A ceiling is not a ceiling is not a ceiling.

For those of us who have flown IFR actively, we know that sometimes a 500′ overcast ceiling will allow us to easily get down an ILS approach to our destination airport when sometimes the same reported 500′ ceiling on an ATIS will leave us going missed because we didn’t have the visibility to actually find the airport at the bottom of the approach.

In August this year, the FAA released an updated version of the Aviation Weather Advisory Circular AC 00-6B (click here to get a copy ). In taking a little time to review it the other day, I ran across a graphic that highlighted a key point pilots can make note of when listening to weather information before flying an approach. While many of us kind of know the basic considerations of this instinctively, a little review never hurt anyone.

In the AC, the FAA notes, “Not all ceilings are equally hazardous to a pilot. An indefinite ceiling is more hazardous than an equal ceiling caused by a layer aloft. Once a pilot descends below a ceiling caused by a layer aloft, the pilot can see both the ground below and the runway ahead. However, an indefinite ceiling restricts the pilot’s slant range (air-to-ground) visibility. Thus, the pilot may not see the runway ahead after he descends below the indefinite ceiling (see Figure 16-6).”

When we are thinking about flying in IFR weather with low ceilings, there is much to consider.

The FAA goes on to talk more about a low ceiling. “Stratus is the most frequent cloud associated with low ceilings. Stratus clouds, like fog, are composed of extremely small water droplets or ice crystals suspended in air. An observer on a mountain in a stratus layer would call it fog. Stratus and fog frequently exist together. In many cases, there is no real line of distinction between the fog and stratus; rather, one gradually merges into the other. Flight visibility may approach zero in stratus clouds. Stratus over land tends to be lowest during night and early morning, lifting or dissipating due to solar heating by late morning or early afternoon. Low stratus clouds often occur when moist air mixes with a colder air mass, or in any situation where temperature-dewpoint spread is small.”

So next time you are considering flying into low ceilings, think a little more deeply about what the METAR is reporting. Is it a solid overcast? Or should you expect that even when you descend below a layer that you will have difficulty with forward or slant range visibility also that could hinder your ability to complete an approach to a desired destination.


DME Arcs, The Case Against Them (at least for Practical Testing requirements)

It is time to take the mandatory requirement to test DME arc skills out of instrument pilot practical tests.

Before you think I am crazy, I don’t mean they “can’t” be part of the test, just that they don’t need to be mandatory.

This June, we instituted the new Instrument Pilot Airman Certification Standards, the document that guides examiners on what must be tested for airman seeking an instrument pilot practical test.

Task V, Navigation Systems, includes Task A. Intercepting and Tracking Navigational Systems and DME Arcs. Skill 7 requires that an applicant “Intercept an arc and maintain that arc within ±1 nautical mile” with a note in the section that “The evaluator may disregard reference to specific navigational equipment if the aircraft is not equipped with those systems.” The implication of this task is that if the aircraft is equipped with DME or (and this is potentially debatable) a GPS system capable of being substituted for DME.

The problem with this requirement is that in many locations, DME arc procedures are scarce, at a significant distance, or non-existent. The burden this places on the examiner and the applicant is starting to require that practical tests travel greater distances to accomplish the requirement of the ACS for the practical test.

If we consider current FAA policy, VOR facilities are going to become even more scarce in the near future. The following is illustrative of this point, “…308 VORs to be decommissioned as the agency moves to a satellite-based navigational system” according to a recent Aviation International News Article (http://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/business-aviation/2016-07-26/faa-releases-vor-decommissioning-policy?eid=346248619&bid=1479201).

Many aircraft are still have DME equipment, yet testing is taking place in locations where no published DME arc procedures are present. This is resulting in examiners “making up” DME arcs just to test an applicant on the procedure using whatever nearby VOR is present even when no published procedure is in existence. This puts the applicant in the position to be asked by an examiner to conduct a procedure that is made up and that the examiner is attempting to convey. If done incorrectly, and if the examiner issues a disapproval as a result, it drives a debate on whether the examiner has asked the applicant to do something that is fairly within the scope of the ACS standards.

If we look forward and consider the reduction of VOR systems that will be present in the upcoming years, even to do a “made up” VOR arc may require an applicant to fly 100 miles or more accomplish this task on an practical test when the procedures themselves will be about as common as ADF approaches in the near future.

