Flying - - FRONT PAGE - By Bret Koebbe


The past few years have been the most ex­cit­ing and dynamic stretch of time for me since I started fly­ing 20 years ago. Much of it has been driven by the changes and ben­e­fits re­sult­ing from the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the FAA’s NextGen plan, as the na­tional airspace sys­tem tran­si­tions from 1950s-era ground-based radar and VHF ra­dio tech­nol­ogy to ADS-B sur­veil­lance and datalink com­mu­ni­ca­tions. The two most use­ful ben­e­fits have been ADS-B datalink weather and a real-time traf­fic dis­play in the cock­pit, de­liv­ered by the net­work of ADS-B ground sta­tions in the United States. These free ser­vices are avail­able to pi­lots of all air­craft types (even drones) thanks to the wide­spread avail­abil­ity of in­ex­pen­sive, por­ta­ble ADS-B re­ceivers and rapid de­vel­op­ments in mo­bile app and panel-mount avion­ics tech­nol­ogy.

There is a lot more to gain from these NextGen ser­vices than just be­ing able to see the lo­ca­tion of thun­der­storm cells on your iPad in flight or not­ing the lo­ca­tion of an air­liner pass­ing 10 miles in front of you. When used strate­gi­cally, you can use this in­for­ma­tion to gain ad­di­tional in­sight into what’s go­ing on in the airspace around you and make bet­ter-in­formed de­ci­sions on each flight, giv­ing you an edge when deal­ing with air traf­fic con­trol.

Un­til re­cently, we had no other choice but to rely on ATC and Flight Ser­vice as the pri­mary source of in-flight in­for­ma­tion. How is the weather de­vel­op­ing? Call the con­troller or a flight ser­vice spe­cial­ist to find out. Where is the traf­fic? Wait for ATC to in­form you of a po­ten­tial con­flict. What is the best IFR route, and which ap­proach can I ex­pect? ATC will tell you when it’s con­ve­nient for them.

These chal­lenges and un­knowns have al­ways been a part of fly­ing IFR, but with NextGen, that’s start­ing to change. This new tech­nol­ogy has elim­i­nated many of these un­knowns, pro­vid­ing pi­lots with the in­for­ma­tion needed to make in­formed de­ci­sions dur­ing ev­ery phase of flight, from pre­flight to shut­down.

Let’s start with the IFR route se­lec­tion process. Gone are the days of mak­ing an ed­u­cated guess on a route, only to have ATC re­spond with a full route clear­ance with in­ter­sec­tions and air­ways. It now takes only a mo­ment in ForeF­light, Garmin Pi­lot or to en­ter a de­par­ture and des­ti­na­tion air­port and then see re­cently is­sued clear­ances to other air­craft fly­ing the same route. The routes are even sorted by alti­tude so you can find the op­tion that best matches the per­for­mance of your air­plane. File one of these routes and you’re al­most guar­an­teed a “cleared as filed” from clear­ance de­liv­ery.

On that same topic, the need to “call” clear­ance de­liv­ery is no longer a re­quire­ment at all air­ports. Both ForeF­light and of­fer GA pi­lots con­ve­nient ac­cess to the pre-de­par­ture clear­ance sys­tem that the air­lines have been us­ing for years. Af­ter en­rolling in this ser­vice, and when de­part­ing from one of more than 70 ap­proved air­ports in the United States, your IFR clear­ance will be sent via email and text mes­sage 30 min­utes be­fore de­par­ture. Cur­rently, this works at air­ports served by air­lines in busy Class B and C airspace, where you’re also most likely to re­ceive a com­plex IFR rout­ing. The tex­tual clear­ance also in­cludes a dig­i­tal tran­scrip­tion of the cur­rent ATIS. With these re­quired tasks out of the way be­fore you step foot in the air­plane, you can de­vote 100 per­cent of your at­ten­tion to pro­gram­ming the GPS and pre­par­ing for taxi in­stead of

study­ing IFR charts and de­par­ture pro­ce­dures, search­ing for ob­scure way­points and other po­ten­tial gotchas.

