From the Flight Deck: Aircraft Radio – Can You Hear Me Now?

From the Flight Deck: Aircraft Radio – Can You Hear Me Now?

IMG_4047  “NORDO.” That’s what it’s called when we lose our com radios – No aircraft Radio. There was a time when the majority of aircraft arriving at what was to become AirVenture Oshkosh were without a radio. Heck, they were without the whole electrical system; the same goes for flying into most non-tower airports. We sometimes flew com-out missions in the military; a tactic to avoid detection and increase the likelihood of surprise. Today, not using your com radio is a bad tactic, it’s surprising to ATC and other aircraft, and it’s not humorous to the Feds.

In a case that went before the NTSB, this lack of humor was demonstrated when enforcement action was taken against an airline transport pilot because he continued for about 25 minutes after losing his radios on an IFR flight in VFR conditions, landing at his destination. The NTSB ruled that the pilot did not adequately explain why he failed to land as soon as practicable, given that he passed several suitable airports in VFR conditions. We all hope the NTSB used good judgment when deciding that this pilot flew NORDO too long, and in their consideration of suitable airports.

Twenty-five minutes seems brief, and depending on the size of the sector (Salt Lake from north to south, for example) and time of day, ten minutes between radio transmissions is not rare. And it may take another five for us to realize that we haven’t heard anything for a spell, and still another ten minutes to descend. Also, aircraft capabilities require the analysis of many parameters for a field to be considered as a “suitable airport.” Runway lengths, fuel and the proximity of a proper golf course not being the least of said parameters.

The Culprit

A com-out event is nearly unheard-of these days, because avionics have become practically bulletproof, and redundant radios and cell phones make the occurrence unlikely. Even so, other components can be the culprit: audio panel set wrong, volume too low, incorrect frequency, stuck mike and the one that happened to me. I was in a Bonanza 36TC east of ABQ, headed to PHX, and it was a daytime IFR flight, in-and-out of IMC. The overhead speaker quit and I didn’t have a headset in the plane. Figures, right? The weakest link. My solution was to squawk 7600, maintain VMC, transmit my intentions in-the-blind, and land at Double Eagle near Albuquerque – and buy a headset.

Before you execute lost com procedures, do some trouble-shooting. In addition to the above, don’t forget to try each com radio, each NAV radio (remember, we can listen on the NAV and acknowledge with the transponder), and try all cell and Sat phones as well as the internet if you have it. If you’re still NORDO, squawk 7600 (we no longer switch back-and-forth to 7700, and we no longer fly a triangle pattern) and continue to transmit as if someone can hear you – use guard (121.5). And finally, when IFR, whether VMC or IMC, follow the lost com regulations.

The Rules

I apologize for getting all regulatory on you, but we really need to memorize certain things that are not aircraft-system related. Some are systemic and in need of common interpretation amongst us aviators; and sharing airspace after we lose com is among them. Here is what you and I agree to do:

IMG_40441 VFR conditions. If the failure occurs in VFR conditions, or if VFR conditions are encountered after the failure, each pilot must continue the flight under VFR and land as soon as practicable. Remember, for that guy above, the NTSB decided that 25 minutes was too long. On the other hand, the AIM has a clarifying note that says: “However, it is not intended that the requirement to ‘land as soon as practicable’ be construed to mean ‘as soon as possible.’ ” But, on the third hand (all pilots should have three hands), the courts clarified this by ruling that: “A pilot may not take advantage of this rule to continue his IFR flight in VFR conditions to an airport of his liking, bypassing other airports and leaving air traffic guessing what he or she is going to do.” My take on this regulatory back-and-forth is this: remember we are sharing the airspace, so don’t push the envelope of aerodynamics or regulations. If you are com out, land the plane as soon as it’s safe to do so. Pretty simple.

The rules are not so simple when the weather is bad. What if we’re in IMC, and plan to remain in IMC all the way down to 200 feet? Here are those rules:

2. IFR conditions. If the failure occurs in IFR conditions, or if VMC cannot be maintained, each pilot must continue the flight according to the following:

(A) Route.

(1) By the route assigned in the last ATC clearance received;

(2) f being radar vectored, by the direct route from the point of radio failure to the fix, route, or airway specified in the vector clearance;

(3) n the absence of an assigned route, by the route that ATC has advised may be expected in a further clearance; or

(4) n the absence of an assigned route or a route that ATC has advised may be expected in a further clearance, by the route filed in the flight plan.

(B) Altitude. t the highest of the following altitudes or flight levels for the route segment being flown:

(1) he altitude or flight level assigned in the last ATC clearance received;

(2) he minimum altitude (converted, if appropriate, to minimum flight level) for IFR operations; or

(3) he altitude or flight level ATC has advised may be expected in a further clearance.

Consider the altitude decision this way: for each segment, try to get back to your assigned altitude – unless the MEA is higher in which case you must climb to the MEA. If the MEA is lower than your assigned altitude, stay at the higher assigned altitude. These rules can be confusing when you are required to climb to comply, but then descend again to comply on the next segment, so here’s an example:

A pilot at an assigned altitude of 7,000 feet is cleared along a direct route that will require a climb to a minimum IFR altitude of 9,000 feet; he should climb to reach 9,000 feet at the time or place where it becomes necessary. Later, while proceeding along an airway with an MEA of 5,000 feet, the pilot would descend back to 7,000 feet (the last assigned altitude), because that altitude is higher than the MEA.

Once we arrive at our clearance-limit fix, we should descend at either the ETA we filed, or, if we are on time or late, we should descend right then. We accomplish this descent while holding at our clearance limit fix, and we descend to the lowest altitude allowed at that fix, but not lower than the IAF altitude of the approach to be flown. We then navigate to the IAF, descend in holding again if needed, align ourselves with the final approach course using published procedures, fly the approach, and land. We then watch for light gun signals through the tears in our eyes, and clean out our shorts when we get to the FBO. Simple enough, right? Almost everywhere, yes, it is. But, some of the new “descend-via” RNAV arrivals blur the ending a bit.

IMG_4048The PHLBO 3 into EWR is an RNAV arrival that terminates with a track/ heading out of the last point on the arrival then “expect radar vectors to final.” This verbiage is listed after the track/heading into infinity. Contrast this to the AARCH 1 or KAYLA 1 at STL. These are also RNAV arrivals, but the “expect radar vectors” verbiage is immediately after a fix, and a fix is a clearance limit from which we may descend – you will still have to make up a procedure to align with final, though. The best solution is demonstrated by the PIGLT 4 into MCO. They publish a com-out procedure right on the arrival page that says: “…… to KAYWY, then turn left to intercept Rwy 36L final approach course, conduct approach.” They leave out the teary-eyed light gun signals and dirty shorts part, but the procedure is great.

Ne-far-i-ous Adjective. Typically of an action or activity; wicked or criminal.

We don’t think much about lost com because it happens so seldom. It’s worth our time, however, to review the rules and have a plan before we get to that infamous clearance limit fix, or a nefarious track/heading on an RNAV arrival. If the radios get quiet, ask ATC if you’re still in the right place. If still silent, check your switches, volumes, headset connections, try guard, and then, if you really are com-out, don’t surprise ATC and the rest of us with a home-grown procedure. Fly the airplane, squawk 7600, transmit in-the-blind and follow the rules. Rest assured, we will get out of your way. Stay as close as possible to the regs though, lest the NTSB, the courts, or your brethren brand you as nefarious.

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