This by no means should be considered an indication that they would not be allowed to be tested, just that they would not be required. In the situation where an examiner is conducting a practical test and a nearby airport has a VOR with an established DME arc as a part of an instrument approach procedure, it should definitely be considered fairly within the scope of the non-precision approach (or if it leads to a precision approach such as an ILS) to test the applicant in the course of the practical test.

As our approach systems and procedures change, so must our training and testing procedures. The practicality of efficiently testing DME arcs is becoming unrealistic. It is time for our testing procedures to consider removal of the DME arc as a mandatory part of the Instrument Pilot ACS.

Anyone else have thoughts on this change suggestion?

Rebuild, Refurb, and Overhaul – Not the Answer to Our Future GA Aircraft Needs?

We have a major problem brewing in the GA aviation sector:  we are going to run out of planes.

Through the 1950’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s, aircraft manufacturers pumped out thousands of aircraft that the general aviation flying public bought and flew for personal and business activities. These weren’t big jet aircraft that corporations used as time machines to do more business, they were two to six seat planes the average pilot with a private pilot certificate or even the added instrument rating could fly with family, friends, and business partners to the thousands of airports around the country. These airports haven’t gone away, but the planes are going away.

Each year these aircraft get older and more of them get scrapped for any number of reasons ranging from engines passing beyond recommended overhaul times that cost more to overhaul or replace than the aircraft total value, accidents and incidents making aircraft unrecoverable, or owners passing away and leaving aircraft to estates that sit degrading in a forgotten hangar somewhere until they are no longer worth returning to service. Continue reading

ATC Query Helps Pilots Land on Correct Runway

00717ADEver line up to land on a runway you have been cleared for only to find out that you were slightly off and it was the wrong runway?

I’ll admit it, I have done it.

Ever not notice it until ATC “reminded” you of what runway you were supposed to be landing on?

Ok, you don’t have to admit to it, but it happens. It even happens to experienced airline pilots sometimes, so don’t feel too bad about it. When this happens, it is about what you do next, to fix the error.

On this recent 4th of July, an airline flight was approaching Kalamazoo, Michigan and was cleared to land on Runway 17. With 6500 feet of runway available, this runway was the one that is commonly used by regional jets of multiple airlines every day (or the opposite end of the same, runway 35).

As they got closer, ATC cleared them to land on runway 17.

You can listen to the audio I have pulled down and cut to just the relevant portions for the flight. Especially relevant was when ATC “queried” that they knew they were cleared to land on runway 17. It was obvious that ATC noticed they were aligned not to land on runway 17, but instead, runway 23, a much shorter 3500-foot long runway.

Click play to hear the transmissions between ATC and the flight.

What is important here, is that both ATC and the pilots made good decisions.

ATC called it to the attention of the pilot that their approach looked abnormal. In this case, the conditions were VFR and it was a visual approach, something that leaves more chance that a pilot will align themselves with the wrong runway than when they are loading up a specific approach to an intended runway of landing.

The pilots, as soon as they noticed it, did the right thing. They aborted the approach to the “wrong” runway, climbed, and flew a VFR pattern to the longer correct runway for landing.

You can see the flight track and the vertical path including the climb from the approach to the pattern in the following graphics.

2016-07-16 09.25.402016-07-16 09.25.37














Even a multiple crew member aircraft who flies professionally on a regular basis can make a simple mistake of visually looking for an airport, seeing a runway, and mistaking what they see as the correct runway.

Do I write this to chastise the pilots for their mistake in any way? No, not at all.

For most of us as pilots, if this happens nobody will ever notice. When an airliner does it, it is more noticeable, but not necessarily more concerning than when a private aircraft has the same happen.

Our aviation system includes cross-checks of ATC and pilots to coordinate traffic, and this includes what runways to land on and when.

Obviously, the 3500-foot runway would have been rather short for a regional jet to land on, but I also expect that the pilots would have eventually noticed that the runway was MUCH shorter than they would normally use to land. But by ATC making the query sooner than later, it gave the pilots the opportunity to make a corrective action prior to being at a lower altitude, slower speed, and closer to the airport.

Kudos to ATC here, kudos to the crew for making the right decision and eating their pride to go around and get to the correct runway.

What can we all learn from this?

Well, we are probably never too experienced to make a mistake like this, but we can never be too humble when we consider the need to be willing to “go around” and fix a mistake we have made.