Say Again? #46: When Things Go Wrong

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To get your IFR clearance at a non-towered field, you could call Flight Service or the local Center RCO, but you know you're gonna get a delay waiting for some arrival to cancel IFR. Just launch VFR and pick up your IFR clearance in the air, right? AVweb's Don Brown knows it isn't always that easy -- or safe -- for pilots and for controllers.

Say Again?

I spend an awful lot of time trying to explain how the system is supposed to work. Those explanations are often at odds with what people have experienced first-hand. This leaves a lot of people confused. It just leaves me frustrated.

But no matter how conscientious we are, things can and do go wrong. As a matter of fact, I bet at least some minor detail "goes wrong" on virtually every flight. I thought we'd take a look at some of the more common situations and explore some strategies to overcome them.

Leaping Before Looking

One of the most common "problems" these days is IFR flights departing VFR and trying to pick up a clearance. We've had this discussion before, so I'll limit myself to saying that there is no substitute for getting your clearance while you're still on the ground. That's the way the system is supposed to work.

As many of you know, current events and many controllers encourage pilots to depart VFR and then get their clearance after they are airborne. It's simply expedient. Usually.

"Atlanta Center, Lear three four five six seven is off Wilkesboro [UKF] requesting clearance to Dayton [DAY]."

"Lear three four five six seven, Atlanta Center, uh ... roger, stand by."

You know the routine: I slide over to look at the flight strips in the proposal bay to find the flight plan and I find ... nothing?

"Lear three four six five seven, Atlanta Center, I don't have a strip on you; stand by while I check the computer."

There isn't any real sense in a controller making a transmission like this but it's human nature to do so. We're just preparing you for (possibly) bad news and stalling for time while we check for some common mistakes. The controller will type the aircraft callsign into the computer and check to see what's there. Sometimes the flight is early and the strip hasn't printed yet. If that doesn't work, he'll look back at his proposals and see if he has a strip on any airplane that has filed UKF to DAY. Yes, sometimes the flight plan gets filed for the wrong airplane. Especially if it's a corporation with a large fleet. Then again, sometimes the flight plan just isn't there.

Bad News

"Lear three four five six seven, Atlanta Center, I can't find a flight plan on you."

Now what, Ollie? The first thing to happen is you'll have a hundred questions pop into your head. What happened to the flight plan? What went wrong? How am I going to get a clearance?

What needs to happen is you need to redirect your mind away from the questions and assess the situation. Quickly. First and foremost, fly the airplane. As the old saying goes: Aviate, Navigate, and then Communicate. The tendency is to start communicating first. Again, you have a hundred questions running through your brain and it's just human nature to start verbalizing them. It's true for the controller, too. The controller might want to know where you filed your flight plan and when. It's easy to get distracted. Don't.

If you're in good VFR then stay that way. If you aren't, you're in trouble. The sooner you recognize that fact, the easier it is to keep from making the situation any worse. If possible, I'd recommend you turn around and go back to the airport. You don't have to land. You don't even have to descend. But that airport represents your best alternative if things get ugly. I don't care if you're flying the biggest gas-guzzler in the sky -- keep that airport in sight. Don't leave a guaranteed placed to land VFR behind you. It will take a few minutes to sort all this out.

Staying Close

There's another reason I recommend staying near the airport. You already have this controller's attention. If you get too far away, you'll get into another controller's airspace. That means you'll have to start all over again and explain your plight to another controller. That is going to take even more time. By the way, that goes for altitude, too. If you keep climbing (especially in a jet), you may get into another controller's airspace and complicate the situation.

There are a dozen other variables I could write about but let's proceed to solving the problem. The first and easiest solution is to simply file with the controller you're talking to. If you're lucky, as soon as the controller finds out there isn't a flight plan he'll offer to file one for you on the spot. Keep in mind that a controller has to turn this ...

(81 Kb)
Flight Plan Form (click for larger version)

... into this ...

If you'll notice, those forms closely follow each other. This is the information the controller will need:

  1. Full aircraft identification - N34567
  2. Aircraft type/special equipment - LR36/G
  3. True Airspeed - 420 kt.
  4. The departure point and proposed time are obvious so you can omit them.
  5. Cruising Altitude - FL310
  6. Route of Flight - UKF..HMV..FLM.KEKEE2
  7. Destination - DAY

Those are the items a controller needs to process your flight plan to other controllers (via the computer) and issue a clearance. It's helpful if you can read them off -- in order -- straight off your flight plan form.

Once that is accomplished, the controller will need some of the additional information listed on the form:

  1. Fuel on board
  2. Color of your aircraft
  3. Home Base (often referred to as where you are "on file")
  4. Souls on Board (the number of people on the flight)

This is usually referred to as the "search-and-rescue information."

