Say Again? #34: It’s No Joke

It'd be easy to assume some pilots are just stupid, given the behavior AVweb's Don Brown sometimes sees in his radar screen. But since they've managed to work their way through the FAA certification process, it's more productive to look at the system problems to see why pilots seem to do stupid things.


I had a incident the other night that really bothered me, so (of course) I started looking for a way to work it into a column. When I see something like this incident, I’m ashamed to admit my first reaction is usually somewhat uncharitable. The thought pops into my head that some people are just stupid.Not only is it an uncharitable thought, it’s usually wrong. Not to mention it isn’t very helpful. Most people in aviation aren’t stupid. The hoops we have to jump through to get a position in aviation do a good job of weeding out the truly unintelligent. A few might slip through, but they don’t last. After that logic rattles around in my head awhile, I’m left with the question: Why do smart people do things that look dumb?

In the Dark

There I was, working my favorite sector, WILKES. It was after dark, which means things had calmed down. Most of the business guys were eating their dinner and the daytime VFR folks were hangar flying. One of the surrounding Approach Controls started flashing the handoff on a VFR freighter. The minimum instrument altitude (MIA) for the area where the aircraft would enter my sector was 7,500 MSL. Curiously, this guy’s Mode C was showing 5,500.As every controller knows, the terrain clearance afforded by MIAs in mountainous terrain is 2,000 feet. In that he was headed for some of the biggest mountains in the Blue Ridge, it was definitely mountainous terrain. This is not good.I call up the guys that are handing him off and ask if they’ve said anything to the pilot about the terrain. Nope. That sounds bad right up front, but it deserves a little explanation. The way MIAs are plotted in the Center is different than the minimum altitudes at the Approach Controls. I know less about how they are computed at an Approach Control than I do about the Centers, so I’ll try to stick to the Centers.

MIA Culpa

Our MIAs in the Center cover broad areas. Sometimes really broad: Hundreds and hundreds of square miles. The WILKES sector is a little special in that it’s really nothing but an Approach Control inside a Center and we’ve managed to get the FAA to plot out a large number of relatively small MIAs. But even the smallest area for an MIA is about 10 miles by 10 miles. If there is one peak 5,500 feet high in that area then the MIA is 7,500 feet MSL, right? According to my calculations, anyway.Back to the story. As soon as I take the handoff on this guy, he disappears. That’s rarely a good sign. Fortunately he’s high enough for radio coverage (if not radar coverage) and as soon as he checks in we have a conversation about how low he is and how high the terrain is. The pilot (wisely I think) decides he’ll climb a little.Situation resolved. Another happy ending. But it still bugged me. Why would anyone who has a paying job flying a complex airplane be flying a couple of hundred feet (maybe) above disaster? In the mountains? In the dark?

Where’d It Go?

Maybe I’m just old fashioned or maybe it’s just because I’m not a pilot, but if I’m going to be flying in the mountains in the dark, the only time I want to be within a few hundred feet of the terrain is when I’m on an approach. Preferably an approach that has some instrument or visual guidance. The last time I flew over the mountains in the dark I didn’t see any mountains. I think that was because it was dark.Thinking about this incident reminded me of another one at Asheville, N.C. (AVL). Fortunately I wasn’t working this one, I only got to hear about it. That is one of the “joys” of being a safety rep. You get to hear a lot of the war stories where people got scared.It was on the midnight shift. Asheville Approach was closed for the evening and here comes an airliner into AVL. No big deal. It’s nice VFR. The airliner gets close to AVL, sees the airport and receives clearance for the visual approach.

“Airliner123, radar service terminated 15 southwest of AVL. The ILS runway 34 is up, frequency change approved, report your cancellation this frequency.”

Missed or Messed

No fuss, no muss. The controllers kick back and relax knowing the pilot will call back with a cancellation as soon as he’s on the ground (if not before). They go back to doing whatever it is that controllers do on the midnight shift to keep themselves entertained and awake.After five minutes, the controllers hear,

“Uh … Atlanta Center … uh … Airliner123 is on the … uh … missed approach at AVL.”

Now, instrument rated pilots know there isn’t any missed approach procedure for a visual approach. Controllers know it too. I bet neither party bothered debating the finer points of the rules in this instance, though. The controllers who work this airspace know to expect problems at AVL. You can add two more airline pilots to the list of the “educated” now.What do you think happened? We don’t know, of course. That isn’t something that is going to be discussed on the frequency. Did they find themselves on approach to the interstate? Did the Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) go off? Did the runway disappear behind a mountain? Whatever happened, they decided that shooting the ILS would be a better option.

