The Malone column
Time to view airspace infringements seriously, time to take responsibility
Iam known throughout the Civil Aviation Authority as a serial infringer of controlled airspace, but that’s okay by me because no stigma attaches, right? When FASVIG, the (deep breath) Future Airspace Strategy VFR Implementation Group, asked the CAA to suggest the name of a known infringer who could address one of their seminars, the chorus was ‘Pat Malone!’ But I’m cool with that. It’s not like my reputation’s at stake, is it. Among my fellow pilots — the people who matter — I can hold my head up. And therein lies a problem... Three years ago I wrote a column in Pilot confessing to have violated controlled airspace twice in a month. The first was coming out of the Gatwick zone, where I was too quick to flip an assigned squawk and change to an en route frequency, leaving me inside Class D airspace while not in contact with Gatwick ATC. Only lasted for a minute — a technical infringement really, no harm done, eh? Three weeks later I was coming out of Duxford, heading home to Cornwall. In order to stay clear of Luton I’d put a waypoint into the Garmin at the Westcott beacon, which kept me off their northern boundary, and I planned to stay at 2,000 feet until I got to the beacon so as to be well under controlled airspace. As I cleared Duxford I put the listening squawk into the box and switched to the Luton frequency. The track took us close to Henlow, so I kinked ever so slightly south to give them a bit of elbow room… and the wind was in the north… and I was chatting away to my pax… and the next thing I knew, Luton was reading out my callsign and telling me I’d put a wing into the zone.
A course change of a few degrees repaired matters — it was what we in the infringement business call ‘not very serious’. But when it happens twice in a month, you’ve got to start thinking.
The irony of it was that I was flying home from a seminar on infringements, where a battery of CAA and NATS brass had filled my head with every possible fact and figure on this intractable problem. Half an hour after I walked out of the lecture hall wondering how on earth so many pilots could be so dumb, and glowing with good intentions, I blithely infringed the Luton zone.
My two pax were pilots and we had 20,000 hours between us. Two of us were instructors, one a retired commercial pilot. And the conversation turned not to why I had infringed — that was bad airmanship — but why I felt so little shame at doing so. Why didn’t we really, honestly, care?
Usually, I’m mortified with embarrassment when my airmanship is found wanting. I still cringe when I remember the day I went round the Biggin circuit the wrong way, and that was in 1984. In those days you could get a dozen aircraft in the Biggin zone, and a loose cannon could annoy a lot of people. They were not backward in expressing this annoyance.
The CFI had me in, and we had ‘the talk’. In the bar, I learned from pilots whose judgement I respected that was not the sort of behaviour that was expected of a qualified pilot with sixty hours under his belt. I felt my failures had diminished me in the eyes of those whose approval I valued, and from that day to this no pilot has double-checked his circuit direction assumptions more assiduously than I. The opprobrium of my peers taught me a lesson I have not forgotten.
But what happens when I confess to infringing controlled airspace? “Oh, bad luck,” they say. “I hope they’re not after you…”
Why is a lapse of airmanship effectively condoned in the case of infringements? At the FASVIG shindig at the Royal Aeronautical Society I was not the only one indulging in a little Mao-style self-criticism; Mark Swan, the CAA’S Director of Airspace Policy, and Air Commodore David Cooper from the MOD both admitted to having infringed. In each case the response from the ninety-odd pilots in the room was a rueful little laugh — neither Swan, nor Cooper, nor I was truly judged and found wanting. And I believe that response is inadequate, unprofessional and wrong.
We were there because despite everything the CAA and NATS have thrown at the infringements problem, the number has flatlined for years at about 1,000 per annum. One day, one of those thousand will end up on the TV news as a tailplane sticking out of the smoking engine of a commercial jet that has crashed killing several hundred people. And then you can stick your plane on a pole for a garden ornament, because your flying career will be over.
So let’s think more deeply about those rueful little laughs. Airspace violations are no laughing matter — even ‘not very serious’ ones. If I infringe, I need to accept in my bones that I am a substandard pilot who cannot be trusted to share the air with those whose competence is adequate. My fellow pilots must look down on me as a clear and present danger to all good airmen and their passengers, and I must return the compliment.
Infringements are not an airspace problem, they are an attitude problem. We must treat the boundaries of controlled airspace like brick walls, and scorn those who do not. It doesn’t matter if airspace is poorly thought out, badly drawn or unnecessary — it’s there, and it’s inviolate. I did not care enough to avoid infringing because my fellow pilots have repeatedly let me off the hook, and it has to stop. Here’s a tip — imagine the infringer in front of you is a drone pilot who has busted controlled airspace. That will get you in the right frame of mind. Then let rip.
Incidentally, the CAA is getting out the big stick on infringements, lifting licences, prosecuting and all that — useful to concentrate the mind, but not a fraction as effective as peer pressure. You and I need to solve this one ourselves.
Half an hour after... I blithely infringed the Luton zone Infringements are not an airspace but an attitude problem