They Shall Not Pass

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It might’ve been old flight-school technology, but the unsung weather tool, HIWAS, is no more. The NOTAM announcing its passing read like a heartless obituary: “…outlet decommissioned Jan 8, 2020-permanent.” Permanent. So cold for a reliable friend that, frankly, few of us understood. HIWAS means (meant), Hazardous In-Flight Weather…um, something, something; its purpose in life to broadcast impending meteorological doom over a scratchy VOR frequency, back when pilots used VORs. While vexing to student pilots and quaint to anyone with Foreflight, test-makers must’ve loved HIWAS.

Those who ask, “Why do we have to know this stuff?” face the unassailable retort, “Because it might be on the exam.” I’ve memorized (and taught) buckets of useless stuff just because. The Treaty of Westphalia, for instance, was signed in 1648, so on a flight review I expect pilots to regurgitate that nugget, because that’s what testing is all about:  Information in and information out with marginal applicability. Passing a written exam proves that you can pass an exam and not that you can think or fly.

Airspace is an ideal testing subject, because no one understands all the minutiae baked inside that regulatory babka. Many pretend to, but sub-clauses dependent upon altitude or a control tower’s operating hours will torque any brain. Instrument pilots tend to ignore airspace labels, because once ATC says, “Cleared to…” you plow through whatever airspace is in the way with near impunity.

Years ago, VFR students memorized airspace terms such as Positive Control Area (PCA), Terminal Control Area (TCA) and Airport Radar Service Area (ARSA). In 1993 these descriptors were relegated to the Smithsonian’s Airspace Museum in exchange for soulless Classes A, B and C, respectively. Class D airspace replaced Airport Traffic Areas. Class E (General Controlled Airspace) was, and remains, a generally vague expanse of semi-controlled sky with unenforceable cloud clearance rules. As for F? Fuggetaboutit in the USA. And G, the class clown of airspace, was once labeled, “Uncontrolled,” as though an exasperated FAA threw up its figurative hands during a pilot/regulator conference and sighed, “We cannot control this! Beyond here be dragons…”

As complicated as airspace was prior to 1993, no one had ADS-B, so scofflaws could get away with transgressions provided they kept their mouths shut, a skill many of us mastered in the Army. ATC might’ve seen your radar target penetrating TCAs, but unless you called, you’d likely avoid getting pinched. Case in point: Decades ago, while an air traffic controller in California, I was subpoenaed to testify inside a federal courtroom where a pilot was being stretched on the rack for violating the San Francisco TCA (now Class B).

Although guilty, he would’ve escaped apprehension but made the rookie mistake of calling Monterey Approach, where I’d been working radar: “…20 north, landing Monterey.” I knew nothing of his airspace intrusion 65 miles away. Not that it mattered, because when I identified the aircraft (“Squawk 0402, ident…”), Oakland Center, who’d been tracking the violator, saw the squawk change and called me, asking, “Who’s that?” Busted! Call the tower, please.

If you visit the Old Controllers Home in Oklahoma City on Open Mic Night (Thursdays 2100-2300Z), you’ll catch retired air traffic controllers well into their kombuchas, regaling ATC cadets with tales of making pilots, “Call the tower,” for (pause) “busting my ARSA!” Killer material at the home.

Today, we’re tracked from cradle to tomb beneath ADS-B’s all-seeing eye of Sauron. It knows our every move and impure thought. Yeah, it makes aviation safer-ish, but I miss some of the old ways. This is where I lean back in my CFI rocking chair, strike a wooden match and relighting my corncob hookah, tell about the time HIWAS saved my arsa.

It was a warm midwestern day with towering CUs building to the west, while I was in the pattern with a student at an “uncontrolled” airport, 20 miles east of my home base. The approaching wall expanded with each downwind leg, so I tuned in HIWAS and caught a warning of severe thunderstorms moving east with hail the size of kumquats, “Contact Flight Watch for details.” Terminating the lesson, I climbed into my Aeronca Champ for the 20-minute flight home and toward those cumulo-anvils, taunting me like bulls smack-talking Pamplona’s dumbest runner.

In-flight weather radar wasn’t an option, but Flight Watch (EFAS or Enroute Flight Advisory Service) was. On 122.0 MHz (below FL180) pilots received one-on-one airborne weather briefings from real humans. Problem was, in crappy weather every pilot wanted in first, but without calling, you could listen to the briefer describing the offending weather to others on the frequency and glean what you needed.

