You — And Only You — Can Fly the Airplane

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Recent fatal accidents involving GA aircraft after either an equipment failure or a non-instrument-rated pilot's encounter with poor weather led the NTSB last week to make several recommendations to the FAA concerning controller training. All that is well and good and should be implemented but, as AVweb's Scott Puddy writes, only the pilot can fly the airplane.

As AVweb recently reported, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a Safety Recommendation to FAA Administrator Jane Garvey on September 24 suggesting that action be taken to address inadequate responses by air traffic controllers to emergencies relating to VFR flight into IMC and instrument or vacuum system failures. Although it is clear from the report that some housecleaning is in order at the FAA, it is apparent that we pilots need to clean up our acts as well. The only person in a position to fly the airplane is the PIC. Reliance upon ATC to assume those responsibilities has, and will have, deadly consequences.

Below are summaries of several accidents that, according to the NTSB, illustrate the need for additional training of air traffic controllers. They also evidence a need for additional pilot training to dispel some lethal misconceptions about the division of responsibilities between the PIC and ATC.


MISCONCEPTION #1: ATC Will Assure Terrain Clearance Under VFR Flight Following

An all-too-common accident scenario involves a VFR-rated pilot in a high-performance, autopilot-equipped aircraft, under VFR flight following in IMC on a "present position direct granite intersection" flight plan. Although the pilots have been unavailable for post-accident interviews, their thought processes seem obvious. "I don't need instrument training to fly in IMC because the autopilot can fly the airplane. The controller has me on radar. He'll warn me before I run into anything."

The NTSB's Safety Recommendation references one such accident that occurred on June 8, 1998, near Bangor, Calif. The non-instrument-rated pilot had advised the preflight weather briefer that he was planning an IFR flight from Lincoln, Calif., to Sun River, Ore. The pilot departed Lincoln VFR and obtained VFR flight following from Sacramento Approach. Within minutes, the pilot advised Sacramento Approach that he had passed through some clouds. The controller instructed the pilot to remain VFR.

About 15 minutes into the flight, the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center picked up VFR flight following and instructed the pilot to remain VFR. The pilot responded, "I'm ah not VFR I'm in the clouds I'm on autopilot." Indeed, the pilot was in solid IMC at altitudes varying from 1,700 to 2,400 feet MSL in an area where the minimum instrument altitude was 5,000 feet MSL. The controller provided current weather for Chico and Marysville and issued the pilot a vector to Marysville. However, the controller never issued a safety or terrain alert. Within five minutes of the handoff to Oakland Center, the flight terminated abruptly and the pilot and his passenger were killed.

The NTSB was critical of the controller for not attempting to use nearby maps to determine the airplane's proximity to terrain, for not attempting to determine whether the pilot was capable and qualified for IFR flight, and for the controller's deficient understanding of the Minimum Safe Altitude Warning (MSAW) system.

Pilots need to understand that a functioning autopilot and radar flight following are not adequate substitutes for instrument flying skills. According to FAA Order 7110.65, if a pilot is flying VFR and requests radar assistance upon encountering IFR conditions, controllers are supposed to ask the pilot if he/she is qualified for and capable of conducting IFR flight, inform the pilot of airports where VFR conditions are reported, inform the pilot of the appropriate terrain/obstacle clearance minimum altitude, and furnish a heading or radial on which the aircraft should climb to reach the appropriate minimum altitude.

However, we cannot count on receiving even that level of assistance. To begin with, the provisioning of VFR flight following is on a workload-permitting basis at the controller's discretion. The purpose for the service is to provide traffic information, not terrain avoidance. The controller's radar screen does not show terrain (except for prominent landmarks used for position reporting). In order to determine the locations of higher and lower terrain, the controller has to retrieve terrain maps and correlate the aircraft's position on the radar screen with a location on the map.

Depending on the type of facility, the controller will have access to either the MSAW system or the (less-sophisticated) Low Altitude Alert System (LAAS). However, both systems are disabled for participating VFR traffic unless the pilot specifically requests MSAW or LAAS monitoring. Therefore, the Aeronautical Information Manual (paragraph 4-1-15) specifies that the issuance of a Safety Alert "cannot be mandated, but it can be expected on a reasonable, though intermittent basis." In other words, don't count on it.

