Say Again? #29: Leaf Peepers (And Other Strange Critters)

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It's October, and the Leaf Peepers are out. Not some kind of birds -- they're folks flying around looking for fall colors. Wonderful way to spend the day -- and AVweb's Don Brown has a few suggestions when you want VFR traffic advisories for something other than a trip from Point A to Point B.

Say Again?

What's not to like about October? It's my favorite month of the year. I don't know what it's like in your neck of the woods but here in the Southeast it's just about perfect. Cool nights, warm days and the sky: the crystal-clear, beautiful, blue sky.

They're the kind of days that are perfect for flying. And any excuse will do. Not that people need one, mind you. But one of the best is the fall foliage. The leaf peepers (including me) come out in droves. It can turn into quite an airshow.

Speaking of which ... what is it with all you people who run air shows? Why do you hold all the air shows in the summer? It's hot. It's muggy. The sky is hazy. Do you think folks really want to walk around all day in 90-degree heat and no shade? Doesn't a day in the 70s with a light breeze and a blue, blue sky sound a lot more appealing? And another thing: Can you pick an airport where the spectators can face north, with the sun at their backs? Work on that for me, will you?

Sorry about that. I just had to get that off my chest. I love air shows. I hate summer. Where were we? Oh yeah, a different kind of air show.

Lazy Loops Lookin' at the Landscape

As most of you know, the airspace I work includes the Blue Ridge Mountains. During October, the leaves reach their peak. It leads to some strange situations and that's what I want to talk about this month.

Normally when we get a request for VFR advisories it's from a pilot headed to some specific destination. Contrast that with someone who is flying around just to look at the fall foliage. Straight line verses random. Steady altitude verses random altitude changes. When you're thinking from a controller's perspective, it's quite a switch. As a matter of fact, once you start thinking through the process, everything is different.

"Atlanta Center, Skyhawk 12345 requesting VFR traffic advisories."

"Skyhawk 12345, Atlanta Center, squawk 3247 and go ahead."

"Atlanta Center, N12345, is 4 miles northwest of HKY leaving three thousand two hundred climbing to four thousand five hundred."

"Skyhawk 12345, Atlanta Center, radar contact five miles northwest of HKY. Say destination?"

Here's where it gets difficult. I'm sure our Tower brethren hear the term "local" every VFR day. Center controllers don't. Your destination is probably going to be the same airport you took off from, but that's not really what the controller needs to know in this case, is it? What he needs to know is where you are going.

By now, y'all are familiar with my penchant for quoting "the book." Unfortunately, the book can't cover every specific situation. This is one of them. When all else fails, plain language will have to do.

"Atlanta Center, Skyhawk 12345, we're just out sightseeing. We're going to fly up around Grandfather Mountain and look at the leaves."

"Skyhawk 12345, Atlanta Center, roger, maintain VFR."

It should be that simple -- at least for you, the pilot. Center controllers who don't work VFRs very often might be scratching their heads. Grandfather Mountain is up near Tri-Cities Approach Control's (TRI) boundary. Do I put the flight plan in so that TRI gets a strip or do I just keep the plane in my airspace? Let us worry about that -- you go enjoy the leaves.

I know what some of you are thinking: "Why would I want to listen to ATC yak at airplanes while I'm trying to enjoy the scenery?" Good question. There are a lot of people who feel that way. I mean -- a lot of them. I see them every fall. They're out there flying willy-nilly through the sky squawking 1200 and having a grand ol' time (I suppose).

There's nothing wrong with that, of course. It's perfectly legal. It's even relatively safe. It's got to be at least as safe as riding a motorcycle down the Blue Ridge Parkway, anyway. Some of you probably expect me to have some kind of recommendation about which is better, but I don't. Truth be told, we couldn't work all of the VFRs that are out there. So if you don't want the hassle of talking to ATC, don't.

Advisory Procedures

For those of you who think the extra safety margin is worth the (hopefully small) hassle, there are some things that we need to discuss. At the risk of repeating myself, I want to walk through the process of the initial contact for VFR advisories. Even if you're a high-time pilot, I hope you'll read this section carefully. It makes things so much more efficient when we're all on the same page.

You knew I couldn't stay out of "the book" for long. Let's start on this page.

Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM)

4-1-14. Radar Traffic Information Service

b. Provisions of the Service

1. Many factors -- such as limitations of the radar, volume of traffic, controller workload and communications frequency congestion -- could prevent the controller from providing this service. Controllers possess complete discretion for determining whether they are able to provide or continue to provide this service in a specific case. The controller's reason against providing or continuing to provide the service in a particular case is not subject to question nor need it be communicated to the pilot ...

