Desired Track (DTK) #1:
Playing by the Rules
Like it or not, there are certain rules that apply when we fly. Some of those rules fill books and some of them — too many — are unwritten. One rule is to not run out of fuel. Other rules — like which route to take around special airspace — either aren't shared with pilots or just keep changing. While the rules that apply to getting around the Charlotte, N.C., Class B airspace seem inscrutable, the rules that apply to ensuring that there's enough fuel aboard to reach one's destination are well-known. Executive Editor Joseph E. (Jeb) Burnside explores why things are what they are in this first installment of his monthly column for AVweb.
Welcome to the first installment of my monthly column for AVweb. I've been associated with AVweb since late 1996, when I moved into the weekly news-writing rotation. Those were the days when our subscriber base numbered around 20,000, we worked hard to have fun with our news products and the principal question we received was something like, "Who are you guys?" Frequently, that question came from various people within the FAA or some other organization we took great pains to skewer. I'm happy to say that we still get that kind of question on occasion.
AVweb has come a long way since then, and so has the general aviation industry. Back then, Cessna had just barely begun to make single-engine piston airplanes again, certified airplanes from Cirrus and Lancair were just gleams in various eyes and few outside of the highway lobby had ever heard of Jane Garvey.
During that time, I've been very fortunate to work my way up the ladder at AVweb, ensuring that our train runs on time and trying to make sure that you and other subscribers continue to receive the latest and greatest in aviation news, commentary, features and topical articles. Thanks to a really great team of writers, editors, researchers and support people — and especially Editor-In-Chief Mike Busch's sometimes-misplaced confidence, undying patience and long-tested sense of humor — I'm happy to say that AVweb has grown to the point that I finally have the time to spend developing new feature material, including this monthly column, as well as getting out from behind my desk to observe and report on many more of the happenings in the general aviation community in the U.S.
That's not to say that we'll be resting on our laurels — far from it. Indeed, one of the things I hope to accomplish with this monthly column is to reach out even further to the GA community and try to tell even more of the amazing story that is general aviation in the U.S. Along the way, there will be more than a few rants, several raves and, I hope, a lot that makes you think about your flying and how you can do it better, more safely and more efficiently. With that as a preamble, let's get started. Strap in tight, okay?
Sweet, Sweet Charlotte
"We've Got To Put Them Together To Keep Them Apart ..."
Probably half of my flying involves the 500-some-odd miles between my plane's home base at Manassas, Va. (HEF), and a wide spot in the road on the way to Florida, Tifton, Ga. (TMA), where I spent most of my teenage years, learned to fly and where my mother still lives. Unfortunately for me, the Charlotte, N.C. (CLT) Class B airspace looms like an overstuffed mushroom about halfway between the two airports. Early on when flying this route, I discovered that the CLT Class B was not the least bit accommodating to FLIBs like my Debonair flying over, through or alongside its dimensions. Since the vast majority of the time I file and fly in the IFR system, I've grown accustomed to hearing Greensboro Approach or Florence Approach say something like, "I have a revised clearance; advise when ready to copy." At such times I'm reminded of something a co-worker at NBAA in the mid-1980s would say about seemingly incomprehensible ATC procedures: "We've got to put them together to keep them apart."
At first, I would just go direct to/from the Casanova VORTAC (CSN) near HEF to/from TMA using GPS and filing with the /G suffix. That route would generally take me over the CLT Class B. Asking for a VFR-On-Top clearance to pass over that airspace in lieu of an off-course vector occasionally worked. Generally, though, I've been filing and at least trying to fly to Chesterfield VORTAC (CTF), situated several miles southeast of CLT. That slight dogleg kept me clear of CLT. My flight plan and clearance southbound would look something like KHEF.CSN.MOL.CTF.KTMA, a route that generally has me wanting to hold a 245-degree heading to stay on course. Most of the time that worked well, although often I would get a routing change from the fine folks at the Greensboro (N.C.) TRACON to proceed to the GANTS intersection "at Charlotte's request." Again, I got used to it.
I've even tried to use the "Special Low Altitude Directional Routes" published in the Airport/Facility Directory. The only one that even remotely applies is PSK (Pulaski, Va.) V37 CAE (Columbia, S.C.) at either 9,000 or 10,000 feet. That would take me way out of my way to the west, then directly over the middle of the CLT Class B just to get to the south side.... Routing Around ...
Occasionally, it would get interesting, however. Sometimes southbound, I'd get an off-course vector to the southeast and be handed off to the Raleigh TRACON. After the relatively quiet frequencies of either Greensboro, to the north, or (choose one) Fayetteville, Florence or Seymour Johnson AFB approach controls to the south, the clearly-overworked people at Raleigh barely had enough time to acknowledge my on-frequency check-in and do a handoff a short time later. On the few occasions when I'd talk to a CLT controller, it was a surprisingly normal transaction.