Chasing Clues

There is one way that we could have learned what happened. You’ve heard me mention it before but it’s been a while so I’ll mention it again: the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System. What I haven’t mentioned is how you might find out if a report was filed on this incident.The data that the NASA ASRS gathers is put into a database. The FAA provides access to this data through the Internet. In that it is the FAA, they don’t make it simple. See if you can follow along.First go to the National Aviation Safety Data Analysis Center. This will dump you onto a “Privacy Notice” informing you that the web site uses “cookies.” You’ll have to click on the “Click Here if you agree” button to access the site. On the next page you will see an icon and a hypertext link for “Databases.” Click on either one. On the next page you will see a hypertext link (second from the top) that says; “Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS)”. Click on that link. Hang in there — we’re almost home.On the next page, you will see (yet another) hypertext link that says, “ASRS Data Query Tool.” Yes, you’ve got it, click on that one. Bingo. You’re there. Now all you have to do is figure out how to search the site.

Doe, A Deer

I know I’m interested in Asheville, so I’ll just go down to the “Airport” selection, choose “Asheville Regional” and click on “Submit.” Goodness gracious. The “Total event count” is 47. I wonder how that compares to say, Hickory, N.C.? I go back and choose “Hickory Regional” and get “Total event count: 21”. Things that make you go “Hmmmm.”If you were to take the time to read through most of these (and no, I don’t expect you to), you’d find several interesting facts and recurring phrases. First, there seems to be a wild animal problem at AVL. I didn’t know that coyotes live around there. I knew about the deer. Second, the words “ZTL” (a.k.a., Atlanta ARTCC) and “night” both come up — usually in the same report. There’s also a lot of “IMC”, “GPWS” and “fog” sprinkled throughout the reports.Alas, I didn’t find anything about a “missed approach” and “visual approach” in the same report. Oh well, I guess we’ll never know what really happened, neither from the controllers nor the pilots. I guess this tale will have to remain in the “war story” file.

Me, A Name

So that this exercise won’t be a total waste of your time … while you’re there, why don’t you plug in your local airport and see what kind of problems exist? And I know this will probably be a little over the top for most of you, but the next time you’re planning a trip to a place you’re not familiar with — and you have a little extra time — consider plugging in the destination and see what you might learn.Yes, I know that only one in a hundred might take the time to do that. I’ll take what I can get. Speaking of which, I do get to see some small successes once every blue moon or so. I’ll hear a controller go back and verify an altitude readback. Or I’ll hear one verifying that the Lat/Long in the flight plan is indeed the fix that the pilot filed. I wish the Lat/Longs weren’t in there but at least controllers are being a little more careful about them.I may be kidding myself but it seems as if I’m seeing a few more airways filed these days, too. It’s not much, but like I said, I’ll take what I can get. I try not to kid myself about it. When I hear the guy across the aisle asking what the Lat/Long for Van Nuys, Calif., is, it’s hard to kid yourself that you’re making much progress.

Fa, A Long, Long Way to Run

I’ve talked about some of the “new” problems that have developed over time. GPS has created a slew of them, mostly with flight data processing. I don’t guess poor radio technique could be considered “new” but we’ve added some new twists. I never knew that so many pilots were into fencing, but I guess I’ll have to add the to my list of problems.I’ve mentioned before that the control room can be rather noisy. Most of that is our own fault (controllers, that is) and we could reduce the distraction by a considerable amount if we’d just work at it. Some of it is caused by the lack of staffing. By now, the phraseology, “Say again, I was on the land line,” is known far and wide. When we had D-sides sitting at every sector, the D-sides took care of a lot of the telephone calls. When we don’t have a D-side, the number of times we say, “Say again, I was on the land line,” goes up.What you probably haven’t thought about is that when a controller is on the land line (i.e., talking to another controller), anything broadcast on the frequency comes out on the speakers. Normally, all controllers wear headsets. The sector frequency is routed through the headset so it doesn’t distract the other folks in the control room. When an outside facility needs to coordinate with a controller, they will call on the “handoff line.” These are special phone lines that are “hot” all the time. No dialing required. Controllers also call them “holler lines.” Maybe we just call them that down here in the South. I don’t know if Yankees “holler.”

