimeter – after a quick inquiry to a grateful controller- check; proper frequencies- active and stand-by- check.

After recruiting my passengers for the extra help of their four extra eyeballs- we made the turn to the heading to take us directly over DAL. What a night – and what a sight:

Boeing 737s- all in the SWA livery- could be seen landing and departing the runway at Love Field as it came into view; more 737s passed overhead westbound- while others passed beneath us eastbound – all with us flying north through the empty space smack in between those arriving aircraft.

As we put Love behind us- we could see the beacon at Addison- took the hand-off to the tower there- and finished with an otherwise uneventful approach to end a very eventful transition. As we unloaded the company plane- one of my fellow flyers finally asked: “Are you breathing normally yet?”

After a deep exhale- I responded- “Oh- yeah…I’m fine…now.”

He wanted to know- what if you hadn’t been prepared for the crossing we just did? The only smart alternative- I said- was going as far east as needed to keep us all safe and comfortable. Without sufficient situational awareness and a comfort level for the procedure- I added- Louisiana wouldn’t have been too far to avoid possible entanglement with a Boeing.

Know before you go: Know the obstructions- airspace- weather and the contingencies – and live to ‘go’ another day.


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