Last Thanksgiving was the most interesting, however. While southbound and roughly due east of CLT, I got a vector to fly a 120-degree heading (remember, I'm generally flying a 245-degree course) and was asked to talk to Fayetteville Approach. Once on Fayetteville's frequency, I was basically prompted for my entire flight plan and given a new squawk code: Like I was a pop-up off Rockingham, N.C., it seemed no one knew I was coming even though I'd been airborne and operating on an IFR clearance for about two hours.... RNAV Routes ...
So, it was with great interest that I read a late-January press release from AOPA talking about the association's successful efforts at developing RNAV routes through the CLT Class B. "Cool," I thought, "no more of the off-course-vector nonsense and they'll know I'm coming." Well, sadly I must report that AOPA and CLT still have some work to do.
A Letter To Airmen (LTA) from the CLT tower details the new procedures, but the routes don't appear to be designed for operations like mine, since the charted altitudes are between 4,000 and 6,000 feet MSL. Additionally, in one instance, an intersection listed in one of the routes (ADENA) is misspelled as "ARENA." If ARENA is plugged into an FMS or GPS navigator, one would take a merry ride to Oregon, something for which I don't have the fuel. Another intersection, listed at PLUMM, should be PLUUM, and isn't even on the en route low altitude chart. The typos can be fixed, of course.... The Acid Test
The LTA went into effect on January 30. Since then I've had three occasions to fly IFR near the CLT Class B. On a southbound leg at 8,000 feet, no route changes were issued. A few days later on the northbound "get-back," about the time I hit CTF at 9,000 feet, I got cleared to GIPPR intersection, an inconsequential change adding maybe five miles to my flight. But the whopper was last week as I was northbound out of the Atlanta area. Although I had filed direct to Foothills VORTAC (ODF), direct CSN with the idea of staying far away from CLT, I was cleared to Electric City (ELW), then to Spartanburg (SPA), direct CSN. Which is what I flew at the planned altitude, 11,000 feet. Soon after crossing SPA, the Atlanta Center controller gave me a vector of 015 degrees, "Charlotte Approach request," which took me way out of my way. By the time I got back on course, I was just southwest of Barrett's Mountain VORTAC to the northwest of CLT. Of course, 11,000 feet is 1,000 feet above the upper limit of the CLT Class B.
While the CLT LTA that AOPA helped develop is probably a fine start, helps a lot of local operators and should certainly be expanded to other locations, I'll never know because I'll never (well, I can't envision an occasion...) want to fly in or near the CLT Class B at between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. I want to climb to a more efficient altitude, catch a tailwind and move on down the line. I can't be the only one.
Now, I don't want to get off on a rant here, but I — like most other pilots — want to play by the rules. I want to know what's expected of me, why, and what I can do to make life easier on controllers who, after all, I have to work with on a regular basis. Most importantly, I want to know ahead of time — while still on the ground, preferably — what I should expect from the weather, from the airplane and from ATC on a certain flight. If a flight plan that doesn't enter any Class B airspace — and is purposely designed to stay clear of that airspace — still results in last-minute routing changes and, on occasion, some broken-field running, something could stand some attention.
And don't even get me started about the St. Louis (Mo.) Class B.Fuel Exhaustion
An acquaintance of mine died last month in an airplane accident. I didn't know him well — only enough to say "hello" when I passed through the airport lobby at TMA. He was usually there, holding court with some other local pilots and hangar flying. He owned a nice little 180-HP Piper Arrow that he flew a lot and seemed to know what he was doing. On January 14, he and a friend were en route from TMA to PGV, the Pitt-Greenville Airport in Greenville, N.C. They never made it.
Instead, the Arrow crashed about 11.5 miles northeast of PGV while being vectored for the ILS Runway 20 approach. The preliminary NTSB report notes that the airplane twice descended from 3,000 feet before disappearing from radar and crashing into a small cemetery. Both men died in the accident.
People who knew him better than I tell me that he was usually very conscientious about his flight planning. One, who spoke with him shortly before he left on his last flight, told me that the pilot had obtained a complete weather briefing and appeared very prepared for the flight. Reportedly, however, no fuel was found at the accident site. When the engine was removed to a test stand, it started and ran fine. The final NTSB report will tell the tale.
Despite all the dangers to which the general public think we who fly GA airplanes are subject, the simple fact is that if you stay out of icing conditions, stay away from thunderstorms, aren't an Alaska bush pilot or a crop duster, make sure everything on the airplane works and land before it runs out of gas, you'll get where you're going 99.999 percent of the time.
Whether we're trying to find our way around Class B airspace or just launching on a couple-hundred-mile flight, certain rules apply. I want to play by the rules. You want to play by the rules. The problem is that the some of the rules aren't written down anywhere. It helps everyone — whether their chair is parked next to a radar scope or if it's moving at 160 knots — if we know what's expected of us. Once we know the rules — and they include not running out of gas — we must play by them.
Let's all be careful out there, huh?