Where Are You?

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Situational awareness is more than knowing your exact position. It also includes anticipating events. A 16,000 pilot examines several accidents from WW2 to the present in which the crew simply lost the picture.

Situational awareness is more than knowing your position. It's also about knowing what's going on or anticipating what's about to happen. There have been tragic results from the lack of situational awareness. Some accidents/incidents haven't ended tragically, but have resulted in FAA enforcement actions against the pilots involved. Let's review some of the occurrences and try to profit from the misfortunes of others.

Although the following incident occurred over 50 years ago, it illustrates a situational awareness problem which instrument pilots as well as non-instrument rated pilots must deal with.

During World War II, Col. Hajo Herrmann of the German Air Force had a navigation problem with one of his squadrons he sent to attack a convoy of ships in the Baltic Sea.

The squadron departed very early in the morning, after which Col. Herrmann went back to sleep. He was soon awakened by a telephone call from his boss, General Stumpf, who was the area air force commander. Col. Herrmann said the General shouted at him with such anger that "my pajama trousers fluttered and my dog began to bark."

The General was irate because the squadron had flown more than 180 miles across Swedish territory and church-goers had identified their aircraft. Sweden was neutral during WW2. The General now had the unpleasant task of reporting the facts of the incident to Hitler's headquarters, and explain why this had occurred.

In and around the Swedish border there are a large number of rivers which run parallel to each other, in a southwesterly direction toward the Baltic. The squadron commander had followed the wrong one. The correct river was actually on the border, but the squadron commander didn't pinpoint it.

The commander led the squadron quite a ways into Swedish territory, "in blissful ignorance, sailing over the natives of a dozen villages in their Sunday best, as if on a ceremonial fly-past," said Col. Herrmann. The commander didn't realize his mistake until he was over the Baltic.

The report submitted by Col. Herrmann explained that his squadron commander was a top-notch navigator. The official maps he had been given were wrong because the magnetic variation was erroneously charted by as much as 30 degrees due to iron-ore deposits at the Swedish border. Col. Herrmann went on to say that his pilots needed more up-to-date charts immediately to prevent further border violations.

General Stumpf was happy about the explanation and said that Col. Herrmann's report could be transmitted to the Swedes without comment.

We don't know whether Col. Herrmann's squadron commander had difficulty reading the map or if the map itself was defective. He was successful, however, in convincing his boss the map was wrong.

VFR navigation important skill

This anecdote points out the need for chart reading and pilotage skills even for instrument-rated pilots. While administering flight reviews, I've found a number of pilots who've became lost in VMC when asked to find their way to a point 50 miles from their departure airport without the use of any avionics. This is an example of deteriorating skills due to the lack of proficiency.

Many of the instrument-rated pilots I've flown with either don't carry VFR charts or the ones they do carry are very much out-of-date. The oldest Sectional chart I noted in one pilot's flight bag was vintage l970. VFR charts become very important following an electrical or avionics failure, since current charts depict obstructions we need to know about. An FAA ramp check could also result in some embarrassing moments if up-to-date charts aren't aboard.

Tragedy could have been averted

The wisdom of carrying and referring to VFR charts was never so apparent as in the following tragic accident that involved a CFI who had recently arrived in the LA Basin from the East Coast, filed an IFR flight plan for a night flight via airways to a controlled airport, only 12 miles from his departure airport. After takeoff, he was vectored by ATC and because of traffic wasn't allowed to join his flight planned airway. He accepted the vectors (as many of us do) and maintained the altitude assigned by ATC.

Unfortunately, the controllers lost track of the flight and the CFI flew into a mountain while in IMC. Traffic saturation, controller workload, and other errors played a part in the accident.

The message here is loud and very clear. We must never forget for an instant, that by regulation the pilot-in-command in always responsible and the final authority for the safe operation of his/her aircraft. Having heard that phrase ricocheting through reams of accident reports, I came to the conclusion many years ago that any PIC who accepts a vector and altitude assignment had better know for certain that it's safe and will clear any and all obstructions along the way.

