GAARMS Report: January 2017
2016 has come and 2016 has gone – with 6 fatal accidents and 9 fatalities!
All in all, a fairly safe track record, but one that could have, and should have, been much lower. Three of the fatal accidents involved unique, not-your-typical GA aircraft, i.e., a P-51 Mustang, a T-6 “Texan, and a weight-shift “Trike”, all flown by highly rated pilots, i.e., a Commercial or higher ticket. There was one helicopter accident involving two CFI helicopter-rated pilots. The two general aviation aircraft, a BE-35 Bonanza and a PA-34 Seneca were being flown with CFI and an ATP-rated pilots respectively. The point I am trying to make is that an accident can happen to any one of us, regardless of our ratings or experience level(s). Like Ernest Gann’s novel, Fate is the Hunter, fate knows no bounds, does not care about your ratings, does not care about what type aircraft you fly, or how often or little you fly, nor where you fly…
As of this writing, the NTSB has not released any information or final findings on any of these accidents, and it may be a while until they do. In the meantime we can only speculate, which really solves nothing other than starting some good discussions on what may have happened, which is the main purpose of GAARMS – to involve the pilot into the “Look-See” process of accident reviews and discussions to make you more aware. The next GAARMS safety seminar will be scheduled for late March 2017 in the Phoenix area, so stay tuned and I look forward to your attendance and participation at that program.
FLIGHT PLANNING TOOLs vs. FLIGHT PLANs vs. FLIGHT FOLLOWING -
Most of the GA community flies VFR – we are the good weather flyers, and a lot of you are weekend-only flyers. The view from several thousand feet up is usually spectacular, and the freedom is exhilarating, but sometimes it can be fraught with danger. When we decide to actually go somewhere, we need to have a plan – or at least you should!!
Some of us go online and use a flight planning tool (or App), like AOPA’s on–line flight planning tool, Foreflight’s, Garmin’s, or just the DUATS flight planner. Great – but you, the pilot, need to know how to do this planning, how to incorporate the weather into that planning tool, how to read the map(s), and be armed with airport diagrams for those new airports you are about to venture into. Once you decide on a route and altitude(s) that fit your requirements and capabilities, you have the option of filing a flight plan. I say option because there is NO requirement to do so. The whole purpose of a VFR flight plan is to avail yourself of the FAA’s Search and Rescue services just in case you do not show up at your destination when you say you are going to! It is, in fact, a short term life insurance policy for the duration of your flight. Just the act of filing the VFR flight plan does not get the service – you have to physically contact flight service to activate the flight plan, and most importantly, you have to remember to close the flight plan. You can do it on arrival at your destination, either in the air prior to landing by contacting FSS on the radio, or after landing by calling FSS on the 1-800-WX-BRIEF phone number. PS – Yes, I know, sometimes the small, not-too-busy towers will do that for you, but asking the tower to open or close your VFR flight plan is not the correct way, nor is it their job to do so. Just imagine trying to get PHX tower to do that…
Closing your VFR flight plan is a big deal! If you forget, and they have not heard from you by 30 minutes after your estimated time of arrival (ETA), which is the trigger point, flight service initiates the Search and Rescue procedures, i.e., they start looking for you. This creates a high priority workload within the flight service operation, and believe it or not, this happens all too often. Close to 95 percent of all initial search and rescue operations are false alarms – pilots failing to remember to close their flight plan in a timely manner after having successfully completed their flight. It can happen to anybody. Way back in the old days when I worked in the flight service stations back east, I always filed flight plans to ensure we got the traffic count – our pay levels were dictated by traffic counts! And Yes, I have been the brunt of humiliation from my fellow FSS specialists by forgetting to close a flight plan. The guys could not wait to call me at 2:00AM to remind me about closing my flight plan.
Yeah, it took a while to live that one down!!! But seriously, 95 percent are false alarms generating unnecessary work, and today, with the FAA’s philosophy of reducing staffing in the FSS’s to reduce costs, new technologies are being introduced to encourage the automated closing of flight plans, using Apps on the internet and the FSS DUATS-style interface when you log into the FSS system on line. Additionally, procedures have been introduced that allow flight service to send you a text message 15 minutes prior to initiating search and rescue efforts reminding you to close your flight plan to eliminate that workload and reduce that 95 percent false alarm rate down to almost zero!
There may be a better, more efficient way to reduce that workload, fly safer and get better, faster Search and Rescue services if you do have a problem enroute. It is called Flight Following, and it is an ATC provided service. If you fly cross country nowadays, it is significantly more efficient, and a lot safer, to ask for and receive flight following from the appropriate approach control or ARTCC facility. Many of us do that now, but I am suggesting that you make much more use of that service any time you go somewhere. Even when I fly from Flagstaff over to Prescott – all 47 nautical miles – I almost always get Flight Following. “WHY?” you might ask, for such a short flight? Because it can be full of dangers: unfriendly, dangerous terrain if I have to put down somewhere, and lots of traffic around the Prescott area. After all, it is home to one of the largest flight training schools in Arizona – Embry-Riddle, plus North-Air, Guidance, and Universal Helicopters, so there is a lot of traffic out there. My ADS-B “Fish Finder” lights up with targets, and approach control keeps me, and them, safely separated. And it is all free just for the asking!
Once you are receiving flight following, you are now under the watchful eye of a radar controller, on a discrete transponder code, getting almost all the same services that IFR traffic receives. They will alert you to traffic, suggest changes in your route of flight for traffic separation, airspace avoidance, etc, and if you have a problem, you have an instant friend available for all kinds of assistance. If you should have a catastrophic event and are going down, ATC has your exact position and can alert emergency services immediately – NOT 30 minutes after your ETA at your destination, still 1 ½ hours away!!! Let me say this again – when you are receiving Flight Following, Search and Rescue transfers from FSS and your ETA to ATC and right now!
Perhaps a change in FSS procedures is needed. For example, when you activate your VFR flight plan, FSS could/should automatically advise you of the appropriate frequency to call to get Flight Following for the area you are currently in; if you activate your flight plan electronically, flight service should acknowledge with a text message that says, “Flight plan activated, contact ABC Approach control (or XYZ Center) on 132.775 for Flight Following.”
But there is one catch – you, the pilot, must be able to hold headings and altitudes, and be proficient on the radio. It is hard to believe, but there are many pilots too afraid to actually talk with ATC. Perhaps they are afraid they will say something stupid. Ha, Who hasn’t!!! But you learn by doing, and you become proficient by doing it often.
For you IFR drivers out there, getting a clearance from a non-towered airport can be a real challenge. Today the procedure is to call flight service, who calls the correct approach control or ARTCC responsible for the airspace over that airport, who gives the clearance to flight service, who then gives the clearance back to you. VERY LABOR INTENSIVE!!! FAA hopes to change that by cutting out flight service. How? Well, for example, here at Flagstaff, we have a discrete radio frequency co-located with the Flagstaff VOR (which is right next to the airport) that goes directly to the Phoenix approach control facility, and we talk directly to them for our clearances. In the near future, the FAA plans to publish the phone numbers for the appropriate facility for each airport for you to call directly for your clearance via your cell phone when ready to go. Who knows, maybe in the future, instead of talking on the phone, you may be able to request clearance via a text message that you simply acknowledge by responding to the text message.
PS – The Shadow knows!!!!! The future holds many surprises…