Af­ter take­off, you can use the datalink weather com­po­nent of NextGen to stay ahead of ATC when fly­ing near con­vec­tive weather. Prior to ADS-B, you had to rely on the ad­vice of ATC, Flight Watch and Flight Ser­vice to guide you around the storms (and hold on tight if the ride got rough). Now you can eas­ily iden­tify thun­der­storms, ic­ing or tur­bu­lence threats hun­dreds of miles away and re­quest a mod­i­fied route ac­cord­ingly. The con­trollers pre­fer you han­dle weather avoid­ance in this man­ner with a pre­de­ter­mined route as op­posed to fly­ing up to the weather and then mak­ing mul­ti­ple head­ing re­quests.

On longer flights, the best time to start plan­ning for the ar­rival and ap­proach is when things are quiet dur­ing cruise and while sev­eral hun­dred miles from the des­ti­na­tion. The prob­lem is you might not be able to re­ceive the ATIS at this range, so there’s no way to con­firm which run­way or in­stru­ment ap­proach is in use to be­gin pre­par­ing for the ap­proach. Don’t give up there. With ADS-B

In, some apps, such as ForeF­light, show the rec­om­mended run­way based on the cur­rent winds. Some panel-mounted ADS-B units, such as L-3’s Lynx NGT-9000, of­fer live metars, which will also give you an in­di­ca­tion of the run­way in use.

If there are mul­ti­ple run­ways and the wind di­rec­tion doesn’t give you the in­for­ma­tion you want, you might be able to de­ter­mine the ac­tive run­way with some de­tec­tive work with the traf­fic layer in your mo­bile app. First, make sure you have an un­re­stricted or un­fil­tered traf­fic layer en­abled on the mov­ing map, then zoom in to the des­ti­na­tion air­port and turn on the ex­tended cen­ter­lines fea­ture. Now, keep an eye out for traf­fic ap­proach­ing to­ward and de­scend­ing from the air­port, and you’ll be able to dis­cern which run­way is in use. I used this trick when fly­ing into Ap­ple­ton, Wis­con­sin, in the Ci­ta­tion for AirVen­ture this year and was able to de­ter­mine they were us­ing the ILS Run­way 3 ap­proach. All of this was ob­served by track­ing an­other air­plane’s fi­nal ap­proach course on the ILS chart while I was still 250 miles south­east of the air­port.

You can use the nearby traf­fic de­pic­tion to ex­pe­dite the is­suance of a vis­ual ap­proach clear­ance too when fly­ing into a busy tow­ered air­port. When the weather is VFR, it’s not un­com­mon to be vec­tored into a se­quence be­hind mul­ti­ple air­craft. The in­ef­fi­ciency oc­curs as ATC has to build in ex­tra spac­ing be­tween each air­plane to en­sure ad­e­quate sep­a­ra­tion, lead­ing to time-con­sum­ing vec­tors. But here’s where your NextGen tools can help. Af­ter vis­ually lo­cat­ing the air­port, be­gin de­vel­op­ing a men­tal pic­ture of the pre­ced­ing air­craft and try to find its lo­ca­tion on the traf­fic dis­play on your iPad. This should make it much eas­ier to spot it vis­ually, at which point you can let ATC know you have both air­port and traf­fic in sight. If they’re on top of things, the con­trollers can now clear you for the vis­ual ap­proach sooner since you’ve vis­ually iden­ti­fied the air­plane you’re fol­low­ing.

This is just the be­gin­ning of what NextGen can of­fer to make our flights more ef­fi­cient and our in­ter­ac­tions with ATC more mean­ing­ful. The next 10 years will be even more ex­cit­ing, as in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity reaches the GA cock­pit and ATC com­mu­ni­ca­tions tran­si­tion to dig­i­tal mes­sages. I’m per­son­ally look­ing for­ward to re­tir­ing the phrase “say again” and for­get­ting how to ad­just the squelch on ana­log ra­dios.

The time to start plan­ning for the ar­rival is hun­dreds of miles from the des­ti­na­tion.

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