MISCONCEPTION #2: ATC Will Recognize The Existence Of An Emergency If You Speak In Urgent Tones

On November 26, 1999, a Beechcraft S35 Bonanza crashed out of control into a New Jersey residential area following a failure of the turn coordinator and the horizontal situation indicator. During the four-minute flight, the pilot exhibited a complete inability to control altitude or turn to or hold assigned headings and told the controller at least twice, "I have a problem." The controller never realized that an emergency existed and ineffectually continued to assign headings and altitudes to the pilot. Sometimes the pilot responded. Sometimes the pilot did not. Oblivious to what was transpiring in the cockpit, the controller's last transmission before the plane impacted the ground at a vertical descent rate of 10,000 FPM was, "niner two mike, I need to be acknowledged please."

A similar incident occurred on August 13, 1999, after a Cessna 210 continued VFR flight into IMC conditions and crashed near Mount Pocono, Penn. The pilot was receiving radar traffic advisories from Wilkes-Barre approach and had been asked to report Mount Pocono airport in sight. As the airplane passed the airport, the controller asked whether the airport was in sight. The pilot responded, "No not yet as a matter <unintelligible> I am in the soup right now." The controller instructed the pilot to remain VFR and issued a vector back to the airport. About a minute later, while at 700 feet AGL within 3/4 mile of the airport, the pilot again stated that he was "in the soup" and asked for the reported ceiling at the airport. The controller issued another vector to the airport, but the pilot did not respond and the target disappeared from radar. When interviewed later, the controller stated that he did not realize that "in the soup" meant "in the clouds."

Neither of the controllers realized that an emergency existed. In the first case, the controller failed to recognize the severity of the pilot's difficulty in controlling the airplane. In the second case, the controller did not recognize that the VFR pilot had entered instrument conditions. The NTSB was critical of both controllers for those deficiencies.

The blame doesn't stop there, however. The 3 C's are: Communicate, Confess, Comply. An in-flight emergency is no time for colloquial speech. It's crunch time and it should be all business. "I have a problem," should read, "I have an emergency; I am unable to control the airplane." "I'm in the soup," should read, "I have an emergency; I am in the clouds and am not instrument-rated."

Once a controller hears the "E" word, several requirements are triggered. In the event of a VFR into IMC emergency, the controller is required to provide "Radar Assistance" to a pilot not qualified to operate in IFR conditions. "Radar Assistance" means:

a. Avoid radio frequency changes except when necessary to provide a clear communications channel;

b. Make turns while the aircraft is in VFR conditions so it will be in a position to fly a straight course while in IFR conditions;

c. Have pilot lower gear and slow aircraft to approach speed while in VFR conditions;

d. Avoid requiring a climb or descent while in a turn if in IFR conditions;
e. Avoid abrupt maneuvers;

f. Vector aircraft to VFR conditions; and,

g. If the airplane is Mode C equipped, enable Minimum Safe Altitude Warning alarm processing.

The controller must also inform the pilot of the appropriate terrain/obstacle clearance minimum altitude. If the aircraft is below appropriate terrain/obstacle clearance minimum altitude and the controller is able to establish the aircraft's location with sufficient accuracy, the controller is to furnish a heading or radial for the aircraft's climb to the appropriate terrain/obstacle clearance minimum altitude. (FAA Order 7110.65, paragraphs 10-2-8, 10-2-9)

The NTSB noted that the same procedures are applicable to instrument failures in IMC. Unqualified pilots (or qualified pilots with broken equipment) who find themselves in instrument conditions are entitled to all that assistance. To receive it, they need only state clearly and unequivocally the existence and nature of their emergency.