Ifs and Buts

If the controller offers to do all this for you, consider yourself lucky. If he doesn't offer, you can ask. If he says, "No," you've got more decisions to make.

If you are sure you can remain VFR, you can continue on your way. The controller might offer you VFR advisories but he probably won't. VFR advisories cause almost as much work as an air-file (in a Center, at least). If the controller is too busy to put in an IFR flight plan, he probably isn't going to have time to put in a VFR. Again, you can ask, but don't be surprised if the answer is, "No."

What now? Flight Service to the rescue. Whether you land, circle the airport or proceed on course, you can call FSS and file another flight plan. The only trick is deciding where (at what point) you are going to pick up the flight plan once you get it filed. If you're still around your original departure point it isn't a problem. If you choose to proceed en route you'll need to choose a point to pick up the flight plan.

The point you pick will (of course) be determined by how long it takes you to file and how fast you go. I recommend you pick a VOR (or a radial/DME fix from a VOR) to file from. That will alert the controller down the road (where you plan on getting an IFR clearance) that you'll be picking up the clearance while you're en route. If you file from an airport, everybody thinks you're departing from that airport.

What's The Frequency?

Which brings us to another minor problem: altitude. Let's say you were going to pick up the clearance at HMV (Holston Mountain, Tenn.) If you're at 10,000 or below, you'll need to call Tri-Cities Approach on 134.42 for a clearance. If you're above 10,000 you'll need to call Atlanta Center on 132.9. Or 134.55 or 132.62 or 127.85. You see, HMV sits in the corner of the Spring Sector (132.9). Ten miles east, south or west of it and you're in someone else's airspace. And you're not sitting still anymore. It doesn't take long for an airplane to travel 10 miles.

I'm not trying to confuse you or aggravate you. And we'll talk more about finding the correct frequency in a moment. What I want you to see right now is how complicated all this has become. I'm over halfway through this article and I'm still talking about "What Ifs" for one situation. Imagine how complicated this would get if you departed an airport under Class B airspace and the controller didn't have your flight plan.

Is it really worth taking the chance? Yes, I know it's easier. Yes, I know it works out fine 90+ percent of the time. And yes, I know your local controllers probably encourage the practice. All I want you to do is weigh the positives and the negatives because some of the negatives might be bigger than you ever imagined.

Lost in the Ether

Another common problem is getting lost out there in radio-land. It happens hundreds of times a day. It seems like there is a new way to get lost on the radio every day. Pilots dial in the wrong frequency. Controllers issue the wrong frequency. The newest craze is pilots that forget to check in. It used to be that if a pilot didn't check in a controller would call the previous controller and remind him to switch the airplane. That was the most common mistake (a controller forgetting to switch the airplane) so that was our first course of action. Lately (for some reason that is a mystery to me) pilots just forget to check in. My first course of action now is to call and say, "Hey, are you out there?"

Going back to the previous problem, I once had a pilot who requested a clearance and his flight plan wasn't in the system. He was flying a jet. I was too busy to take an air-file so I sent him over to Flight Service and he proceeded on his way because it was great VFR weather. About 10 minutes later he called and requested his clearance.

Ten minutes is an eternity in air traffic control. I had no idea who this guy was. Maybe this concept needs a little explanation. Aircraft callsigns are stored in a controller's short-term memory. Some controllers are better at remembering them than others, but most of us "dump" the callsign from our memory as soon as we're done with them. In other words, if we haven't had something to jog our memory about the callsign (like a data block or a strip) in the last two minutes, we've probably forgotten the callsign already. Not to mention, after 10 minutes a new controller could have taken over the position.

Anyway, after we played "20 Questions," I remembered who this guy was and the fact that his flight plan was missing. What I couldn't figure out was why he was calling me. He'd been en route for around 10 minutes (and climbing) so he was way outside of my airspace. I couldn't issue him a clearance even if I wanted to. I don't "own" the airspace he was in. I asked him his current location and altitude and finally got him to the correct frequency.

It's Called Service

If this pilot had been thinking (instead of trying to play catch up), he would have asked Flight Service (with whom he was filing his flight plan) for the correct frequency to pick up his clearance. Therein lies a lesson in case you ever find yourself lost in radio land: Flight Service can find the correct frequency for you.

Let's look at the AIM -- Chapter 4, Section 3 -- En Route Procedures:

5-3-1. ARTCC Communications

c. ARTCC Radio Frequency Outage.

While this section is dealing with a specific situation (the Center losing a frequency) it can give you some hints about how to find the correct frequency if you ever find yourself lost on the radio.

"1. If two-way communications cannot be established with the ARTCC after changing frequencies, a pilot should attempt to recontact the transferring controller for the assignment of an alternative frequency or other instructions."

