Surviving Com Failure

What to do when it's quiet, too quiet

May 1, 1997

Senior prom night was nearly over, and Dad had promised a special treat: a flight to Atlantic City. Five dressed-up kids in a six-passenger twin, and just enough fuel to be legal and safe, brought the aircraft right up to maximum gross weight.

Atlantic City weather, however, wasn't cooperating, resulting in a missed approach. The pilot commenced a climb, began navigating along the missed approach course, and reported "Missed approach" to the controller. For the first time in the flight, there was no response. Both radios had the same problem; they could receive, but not transmit. Changing to a new microphone was not the answer. (The problem was later found to be in the audio switching panel.)

With each unanswered call, the controller's voice seemed to rise an octave in pitch and increase in volume. "On the fourth screaming call," the pilot recalled, "he asked me to ident. When I did, his voice returned to normal." The pilot knew the fog that had caused his missed approach was limited to the Atlantic City area, and by the time he reached the missed-approach fix, he was VFR. He changed his transponder to 1200 and returned to his home airport while fielding questions from the partygoers in the back who were unaware of the problem: "Why don't we try New York?" asked one. Instead, the pilot returned his partying crew to Manassas, Virginia, and put the aircraft away for the night.

A pilot in Canada, faced with radio failure, said that the controller had told him not only to ident, but to change transponder codes in response to questions. An awkward form of communication was restored.

Both pilots could have solved their communications problems with a handheld transceiver. Many instrument flight instructors now urge their students to buy them. Jeff Gatchell of American Flyers in San Diego is one of them. "But you won't hear a thing [due to cockpit noise] without a headset adapter," Gatchell warns. (Not only that, but, assuming you own the airplane, you should have an external antenna to make best use of a handheld.)

What if you lose the radio and have to complete an IFR trip nordo (no radio)? What do the flight instructors say you should do, and what do the controllers really want?

Gatchell offers these tips. Time your arrival at the airport so that you will not have to hold. Controllers expect you to arrive at the airport no earlier than the time in your flight plan. It is interesting to note that most controllers don't have that anticipated arrival time in front of them, although it can be obtained.

Often, Gatchell said, the radio failure is pilot-induced. The most common communications problems result from the pilot's entering the wrong frequency. When that happens, it is time to go back to the previous frequency and ask for clarification. Gatchell has also noted that — during the 1,000 hours of instrument instruction he has given — some pilots, especially renters, simply do not know how to operate the radio correctly. Renters should be especially careful about tackling IFR in a relatively unfamiliar aircraft. Gatchell admits, however, that today's training offers little advice for an all-too-common problem: What if it is the air route traffic control facility, not the aircraft, that has the communications problem? To find out, Pilot paid a visit to Washington Center near Leesburg, Virginia.

Most communications failures in the Washington, D.C., area do not originate with the aircraft, controllers there agreed. It is more likely that one of the Washington ARTCC's 25-year-old radios will fail — not yours. True, the centers are getting new communications equipment, but so far it is limited to improved switching capability. "With the new equipment, we've rocketed right into the 1970s," one controller joked. The radios are still old. One controller sums up the continuing problem with aging equipment this way: "McDonald's headsets are so much more advanced than ours. I looked at the one worn by the guy in the drive-up window and thought, 'God, I would love to have that.'"

Obviously, outages are not limited to the Washington Center. There have been problems with communications at the Jacksonville Center, located in Hilliard, Florida, prior to the new computer glitches that hit there in late 1996. And Jim Buckles, assistant manager of the Air Traffic Division for the FAA's Eastern Region, headquartered in New York City, points with pride to a situation in which the regulations and procedures described in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) worked as advertised during a problem in Pittsburgh.

A power outage at the Pittsburgh approach control facility essentially eliminated air traffic control in a 60-nautical-mile area on January 31, 1996. Half of that area was IMC and half was VFR. Thirty-five aircraft, from Piper Cherokees to Boeing 757s, were suddenly without service, yet there were no accidents. Two aircraft got within 1.8 nm of one another before controllers reestablished communications by using battery-powered handheld radios.

To demonstrate the seriousness of the situation, a dozen aircraft were on ILS approaches, some of them parallel approaches. Other aircraft were being vectored for the approach, and some were on transition routes. What happened? All of the aircraft stuck to the rules. A third of the aircraft went back to a previous frequency, either Cleveland or New York facilities, to explain the problem. Those in VFR conditions remained VFR. In a word, the system worked.

Such outages are rare, said Barry Boshnack, special assistant for the Airway Facilities Division in the FAA Eastern Region. "The equipment at our centers and facilities is available to us 99.5 percent of the time," he said.

Buckles, who has 40 years of experience in aviation, 4,000 hours total flying time, and 30 years in air traffic control, offers these tips. "Don't be patient. If you haven't heard anything in awhile, don't assume everything must be OK. Key the mic and say, 'Still there?'"

If you are switched to a silent frequency but are sure that you copied the frequency assignment correctly, it may be that one of the center's transmitters has died or that the controller issued the wrong frequency, Washington Center controllers say. And it is not always faulty equipment that causes problems for air traffic control centers. Increasingly, backhoes operated by construction crews simply dig through communications lines, knocking out radios and radars.

What do you do when the whole center drops off line? Look on the IFR chart, controllers say; find those scalloped lines that indicate which center is responsible for your area and pick another center nearby. Once you find an alternate frequency or center, controllers may ask you to return to the dead frequency and transmit an announcement for other pilots.

Speaking of alternate frequencies, VORs are useful in communications emergencies. Turn up the volume on voice-capable VORs in the event of a communications failure; the controllers may try to contact you over a VOR. That brings up an important tip for the increasing number of general aviation pilots who navigate by IFR-capable GPS receivers: keep those nearby VORs tuned in, even if you are not using them. Most VORs are equipped for voice transmission, except those with a W in the class designator: VORW.

Other nonstandard communications failures include the stuck mic. To avoid frequency congestion with commercial communications, the transmitting power at air traffic control centers has been reduced to 10 watts (50 is used for oceanic service) and can be reduced further to five, or about the same power as your handheld transceiver. That means that center controllers can no longer override a stuck mic.

Generally, the rules for a com failure are clearly spelled out in the regulations and the AIM. If there are nonstandard lost communications procedures for your airport, expect to find them printed on the approach chart. But at the risk of sounding like a handheld transceiver salesman, I advise that you buy one; then you won't need to worry about the regulations in the first place.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.