MISCONCEPTION #3: ATC Will Give You The Assistance You Require If You Make An Obscure Remark and Wink Twice

A number of articles have been written concerning how to get what you want from ATC, including ways to get what you are not really entitled to without really asking for it. You're IFR and want to navigate direct to a distant point using your handheld GPS? Just advise ATC that you have a handheld on board, ask for a vector to "Remote" intersection, and wink twice. "Roger Dodger, fly heading two-three-zero, direct "Remote" when able (in about 100 nm)." Unfortunately, these "tips" for the devious may lead some pilots to believe that controllers are always "in the know." They understand what assistance you want or need even if you don't ask for it straight out. Again, the consequences can be fatal.

On January 20, 1999, an instrument rated private lost control of a Cessna P210 Centurion and crashed near Albuquerque, N.M., following a failure of its vacuum-driven flight instruments. The first hint of a problem occurred when the pilot advised the controller that he had suffered a dual vacuum pump failure "so we're gonna need to look for uh someplace we've got electric uh back up systems here but we uh we're having a little trouble holding altitude and everything." The controller responded, "okay, let me know if you need any uh assistance."

A short while later the pilot asked, "what's the bottom of the cloud layer; we're IFR at this time." Responding to the pilot's oblique request for a lower altitude, the controller cleared the pilot to descend from FL 230 to 14,000 feet MSL. The controller then handed the pilot off to another sector and instructed him to advise the new controller if he required any further assistance. After failing to respond for some time, the pilot advised, "We're having trouble; I think we're in a spin." Fifteen seconds later, the pilot stated, "we're back with you" and requested vectors to Albuquerque.

In his initial communications with Albuquerque Approach, the pilot advised "we've lost both our vacuum pumps and uh I think we just went through ... a roll; ...we've got electric driven backup systems uh electric horizon electric uh compass and they're not uh agreeing with each other at this time so we're gonna need some help." The controller asked if the pilot could accept standard right turns for the vectors, and the pilot replied, "we're gonna need some help." The controller asked the pilot to start a right standard rate turn and the pilot replied with his final transmission, indicating that he had lost control of the airplane.

The NTSB was critical of the controllers for failing to understand the significance of a vacuum pump loss in IMC and for failing to initiate steps to minimize the pilot's workload under the emergency circumstances. The steps the controllers should have taken included avoiding assigning turns and frequency changes, locating areas where VFR conditions existed, assisting the pilot in establishing the airplane in stable flight, and initiating a surveillance approach.

The NTSB laid blame upon inadequate training of controllers, specifically in the areas of aircraft operations and navigation and the possible consequences of aircraft system and instrument failures. The NTSB also called upon the FAA to maintain a list of pilot-qualified employees who might provide valuable assistance to a controller without pilot experience who is handling an in-flight emergency.

Although the NTSB's call for improvement in the training of controllers is laudable, the fact is that the responsibility for flying the airplane, even in the midst of an emergency, rests with the PIC. In the movies there is always someone on the ground who is more qualified and knowledgeable about the specific airplane and its systems who can talk the pilot down. In real life, chances are that there will be no one better situated to address the emergency than the pilot.

Fly The Airplane — ATC Cannot Fly It For You

It is incumbent upon the PIC to know and understand the airplane's systems, their failure modes, and the appropriate emergency procedures to follow in the event of a failure.

It is incumbent upon the PIC to have a general understanding of the weather all along and adjacent to the route of flight. If a vector to VFR conditions is an appropriate response to the emergency, the PIC should make that request and, perhaps, even suggest where VFR conditions may be found.

It is incumbent upon the PIC to understand the various services that controllers can provide to pilots in the event of an emergency. If a surveillance approach is an appropriate response to the emergency, the PIC should make that specific request. It may be that the pilot in this particular case was truly over his head and unable to further assist himself in addressing this emergency. However, as pilots, we should strive to do better than advise ATC that "we're gonna need some help."

As pilots in command, we must also understand that, even if the FAA augments training procedures as the NTSB has recommended, the controller may not be up to the task. The PIC must assess the situation, advise ATC of the emergency nature of the situation, and instruct ATC concerning the steps necessary to address the situation. You, and only you, can fly the airplane. ATC cannot do it for you.

Fly safe.