En route and terminal IFR and VFR charts should be reviewed to make this determination. If there's ever the slightest doubt, ATC should be made aware of your concerns and any alternate route and/or altitude should be requested which will avoid obstructions. If you can't raise ATC, as PIC you're obligated to fly the route and altitude you've deemed as safe. Had the CFI in the accident exercised his authority, he could have declared an emergency (in the blind if necessary) informing ATC he was joining his planned route at the airway MEA.

An NTSB enforcement action against a flight instructor who flew below minimum altitudes over a congested area and entered class B airspace without an ATC clearance is a lack of situational awareness which is being forcibly brought to our attention. Present technology provides ATC with a menu of detection methods that have been the demise of pilots who have either intentionally or unintentionally failed to comply with the rules to obtain ATC clearances before entering class B airspace.

Here's what happened and how the NTSB reached it's conclusions:

A 300-hour CFI was ferrying an airplane to an airport with an operating control tower about 12 miles from her departure airport. She was very familiar with the area because she conducted traffic reporting flights every morning. The CFI claimed that prior to her departure the reported weather was VFR. After she departed and was about eight miles from her destination, she claimed that both radios were inoperative. At this time she observed snow showers ahead, turned away from the weather and descended in order to remain VFR.

Less than five minutes after takeoff, the CFI made contact with her destination airport control tower. The tower had also been contacted by approach control in an effort to identify an aircraft operating VFR in class B airspace. The tower controller told approach that he believed he had established contact with the target.

The approach controller asked the tower to instruct the pilot to squawk a discrete transponder code and make an immediate left turn. All incoming traffic on final had to be diverted as a result of the pilot's incursion. The CFI followed the tower's instructions without any radio or navigation equipment problems, and was identified by approach as the target. Radar data established the pilot's altitude as low as 700 feet in class B airspace and over residential areas adjacent to the airport.

The NTSB found the CFI could have returned to her departure airport without any problem when the weather deteriorated toward her destination airport. Her unauthorized incursion into class B airspace and her descent below minimum altitudes in a congested area were a direct result of her imprudent decision not return to her departure airport.

The Board also found that her violations didn't occur because of her momentary inability to make contact with the tower at her destination, nor was she forced to enter Class B airspace because of the snow showers she faced if she proceeded directly to her destination.

The Board reminds us the FARs permit deviation from Part 91 only to the extent required to meet an emergency. No emergency existed in this case, except one of the pilot's own making. The CFI was sanctioned for violating three FARs that included carelessness, low flying over a congested area, and entering class B airspace without an ATC clearance. Her commercial certificate was suspended for 45 days, which automatically invalidated her CFI certificate for the same period.

NDB approaches

While I haven't seen anything official on the Air Force B-737 accident in Dubrovnik, which occurred during an NDB approach in IMC, I would like to offer some comments to stress the extreme importance of situational awareness during instrument approaches. This is never more important than when an NDB is the primary navaid.

We must be aware of the effects of electrical disturbances, thunderstorms, precipitation static, mountain and shore/coastal effects on the accuracy of NDB indications. Whether these disturbances affected this accident is not yet known. If they had no effect and there were no aircraft equipment failures, the question remains why they crashed 1.8 miles from the final approach course centerline.

If the aircraft was equipped with an RMI, the procedure to remain on centerline would have been to fly a heading to maintain the head of the ADF needle on the inbound final approach course. In so doing, the drift would be managed and the centerline maintained well within the minimums established for the approach. When in doubt in this situation, execute the missed and proceed to your alternate.

Some basic rules

Keep in mind the following when preparing for NDB approaches in IMC:

  • Tracking procedures must be practiced periodically to maintain proficiency.

  • Carefully reset non-slaved heading indicators before beginning the approach.

  • When drift is noted, turn into the head of the needle (inbound) twice the number of degrees that the needle is displaced. Hold this heading until the ADF needle is the same number of degrees off the nose as the HI is from the inbound course. Then, turn back to the inbound bearing and crab if the ADF needle moves off the nose.

  • When outbound, the same procedure is used, except the head of the needle is on the tail.

  • Whenever a destination has only an NDB instrument procedure, an airport with ILS and/or VOR approaches should be planned as an alternate.

When only an NDB approach is available, a good rule is to make just one pass and then proceed to an alternate airport if the runway environment is not in sight at minimums. Additional approaches might lead to a tendency to go just a little bit lower. Don't do it, it has resulted in many fatal accidents.