Any forecast hides the caveat that weather can turn sour, and when that happens, I’ll take whatever help is available, including full retreat. While nosing toward that squall line, it was a distant FSS voice describing what he saw on radar, that allowed me to determine that the approaching line–although ugly–was far enough away and sliding northeast, so I could continue without any “There I was” bravado.

Although I fly old, minimally equipped airplanes in defiance of cyber enlightenment, I always want an escape route, because the art of bumbling into weather is as old as Odysseus washing ashore on the Isle of Best Intentions (1168 BCE). Humans displaying the hubris to leave the earth face that which is bigger than our egos and contains no sympathy for failure.

As archaic terms such as Flight Watch, HIWAS and Mooney fade from memory they should also drop from exams. Although, Mooney always holds surprises. Here’s a tip for check ride prep. Be familiar with TRSA (Terminal Radar Service Area), old-school airspace that exists solely to stump overly confident pilot candidates who dare think they know more than the examiner.

Now, without looking: When was the Treaty of Westphalia signed? Yeah, thought so.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. Was it 1993? Paul I had just surfaced for air when once again you have saved the day from MCAS, electric pilotless air taxis and Delta triple 7s spewing jp someting on schools, and oh yes Latin Club commentary. Thank you.

  2. I once had to travel from Altus AFB, OK to Randolph AFB, TX while serving in the USAF. The rules permitted reimbursement for personal transport as long as travel could be completed within the authorized dates. The AA-5 was perfect for the job; a three-hour jaunt from AXS to SSF.

    A pilot in the squadron had to be at Randolph for the same function, and I offered up the right seat. He eagerly agreed, until he found out I planned to fly VFR.

    “You’re flying VFR to San Antonio?”

    “Yes, why?”

    “Aren’t you afraid of getting busted?”

    “Busted for what?”

    “Flying VFR into that airspace.”

  3. Wonderful article! I read it 3 times just to savor its righteous, insightful, and hilarious lampoons. Is it just coincidence that AvWeb is blessed with 2 erudite writers whose names start with “Paul Ber…”? Hey, are you guys related?

  4. I long for the “good old days” (Airport Traffic Areas, Control Zones, TCAs, etc.) when everyone knew the airspace rules. Oh, no two people would ever agree on what they were, but we all soldiered on, confident that we were right, even if no one else was.

    Your column strangely hit just as I was thinking about all the ways, back in the 1970s, that, both as a pilot, and as a controller, I used to challenge other’s (mis)understandings of the regs.

    As a pilot I once talked a controller into giving me a Special VFR Clearance into a Control Zone with me promising to maintain visual separation with the airplane ahead that was on the instrument approach. (I really didn’t want to wait in the stack with the other planes that were waiting for approach clearance.)

    As a controller I told a Bonanza that is was okay for him to overfly Tulsa International at 2500′ when the visibility on the ground was a quarter of a mile in fog.

    I was surprised that there was more debate over the Bonanza overflight than me flying my 182 in loose formation with a Cherokee Arrow on approach. “The Control Zone is IFR!” the Tulsa supervisor yelled at me when I approved the Bonanza overflight. I told him that the only reason the Bonanza called was because at 2500 feet he would be flying through the Airport Traffic Area. Had he been at 4500 feet, he would have been above the Airport Traffic Area and there would have been no requirement for him to call at all. Confused when I started talking about Control Zones and the base of overlying airspace (the Continental Control Area — 14,500′ as you’ll recall) and the legal ability of aircraft to operate in VFR conditions in controlled airspace without a clearance, the supervisor finally said: “…well, just don’t do it again when I’m working.”

    Yes, I miss the “good old days” when everyone knew they knew the airspace regs.

  5. My Gemini (NASA) era Mooney has outlasted TCAs, RSAs, PCAs, ARSAs, and all the other PITAs from the alphabet soup kitchen at FAA. Now equipped with WAAS GPS and ADS-B out, I think it will outlast all of us. I for one think that airspace classes A, B, C, D, E, & G, are just as meaningful and easier to remember.

    Not sure why folks keep trying to turn Mooney into the butt of jokes, but please stop. It doesn’t work. Despite their management woes today, the folks in Kerrville made some damn fine aircraft and their owners are for the most part very passionate about GA.