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IFR Fix: Saving Aircraft X

After a tense episode helping a pilot with failed GPS equipment land through instrument conditions, an air traffic controller couldn’t shake the feeling that systemic risk could have made the situation worse.

Photo by Chris Rose.

The pilot of the single-engine airplane had completed the procedure turn of a full GPS Runway 18 approach to a northern Alabama airport when the controller noticed the aircraft off course.

The pilot reported GPS problems but “requested to reattempt the approach but without the procedure turn,” the controller related in an Aviation Safety Reporting System filing.

It didn’t work. Then communications ceased; the controller feared a complete electrical failure aboard the aircraft.

“I have seen, especially modern aircraft, lose instruments in a cascading manner if power generation is lost and as the batteries die. Since Aircraft X was a [modern single engine low wing] I thought this is what happened,” the controller wrote. “I instructed my D-side to begin looking for any airports with VFR conditions but none could be located within at least 100 miles.”

All wasn’t lost. If Aircraft X had a handheld radio, the pilot could perform an airport surveillance radar (ASR) approach to a regional airport with a published radar approach procedure.

When’s the last time you flew a radar approach—that rare relic of the legacy ATC system?

If it’s been a while, query ATC and give it a try, if locally available. It counts toward currency like any approach and is simplicity itself: Fly the assigned headings and altitudes, break out, land. A published radar procedure looks like this.

What’s the catch?

Red tape, for the pilot with the GPS gone bad. The controller at the airport with ASR “informed my D-side they were unable to provide a surveillance approach even to an emergency aircraft because they did not have the staffing to accommodate it.”

It’s not enough for a radar-service airport to have ASR. A controller must be available who—like instrument pilots—maintains qualification to conduct the operation (by providing three radar approaches a month, according to a controllers’ representative we asked).

Happily, the pilot of the distressed aircraft reestablished communications after an unexplained silent spell and accepted an ILS approach, but the experience motivated the controller who handled the flight to urge via the ASRS narrative that facilities with radar approaches “be adequately staffed to provide those services when they are needed.”

Pilots can help by flying radar approaches now and then, keeping themselves and ATC staffers current.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Training and Safety, Emergency, IFR

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