Since the introduction of GPS and WAAS, many innovative, useful devices, systems, and procedures have been developed and certified. And much written about the resulting departures, arrivals and approaches, using the technology. As we become more reliant on GPS, we are less inclined to need memorization and math to fly our machines. Perhaps the E6-B and plotter have finally gone the way of the abacus and slide rule. Information is now calculated, compiled and presented in such a way that our situational awareness is higher than ever before. And this has greatly improved the safety and utility of our airplanes. Single-pilot IMC in high performance aircraft is a safe endeavor because of training, mandatory equipment, and the reliability of avionics, powerplants and airframes. But, most significantly, it’s because of the decreased workload these new technologies and reliability provide. However, as our airspace becomes more saturated, and we attempt to lessen controller workload, we have seen some of that workload shifted back to the pilot.
We’ve all seen changes over the years: TCA’s (Terminal Control Areas–now Class B), TFR’s (temporary flight restrictions – that often aren’t temporary after all), RVSM (reduced vertical separation minimums), LAHSO (land and hold short), PRM (precision runway monitoring), enroute RNAV (area navigation), RNAV approaches, and descend-via and climb-via RNAV arrivals/departures. These procedures have been developed for a variety of reasons, some of them to increase the utility of our airspace system and airports and some to allow more aircraft to use the airspace and airports simultaneously. There’s no doubt the procedures are more stable, predictable and accurate than ever before. And GPS/WAAS has opened thousands of “little” general aviation airports through the use of LPV minimums. But the changes are not without some new issues.
Knees Up Your Nose
One major influence in the effort to increase airspace utilization has been the Part 121 operators.
The philosophy of cramming more seats, and therefore more paying passengers, into airliners by removing galleys, bathrooms and leg-room, can create an environment for record-setting revenues. In airline parlance, arranging more airplanes into the ramp, runway and en route structure means higher departure and arrival rates, quicker turn times and higher gate utilization. And, therefore, more efficient use of high-dollar assets–which, when managed properly, means higher profits. And this sounds good from the boardroom or from the perspective of the airspace redesign consortium…. in theory. But, when you’re the one with your knees up your nose in a coach seat, sitting in a long line of departing aircraft, or the PIC in your single-pilot jet with a full plate of issues trying to fly a “controller-modified” arrival or approach in congested airspace, it looks quite different.
Three Dimensions + Velocity
Descend-via and climb-via procedures have created a potential task-saturation issue for pilots. More of the responsibility for traffic separation is being transferred to the pilots, by requiring us to fly a predicted, precise three-dimensional track at varying airspeeds. I fly 85 to 95 hours each month at my carrier, in and out of airports with descend-via and climb-via procedures, as well as RNAV/GPS approaches. Most arrivals begin with a descend-via procedure and terminate with an ILS. Sometimes at night in IMC with bumps, ice and a mechanical issue, sometimes in smooth, problem-free, daytime VMC. Sometimes with lots of traffic, sometimes with none. This equates to about fifty climb-via departures, descend-via arrivals and ILS’s each month, in varying weather and traffic saturation levels – so I’m familiar with the concept.
As long as we do some simple math and calculate when to begin the descent and how fast (vertical speed) to do it, the arrivals are manageable. By multiplying the altitude you need to lose by three, in order to get the required miles needed to meet an altitude requirement, all the rest (headwind/tailwind, time/distance to slow down, etc.) is finesse – same as before, no E6-B required. And we should be doing these mental calculations not just to exercise our brains, but as a backup to our avionics. Even so, there is a potential fly-in-the-ointment in our calculations. Not because the airspace utilization and efficiency procedures are too difficult for single-pilot use, but because of the tendency for controllers to use the word “except” when issuing a clearance to fly a three-dimensional (plus velocity) procedure.
It’s Your Behind
We like to be prepared for the descent and approach, but sometimes we get behind. ATC, weather, traffic and mechanical issues are common culprits. Even before descend-via arrivals, because of the variables involved, we pretty much needed to be ready for anything. No surprise there, and this all sounds familiar. The new issue arises when we are tired, ATC has conflicting traffic, or we are having a problem with the plane or a passenger–and then ATC changes the rules of the game. Controllers are modifying procedures and using the word “except” to change how we fly arrivals and departures – even instrument approaches. For example, when they tell you to cross a fix on the approach “at” 5,000 when it’s published as “at or above” 5,000 feet, that is an unpublished modification – it’s an extremely short-notice NOTAM, is what it is.
The same is true when they tell you to fly 250 knots to fix A, 210 knots to fix B, and then 180 to the marker. How much, and how often can ATC modify a published procedure before it ceases to be a “published” procedure? I mean, if you are going to change half of the speed and altitude restrictions, and even vector me off the procedure, then tell me to resume the procedure downstream, and assume that I can catch up with the remaining “published” speeds and altitudes, then what’s the point of publishing the procedure in the first place? Don’t forget, it’s your behind if you get behind.
In defense of our controllers, many have told me they don’t like the procedures any more than we do. Many of them are still trying to adapt, same as us. Some controllers will simply have you fly the arrival track the old way. That is, they assign speeds and altitudes one-at-a-time as they see fit, based on traffic, and they don’t use the “descend-via” verbiage. Ah, the good old days. After all, why do we need to meet ten different speed and altitude gates at 2 a.m. when we’re the only airplane within 100 miles?
Chances are, you reviewed the arrival and approach as published, including related NOTAMS, and you are prepared to fly them – as published. And if controllers were to make the exact same changes and “excepts” each time, we could anticipate and plan for them as well – but this is not the case. Even the words controllers use to make those exceptions are not the same from controller to controller, from day-to-day, or even state to state. It’s less of an issue in a multi-pilot cockpit, because we can share the burden. But when you’re by yourself and get behind, the rolling snowball of poo can get large, smelly and unmanageable very quickly. Perhaps you have a passenger issue, or some of your automation has failed, perhaps you pushed your fuel or your luck a bit too much, or perhaps you had multiple changes to your plan. Perhaps you don’t even understand all of the pieces of the puzzle yet. Add these things together, along with the word “except” from ATC, and that smelly snowball will run you over every time.
How do we protect ourselves from the bazillions of short notice changes? Shall we add a note to our flight plans in the remarks section: (PAPO) “Procedures As Published Only?” Or, do we simply respond with “unable” when we’re asked to comply with a made-up, modified, inconsistent and unpredictable arrival or approach procedure?
Listen Up and Ask
Here’s the thing, my friends: be prepared for modifications to published procedures. Until ATC gets a handle on how many, and how often, restrictions and issue changes can be added, and until they can enforce the use of a nationwide standard phraseology, we must be ready for continuous changes in airspeed, altitude and direction, all issued differently – unless we throw down the “unable” card. This includes completely deleted fixes. That is, a clearance direct to another fix downstream, with a clearance that may, or may not contain a statement to “resume” the procedure. If you don’t hear the word “resume” sometime after the word “except” in the modification of a speed, an altitude or a fix, then you are released from parts of the procedure. But, released from which parts? The speeds? The altitudes? The actual track? Listen up and query the controller if the clearance can be interpreted in more than one way. It clogs up the radio, but, for now, it’s our only recourse. Maybe we should go back to using the E6-B and plotter – or just shut off the comm radios; now that would certainly lessen our workload.