I don't know of any other paragraph that is phrased so strongly regarding a controller's discretion to carry out their duties. The reason I'm bringing it up at this point is to highlight one particularly important phrase: "communications frequency congestion."

As I stated earlier, when the leaves are at their peak, there are an unbelievable number of VFRs cruising the mountains. The sheer volume is a given. The limiting factor now becomes frequency congestion. This phraseology example from the AIM for your initial contact is still the best in my opinion.

4-2-3. Contact Procedures

a. Initial Contact.

"Miami Center, Baron Five Six Three Hotel, request V-F-R traffic advisories."

I want you to get into the controller frame of mind for a second so you can see how important is the seemingly simple act of requesting VFR advisories. Let's walk through a couple of examples of how it's routinely done "wrong" to demonstrate what I mean.

In the Controller's Seat

You're the controller, and you're busy. Actually, you're in over your head already. You don't have time for one more airplane, and then you hear:

"Atlanta Center, November 12345."

Is that a VFR or an IFR? Is it somebody you're already working? Is it someone on the ground requesting clearance? You've already wasted 15 seconds (that you don't have to spare) trying to answer those questions as you search vainly for a data block or a strip that matches that callsign.

I know many pilots use this "technique" to get the controller's "attention" so they don't have to repeat themselves. Well, they've got your attention now. I'm not so sure that they're going to want it but they've got your attention. One other thing I want you to note: Consider the position this puts you in as a controller. You've got two options: You can ignore the call (not very likely and possibly detrimental) or you can answer:

"November 12345, Atlanta Center, go ahead."

"Atlanta Center this is Cessna November 12345 ... we're a Skyhawk ... a Cessna 172 slant uniform ... we're on a VFR local flight ... we're about 10 miles southwest of Lower Creek ... our current heading is 280 ... we're at 3,700 and climbing to 6,500 ... we're headed over to Mt. Mitchell for some sightseeing and we were wondering if you've got time to give us some traffic advisories?"

How about it? Do you think that even if you could find the time to work him that you would want to with the level of traffic you're already working? Do you see how a poor communication "technique" has cost you precious seconds that you don't have to waste? Here's another good example of a time waster:

"Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345, request."

Again, you search vainly for a data block or strip on somebody that you're working. But it's just another VFR requesting advisories. It's just another pilot who's going to get a one-word answer. "Unable." But only after you've wasted the time of having to listen to yet another version of the phraseology above.

Let's see what happens when they do it "by the book."

"Atlanta Center, Baron Five Six Three Hotel, request VFR traffic advisories."

"Baron Five Six Three Hotel, Atlanta Center, unable advisories at this time."

Do you see how much time that saves? I know, you're thinking, "Yeah, but they still didn't get any advisories," but what I want you to focus on is the procedure for a moment. When the pilot does it right, the controller isn't searching around the scope and the strip bay trying to find the flight plan. You know right upfront that you don't have one. You don't have to listen to a bunch of flight-plan information that you don't have time for (at the moment) and the frequency isn't blocked for the 30 seconds that it takes to relay that information.

I still haven't convinced some of you, have I? How about this: It's two minutes later; three pilots have terminated their advisories, and two others have canceled IFR. You're still busy but you think you can handle another VFR safely. Which pilot will you call up first and offer advisories? The one who did it right the first time.

Peeping Hazards

Now that we have that out of the way, let's look at what's different about these types of VFR operations. As I said earlier, controllers are used to aircraft flying in straight lines. When we scan for traffic under normal circumstances and we see that another VFR is going to pass behind you by a good five miles or so, we move on to the next item. That habit will reach out and bite us when dealing with a VFR that is sightseeing. When that VFR makes an unexpected 360-degree turn, the aircraft we have discounted as a possible threat all of a sudden becomes a factor.

If you're a normal VFR (not leaf-peeping) receiving advisories and all of a sudden you make a 360-degree turn without advising ATC, the controller working you is probably going to get a little testy. Controllers don't like surprises. But if you're sightseeing, it's somewhat expected. Just because it's expected doesn't mean we can break our old habits, though. That's the reason it's a good thing to remember this:

5-5-10. Traffic Advisories (Traffic Information)

a. Pilot.

4. Does not expect to receive radar traffic advisories on all traffic. Some aircraft may not appear on the radar display. Be aware that the controller may be occupied with higher priority duties and unable to issue traffic information for a variety of reasons.

