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Airspace and weather

Don't make these mistakes on your checkride

Aeronautical charts assume a fresh appearance from time to time: depicted airspace changes occur for some very good reasons. Many designated pilot examiners consider today's sectional charts to be denuded when they see magenta transition areas without the blue fuzzy surrounds that were once a staple of airspace indication. It takes time for beginning pilots to understand the three-dimensional character of charted airspace, since charts are only two-dimensional. Examiners see evidence of this all too often during the oral portion of the practical test when applicants stumble attempting to explain the nature of 3-D airspaces in 2-D. Applicant recognition of weather legalities within those dimensions compounds the issue. Still, as embarrassing as airspace misunderstandings can be during the oral, they create monstrous problems in flight.

The Practical Test Standards (PTS) for both the private and commercial pilot certificates guide students and instructors alike in their quest for knowledge that satisfies pilot examiners and life aloft. Pilot examiners probe gently - they need to realistically believe that you will answer well the far more arduous questions that aeronautical life flings at unsuspecting new pilots. In short, your examiner desperately wants no pilot whose certificate bears his signature to violate weather minimums or airspace requirements. Therefore, just as parents love their children equally, without a favorite, pilot examiners hold airspace and weather requirements equal to all other PTS tasks. (Yeah, right!) Here are some considerations that you can apply to help avoid airspace or weather foibles as you prepare for your checkride.

As you prepare for the private pilot checkride, you might note that Task E, "National Airspace System," is worded identically in both the private and the commercial PTSs. The commercial PTS areas of testing are no different than those in the private PTS. There are two ways to interpret this. One is that airspace oral testing for commercial pilot applicants should be no harder than that for a private pilot. The other interpretation is for private pilots to expect that they must have airspace knowledge similar to that of commercial pilots. Since the private pilot certificate authorizes you to operate in the same airspace as commercial pilots do, which philosophy do you think your pilot examiner will embrace? Perhaps an even better question is: If your family members ride with a private pilot, what level of airspace knowledge do you want that pilot to have? I thought so. Me too.

In this realm, the PTS at first guides instructors to teach - and students to learn, and examiners to test - in the basic VFR weather minimums for all classes of airspace. While not difficult, this requires more than basic memorization. Memorization, yes, but beyond rote recitation. The PTS outlines for examiners that they are responsible to test " the greatest extent practicable the applicant's correlative abilities rather than mere rote enumeration of facts... ." Because you will use the appropriate and current aeronautical chart both during the ground portion of testing as well as in flight, your pilot examiner may not ask questions that rote memorization will serve. Expect scenarios. All pilot examiners with whom I have discussed these areas confirm that they make extensive use of the sectional chart during oral questioning on the ground. During flight, they watch for normal and correct chart use. Since this is true, knowledge of chart symbology and interpretation are vital skills that you must develop as you correlate airspaces and their weather requirements.

One good example of this involves applicant answers to visibility and cloud clearance requirements in various classes of airspace. Examiners probably hear applicants say "three and one, five, two" more often than they hear their own names. This is a common rendering of "three statute miles, 1,000 feet above, 500 feet below, and 2,000 feet horizontal separation from a cloud are the visibility and cloud clearance requirements in Class E airspace." If you tell your examiner "three and one, five, two" he may or may not ask you to be more specific. If you are specific to begin with, there is little more that your examiner can ask. In an intriguing answer to the visibility and cloud clearance requirements for Class G airspace, I first thought that an applicant meant that he wanted to take a break to quench his thirst. I had pointed to a place on the sectional chart, specified the altitude, simulated an automated weather observation broadcast for a small airport, and then asked what were his considerations to legally land there. My applicant replied "one Coke." It turns out that he was indicating "1-c.o.c." which translated "one statute mile visibility, and clear of clouds."

A common trait that examiners encounter is the oh-so-human tendency to assume that the airspace or area in which pilots have done most of their training is the de facto norm - that the rules and procedures there apply everywhere. This is particularly noticeable when pilots train in Class G airspace overwhelmed by remote, rural Class E. For many such applicants, save for the required operations at a towered airport (many of these also rural, quiet, and informal) their limited experience can harm them. When their pilot examiners ask about requirements at busy, urban airspace where a procedural deviation can have severe consequences, only study renders answer. To guide you, the PTS lists references for your perusal: 14 CFR 71 (Subchapter E - Airspace); 14 CFR 91 (Subchapter F - Air Traffic and General Operating Rules); navigation charts (which should be your sectional, and perhaps a terminal area chart); and the Aeronautical Information Manual. The AIM is a far more precious resource for all pilots than most will know. You can view both the PTS and the AIM on AOPA Online.

When one compares the body of Task E and the listed reference, notably absent is 14 CFR 73 (special use airspace). Task E's element 3 says you should exhibit knowledge of special use and other airspace areas, and here is where the AIM truly shines. Pilots have long expressed confusion about special use airspace, particularly the differences between restricted and prohibited areas. Reading 14 CFR Part 73, you may note that 100 lines of text describe restricted areas, compared to just 13 lines for prohibited areas. Both mention a using agency and authorization to enter. On sectional charts, blue hash-marked borders depict these areas equally, and blue lettering uses the same typeface. Students become confused. Instead of asking you to understand the lawyerese of 14 CFR 73, the PTS refers you to the AIM, where paragraph 3-4-2 (prohibited areas) clarifies this confusion wonderfully. It says: "Prohibited areas contain airspace of defined dimensions identified by an area on the surface of the earth within which the flight of aircraft is prohibited." And that is what your pilot examiner wants to know that you know, as it reassures him or her that you will probably not become a feature on the nightly news.

Restricted means that there is a restriction (obtain permission) to be observed before one flies through a restricted area. Prohibited, on the other hand, means prohibited. Because so many pilots have difficulty understanding the meaning of prohibited and are confused by the identical symbols for restricted and prohibited areas, the FAA might consider using a unique, high-visibility color to depict prohibited areas. Instead of using the word prohibited in the same font and color used for restricted, alert, and warning areas, I would be pleased to see the FAA imprint, in that same high-visibility color, and in old German script: Verboten! (meaning forbidden) on the aeronautical chart. Though that might eliminate confusion, it does not help you now. Only study will do that. So study the AIM. Be cautious of some commercially produced books, as these occasionally deviate from the FAA enough that examiners who are familiar with them, and have no financial stake in their use, will disallow their use during oral testing. You'll find additional help on special use airspace and all other airspace classes in the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's online course.

The PTS guides us rather generically about non-FAA publications by stating: "Publications other than those listed may be used for references if their content conveys substantially the same meaning as the referenced publications." In the first two months of 2003, this writer noted two different commercial publications that did not. One stated that Class D airspace requires no pilot/controller communications for a pilot to operate within that airspace. Another more widely used commercial publication, in discussing prohibited and restricted airspace, paraphrased 14 CFR 73 - while ignoring AIM 3-4-2, much to the applicant's consternation. Upon discovering such levels of divergence from the meanings found in the referenced publications, an honest examiner should disallow continued use of such publications during the tests in question. Study, but study wisely.

Airspace classes and the weather requirements that they entail are vital for every pilot to know well. From heavy transport to the lightest homebuilt, every aircraft affects others. Flying machines inhabit a three-dimensional world, in which pilots must make well-based decisions. No pilot examiner will joyously sign a temporary pilot certificate for one whose decisions will violate any airspace or weather minimums.

Dave Wilkerson is a designated pilot examiner, a writer/photographer, and an historian. A commercial pilot, he has been a flight instructor for 22 years and has given about 2,000 hours of dual instruction.

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