La, A Note to Follow So

Anyway, it works like this. You just touch the VSCS (Voice Switching and Control System) screen to select the line you want to use, key your regular microphone, and holler, “Tech two one.” That comes out the speaker at the TECH sector in Washington Center. Whenever the TECH controller gets through doing whatever he’s doing, he’ll pick up the 21 line (all the different lines are numbered) and find out what you want: coordination, a handoff, a pointout or directions to that nightclub you heard about in Manassas.Whenever you have the land line selected, the routing of the line and the frequency reverse. The land line comes through your headset and your regular radio frequency comes out the speaker. So a controller will be coordinating with another controller on the line (“Hey, Flow says you’re supposed to be giving me 15 in-trail to Atlanta”) and at the same time a pilot will call, “Hey Center, Airliner 123 is getting a little light chop, what’s the ride like at twenty eight today?” Because you’re trying to listen to the other controller explain why he’s only giving you 10 miles, the pilot (now coming out the speaker) really comes across like, “Whaaa, la-la, yadayada, whaaa.” You know somebody said something but you’re not sure who said what.Between the controllers calling each other and the pilots coming out the speakers (while the controllers are coordinating) it can get rather distracting. Especially when you get that one controller who thinks you’re sitting there doing nothing but waiting for his call and he starts talking without waiting for you to pick up the line. “Hey SHINE, give 4583 direct no slow and I’ll point him out to the departure guy. J.Y.”Now we have a new problem. There is one frequency we leave in the speaker all the time, the emergency frequency: 121.5 and 243.0. That way, if anyone has an emergency, everyone hears the “Mayday” come out the speaker. That gets everyone’s attention in the control room (even the supervisor’s) and we’ll listen to hear the “who-what-where” to see if we’re needed, if we might be involved or if we need to keep some airplanes out of a certain sector.The problem started after 9/11. Lots of pilots, especially airliners, take seriously the recommendation to monitor 121.5 in case of military intercept. Unfortunately, that means a lot more people accidently transmitting on that “guard” frequency, and other pilots then jump in to remind them.So you’re sitting there at the sector, on the land line, trying to work out an altitude swap and miss the guy on the crazy vector for the 30 miles intrail to O’Hare 400 miles from the airport, and you hear some pilot coming out the speaker, “Whaa, whaa, la-la, yadayada, wa wa.” Good grief, Charlie Brown. I’ve been in bars that weren’t this noisy.

En Garde!

The next thing you know you’re in the middle of a fencing match. The way I figure it, while Congress was debating about letting pilots carry guns, the pilots took matters into their own hands. They took up fencing. You can hear them practicing on 121.5 all day long.”En garde!” “En garde!” Funny thing is, I haven’t heard “Touch” once.That sure was a long way to run for one lousy joke. Oh well. What can I say? Safety reps aren’t known for their sense of humor. We tend to dwell on serious problems while trying to keep in mind that it’s often the “trivial” problems that prove to be our undoing.

Which Brings Us Back

Right now, the “serious” problem I’m working on is a vicious rumor I heard (from someone who ought to know) that many of the MIAs in Atlanta Center were charted using the “non-precipitous” terrain rule. I had never heard of such a rule (which isn’t surprising, in that I haven’t been to TERPS school), but supposedly that means some of our MIAs only provide 1,500 ft. of terrain separation. That would add a whole other dimension to the VFR freighter 2,000 ft. below the MIA, wouldn’t it?I hadn’t given a thought to an airplane hitting a deer on the runway until I spent some time researching the problems we are having at Asheville on the midnight shift. Trivial? There might not be much I can do about it, but I bet most pilots don’t consider it trivial. With no more flying than I’ve done, I remember almost hitting a dog just after touchdown in London, Ky., at two in the morning.If you ever find yourself off the runway after dodging some critter and in a ditch at some abandoned airport, knowing that virtually every airliner in the country is “on guard” on 121.5 might be just the piece of trivia you need to save your bacon. Those antennas they have at 35,000 feet can reach a lot of places that ATC’s radios can’t.

Dumb Vs. Stupid

So take the time to read some of those NASA ASRS reports. Take the time to fill out an ASRS report yourself the next time you do something “dumb.” Sign up for the ASRS’s “Callback” and take the time to read them. You never know what you might learn.And one more thing: Be charitable when you read them. The people who took the time to write them aren’t dumb. Don’t think that it could never happen to you. We all make mistakes. We’d only be stupid if we didn’t take the time to learn from them.Have a safe flight.

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