One of those "variety of reasons" is our scanning habits. Unexpected turns are just like unexpected altitude changes. I've covered VFR altitude changes before. If you remember, the AIM says this:

b. Provisions of the Service

Pilots should also inform the controller when changing VFR cruising altitude.

Now, if you're adding this up: Controllers want to know if you're going to have a radical change in heading, and they want to know about any altitude changes, and yet frequency congestion is a big problem. Other factors to think about include: There are a ton of other VFRs doing the same thing you are but not talking to ATC. You're usually down low so radar coverage may be spotty. Not only might ATC lose you on the radar, but any aircraft below radar coverage that is climbing towards you can't be seen until the last second.

Sounds like a mess, doesn't it? It can be. There's no way they can write a rule to cover every conceivable situation. There's no way I can give you any detailed advice to cover a majority of the situations. So I'll do what the FAA does when the situation becomes complex and I'll throw out the "J" word: Judgment. There's simply no substitute for it.

If the sector has four VFRs out sightseeing, and every one of them advises ATC every time they make every turn and/or altitude change, then the frequency is going to quickly become saturated. Keep in mind that VFR advisories are an additional service. The primary service at Centers is to IFR aircraft. If we can't work IFRs because of the frequency congestion caused by VFR traffic then we will refuse additional VFR advisory requests or even start terminating VFR advisories.

You're going to have to use your best judgment in advising ATC about your intentions. You'll have to learn to get along with the controller who is working you at the time, too. There isn't a definition of "sightseeing" in the AIM or 7110.65. If you tell me you're out looking at the leaves, I expect a few turns and altitude changes. Another controller may not.

You can expect some questions too. Because your route of flight won't be defined, controllers are going to have to make some judgment calls as to whether or not to hand you off to another sector/facility. We might need to know if you're going any further north or if you're going to climb any higher.

Controllers might not know where you're going even when you tell them. It's doubtful you'll be going to the Sugarloaf VOR to see the leaves (although I bet they're pretty there, too). But the controller might not know where Linville Gorge, Little Switzerland or Max's Patch are. Center controllers don't work the same little chunk of airspace every day like Approach controllers do, and we don't live in the area we work. And -- no -- Lat/Longs won't help either. "Thirty west of SUG VOR" or "Ten southwest of Banner Elk airport" will work.

Sightseeing or Loitering?

I hope some of you have noticed that much of this article will apply to other unusual situations. Like aerial photography. For controllers, aerial photography falls into two categories: aerial mapping and photography. Aerial mapping is a specialty in itself so we'll leave that one alone. If you plan on doing some photography from the air, you might consider getting VFR advisories.

We also have quite a number of pilots who are checking out real estate. Some are looking for a place to buy, some are showing off property to potential clients and some are just looking. In any case, they usually aren't flying to an airport and they have one thing in common. They loiter.

That word holds a new connotation in today's environment, doesn't it? In the post-9/11 world, the simple act of hanging around in one place -- the wrong place -- might earn you some attention that you'd rather not have. Just something else for you to factor in to the equation.

Awww ... I can't let it go that easily. Look, one day you might find yourself in a situation just like this: You're just out enjoying the sights, minding your own business, and an F-15 shows up outside your window. It will be a surprise. You're not doing anything wrong so you won't be expecting it. The adrenaline will kick in. Yours and the fighter pilot's.

Adrenaline isn't conducive to thinking. At least not thinking clearly. It will make you run faster and jump higher but it won't make your brain any smarter. That's what training is all about. Training makes sure that you do the right thing instead of the wrong thing when your brain is screaming at your body to do something -- anything! -- except just sit there. Take a few minutes to train yourself on the intercept procedures. You really don't want to do "the wrong thing" around a guy with a 20mm cannon. AIM -- Section 6 -- National Security and Interception Procedures.

Enough of that unpleasantness. It's October and nothing is going to spoil my good mood. There's one more thing I've got to mention before I wrap this up. By now you are familiar with the fact that I don't like long-winded, non-standard phraseology. When I ask you for a leaf report, please use the following standard phraseology (definitions included):

Light Color: Take your time. It'll be another week or so before the peak.

Moderate Color: The peak is close. This weekend should be good.

Heavy Color: The peak is here. Get up here as soon as you can.

Extreme Color: You can't believe your eyes. Take sick leave for the rest of the day, get in the car right now and come see it. It's the best season in years.

Have a safe (and enjoyable) flight.

Don Brown
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Atlanta ARTCC