Everybody (hopefully) knows this one. If you find yourself on the wrong frequency (or on one that doesn't work) go back to the last one that did work. Keep in mind, that controller is not expecting you on his frequency so you need to say something to clue him in.

"Atlanta Center, N12345, unable to contact Center on 132.9."

Or if you're really lost, plain language is just fine.

"Hey Center, this is N12345. I don't know what frequency I'm supposed to be on. Can you help me out?"

That'll get some attention. You'll need to be able to tell the controller your position and altitude, so be ready to answer the question when it's asked.

Collect Call for Anybody

"2. When an ARTCC radio frequency failure occurs after two-way communications have been established, the pilot should attempt to reestablish contact with the center on any other known ARTCC frequency ..."

In a pinch, contact anybody. Trust me, you won't be the first one. We'll find out where you need to be. It may take a while, but we'll find out. And last but certainly not least ...

"If communications cannot be reestablished by either method, the pilot is expected to request communications instructions from the FSS appropriate to the route of flight."

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Flight Service is a tremendous asset. Use it. (I hope I can still say that after the FAA contracts them out.) If you don't know how to contact FSS, that is in the AIM also:

4-2-14. Communications for VFR Flights

Yes, I see that it says, "VFR Flights," but we're talking about when things go wrong. Besides, this is the part I want you to see:

"If you are in doubt as to what frequency to use, 122.2 MHz is assigned to the majority of FSSs as a common en route simplex frequency."

You'll need to read the whole paragraph so you'll know what to say to Flight Service (hint: they need to know where you are) but if you're lost on the radio (or just lost) that's the one frequency you want to remember.

Well, there is another ...

When Things Really Go Wrong

The one frequency every pilot should have tattooed on their brain is 121.5. For those who really aren't paying attention, that is the emergency frequency. If you're using it then you'd better have an urgent situation or a real emergency.

Distress and urgency communications are discussed in the AIM in Section 6-3-1. While we are here there are a few things I want you to notice. First, this is in contained in Chapter 6 -- Emergency Procedures. The next thing I want you to notice is Section 6-4 -- Two-Way Radio Communications Failure. See that? Radio communication failure procedures are in the emergency chapter of the AIM. If you've never actually read this chapter then you need to stop whatever it is that you're doing -- right now -- and read it. The whole chapter.

While you're reading, I hope you'll notice this in 6-3-1:

"h. Although the frequency in use or other frequencies assigned by ATC are preferable, the following emergency frequencies can be used for distress or urgency communications, if necessary or desirable:

1. 121.5 MHz and 243.0 MHz. Both have a range generally limited to line of sight. 121.5 MHz is guarded by direction finding stations and some military and civil aircraft. 243.0 MHz is guarded by military aircraft. Both 121.5 MHz and 243.0 MHz are guarded by military towers, most civil towers, FSSs, and radar facilities. Normally ARTCC emergency frequency capability does not extend to radar coverage limits. If an ARTCC does not respond when called on 121.5 MHz or 243.0 MHz, call the nearest tower or FSS."

First, 121.5 is sort-of the "frequency of last resort." Even if you're in a full-blown emergency situation we (controllers) would rather handle you on one of our normal frequencies. One reason for that (and the second thing I want you to notice) is that not all Center sectors have access to 121.5. It said, "Normally ARTCC emergency frequency capability does not extend to radar coverage limits." All Centers have access to 121.5 but not all the sectors. This is sort-of a side issue for this article but it's an important one so I wanted to mention it.

Back to the main issue: If all else fails -- if all the other options have failed -- somebody (Center, Tower, FSS or even other airplanes) is always listening on 121.5. Use it if you must.

Stay Put

At the risk of flogging this horse further, I want to close by going back to the beginning. You never know what words will flip the switch and make the light bulb come on for folks. I want you to focus on the process. I want you to think about how this system is designed.

If you're on the ground and you call FSS for your clearance, what happens if your flight plan isn't on file? The process just stops. You don't have to decide -- right this second -- if you can proceed VFR. You don't have to try and fly your airplane while you're searching for your flight plan, trying to get the controller to put another one in for you or search for another frequency to file and pick up your clearance. As a bonus, you're already talking to the people (FSS) who can put another flight plan in for you.

Even if you call the Center while you're still on the ground, the result is the same. You're on terra firma. There are no safety considerations or workload issues that have to be decided instantly. You see, the process -- the system -- protects the controller, too. The controller doesn't have to decide -- instantly -- if he can fit you in with his current workload. It gives him time to think.

It's this type of well-thought-out process that keeps this system the safest in the world. The depth of the system -- the redundancies, the back ups, the flexibility -- allows us make it work even when people shortcut those processes. Or even when things go wrong.

Have a safe flight.

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


Want to read more from air traffic controller Don Brown? Check out the rest of his columns.