Safety Publications/Articles

The safety net

Teaching students to ask for help is no balancing act

When faced with a clear and present danger, a new FAA study shows, some 90 percent of pilots prefer to work without a net.

One of those 90 percent was a noninstrument-rated private pilot with about 200 hours of flight time. He departed his home base in marginal VFR weather and headed for a city about two hours away. His weather briefing called for a lower overcast at his destination, but still VFR and forecast to improve. About one hour, 45 minutes after takeoff, a witness near the destination airport reported seeing the airplane emerge from low clouds and crash into the side of a hill. There were no records indicating the pilot had tried to contact any ATC facility en route.

As an instructor, I wonder why a VFR-only pilot would allow this to happen, but these accidents are not limited to inexperienced pilots. Weather-related accidents also include instrument pilots flying into unmanageable icing, or penetrating thunderstorms. A recent FAA study of weather-related accidents finds that about 90 percent of pilots involved in fatal weather-related accidents never made a radio call asking for help-in short, opting to work without the safety net that is almost always available.

Why don't these pilots ask for help? Is it get-there-itis? Are they afraid to admit that they're in trouble? Is it a lack of knowledge, lack of training, or is it bad decision-making? Like most accidents, weather tragedies are usually the result of a chain of events that can be broken, if only one link is removed. Particularly in weather-related accidents, the most common link is poor aeronautical decision-making. As instructors, can we make a difference? You bet we can!

Pilots in distress have a team of ATC and FSS experts available to them-a veritable aeronautical safety net. As instructors, our job is to teach students how to use that net. One valuable training aid is the new ASF interactive online course, "Say Intentions". This free course, with vivid graphics and compelling interactive exercises, builds a solid basis for student understanding of how ATC can help in an emergency.

In the February 2004 issue of AOPA Flight Training, David Wright in "Building a Box" discusses "boxes" as a set of parameters that we can give students to help teach judgment. Wright stresses the need for a pilot's continuous review and updating of his or her "box" as skills and knowledge change. In my accident example, the pilot either didn't have a limitation box or exceeded his limits and ended up outside the box.

Taking Wright's metaphor a little further, I say that safety nets similar to those used by high-flying circus performers can help pilots who fly out of their box. Safety nets are a matrix of safety tools, but the one for discussion here is the proper use of ATC and other communication facilities to get help. Flying "out of the box" does not mean all is lost; even a bad decision can be corrected.

Remember the emergency "four Cs"? They are Climb, Communicate, Confess, and Comply. It's a surprisingly tough sell, particularly since we work hard to teach our students to stay within the federal aviation regulations, then advocate the four Cs for confessing they've done something wrong. Yes, admitting an FAR transgression might mean an FAA enforcement action, but that's a happier outcome than the alternative.

Many years ago I was flying a corporate plane with five passengers to a destination about 300 miles away. I got into some weather trouble and ended up declaring an emergency, which resulted in a safe landing at a military field in a restricted area. The military personnel were wonderful. The FAA was not happy, but we resolved the issue without a violation. I learned a lot from that incident, but it took a while for me to pass the lesson along. For a few years I was too embarrassed to talk about the flight, but later on I used it as an example for all of my students. I still use it today to make the point that it is better to walk away embarrassed than to not walk away at all.

Once you've convinced your students it can be appropriate to call for help, whom should they call? We teach students how controllers at centers, approach controls, towers, and flight service stations can help, and we stress the importance of using proper procedures. The myriad communications possibilities are not as simple, and students have been known to become so baffled that they don't call anyone. Our students should understand that when they're "out of the box and in the safety net," correct radio procedures are not important. They just need to make contact with anyone and take it from there.

We can suggest trying the last ATC frequency they were using, or calling an FSS for help on 122.2; Flight Watch on 122.0 may be a quick choice. Calling flight service isn't exactly the same as contacting a radar facility, but FSS briefers can be a great clearinghouse of information. Another good thing about using an FSS frequency is that chances are other airplanes are listening to those frequencies, and a response from an experienced pilot could be a lifesaver. If all else fails, a call on 121.5 for "anyone to answer" should get a response from some facility.

Once contact has been made, what should a distressed pilot say? Official phraseology is in the Aeronautical Information Manual, but I prefer to keep it simple for my students. I recommend starting with a mayday call, then following with an honest explanation of the problem. ATC or FSS personnel are very good at asking the right questions, as long as the pilot is honest and responds with the best answers possible. A pilot who is confused, lost, scared, or experiencing panic should tell the controller exactly that. As good as controllers are, they are not mind readers. Taking students on tours of ATC facilities isn't nearly as easy as it used to be in the days before September 11, 2001, but face-to-face interaction with controllers and FSS specialists is still invaluable.

Not all pilots understand the tools available to FAA personnel to help pilots in distress. If an FSS receives a distress call a specialist is dedicated to help the pilot. The FSS has current weather radar information, of course, and while they can't vector a pilot, they can provide the location, movement, and severity of the weather radar return. The FSS can coordinate with ATC radar to locate the aircraft, and then switch the pilot over to the radar controller. There have been cases where the FSS specialist did not want to chance a frequency change and worked with ATC to guide the pilot.

ATC facilities also dedicate a controller to a pilot in distress. They can assign a special frequency for the distressed aircraft, and in some cases, they may even change frequencies for all other aircraft to avoid a frequency change for the distressed pilot. Other aircraft can be called in to help. I have relayed radio calls for an IFR airplane that had lost radio contact with Center, and have been twice vectored to assist a lost aircraft. The military can be called in to help, and airliners have been diverted to assist aircraft in distress.

The capabilities of ARTCC (Center) and terminal radar controllers to help pilots have also been greatly improved in the past few years. The basics of radar have not changed; the effective range of Center radar is about 250 miles, and for local radar the range is about 60 miles-and terrain can shorten those ranges. Also, radar frequencies are still optimized for finding airplanes, not weather. But now, thanks to digital displays and computer integration, controllers are much better able to point out weather returns. All Centers are now equipped with a Weather and Radar Processor (WARP) system that captures weather data from several sources, including Nexrad weather imagery, and provides controllers a color display in a format that facilitates improved control and separation of traffic. Terminal radar also displays weather, although in a different format.

Since ATC's primary function is to separate traffic, weather information is "fined-tuned" to avoid blocking out aircraft returns. Controllers can fine-tune the display even further, choosing to show only, say, Level 3 or higher weather returns. Our students need to know that they could be in rain or clouds of less than a Level 3 return, but the controller won't know unless the pilot reports it.

There is an old aviation saying, "Plan the flight and fly the plan." The plan is that we teach our student to stay within his box of limitations and continue to learn and expand the box. We hope that the safety net is never used, but it needs to be there just in case. Good aeronautical decision-making is composed of a whole bagful of goodies, but don't forget the safety net.

Earl C. Downs, CFI, has been teaching ground and flight instruction for 42 years and has logged 8,000 hours dual. He is an FAA safety counselor and lecturer. He owns an Aeronca 7AC Champion.

By Earl C. Downs

Back to the Index of Instructor Reports