Prepare to be Aware – #2 of the Big 5

The lack of position awareness takes place more often than we want to admit. In a post 9/11 world, even more than before, it is absolutely vital that pilots know exactly where they are all the time.

Fortunately, being “lost” is a usually a temporary situation. We refocus our attention to the problem and usually quickly regain a sense of where we are. But the occasional wayward pilot wanders into airspace without a clearance. This points out another circumstance where pilots must increase their awareness.

The problem — be the numbers: The NASA reports and accident reports are filled with stories of pilots who ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time. There are so many that “penetration of airspace” rates among the Big 5 accident/incident causes. This has become even more true with the increase in Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs). GPS moving map units are great, and they show many airspace boundaries, but airspace altitudes are usually not depicted and TFR information is not depicted at all – so the GPS can actually be a trap that leads to airspace penetration problems. For these pilots, here’s exactly how it happened…

Incursion Into Temporarily Restricted Area
NASA Number: 449339

I was hired to fly a photographer on a mission over flood-stricken Franklin, Virginia, and Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. A “self brief” was conducted with a commercial weather terminal and everything looked fine for the proposed flight. The flight was completed and on my way back to Norfolk, I heard another company pilot request a clearance that was denied due to a temporary flight restriction. That got me thinking. I used ATC flight following from Norfolk to Franklin, terminated and continued to Roanoke Rapids for more pictures. On the way back I contacted Washington Center while within the restricted area, but was told to go back to squawking VFR and to contact Norfolk approach. Nothing was mentioned of the temporary flight restriction. I checked DUATS when I returned and discovered that I had been in the temporary restricted area for some time during the flight. I will never rely on briefing terminals for up-to-date FDC notams again without backup from FSS or a DUAT brief.

PROBLEM: The pilot’s “self-brief” was not as comprehensive as it should have been, since it did not turn up the existence of the temporary restricted area. He might have been suspicious of the restricted area’s existence since he himself was flying over the flooded area. Temporary Restricted areas are often thrown over areas of natural disaster so that “sightseers” in aircraft will not create a hazard with rescue operations.

SOLUTION: These days I never hang up from my conversation with FSS without asking, “are there any TFRs that will effect my route of flight?” In this case the pilot did not think to ask, so he departed without being completely aware of the situation.

Unauthorized Penetration of Class B after Bird Strike
NASA Number: 451968

A student and I were on a night cross country flight. A major objective of the lesson was training within a Class B airspace. We entered from Leesburg, Virginia to Stevensville / Bay Bridge, Maryland. I contacted Dulles approach for a clearance. They “handed off” to DCA approach, but DCA approach would not acknowledge our transmissions at all. We tried repeatedly to speak with them, but received not one acknowledgment. We were forced to navigate around the Class B between Baltimore/Washington (BWI) and Andrews Air Force Base, while transitioning the VFR flyway. Then we suffered a bird strike, which covered my side of the windshield in bird parts. Then, while trying to re-establish visual navigation, we inadvertently entered Class B at Baltimore / Washington.

PROBLEM: A bird strike at night would be a very scary, very disorienting situation. You probably would not see the bird coming so you would have no warning that it was a bird. You would not know in the first moments what had happened. There have been instances where the bird came through the window and injured the pilot. Instructors and examiners can dream up some wild distraction scenarios, but nothing would prepare you for this. This particular situation was further complicated by the “hand-off” (passing the flight from one controller / frequency to another).

STRATEGY: As pilots approach busy terminal areas, they must prepare for problems and expect the unexpected — even a window full of “bird parts.” The best defense is to be on guard and make sure you’re well ahead of the airplane — expected and prepare for procedures, checklists and even communications. If you do, you’ll be much better prepared to deal with the unexpected.

Unauthorized Penetration of a Class B Airspace
NASA Number: 450039

I took off under VFR from Burke Lakefront Airport, runway 24L. Tower cleared me for a right turnout after takeoff because I advised I was VFR westbound. The floor of the Cleveland Class B airspace in that area is 1900 feet MSL and intended to level of at 1800 feet. Using a hand-held VFR GPS, I planned to fly around the inner core until I was southwest of Cleveland and could proceed direct to LUK airport. As reported and forecasted, there was turbulence in the low altitude and I discovered that I had climbed above 1900 feet floor and was at 2100 feet MSL. I believe it was for a very brief period – probably considerably less than one minute – and I immediately descended back to 1800 feet.

I think the following contributed to this event: 1) Fatigue – I had been in conferences for three days and had slept poorly for several nights. 2) Insufficient attention – situational awareness in a critical phase of flight, 3) Complexity of the airspace system, 4) Turbulent weather and terminal activity, 5) Lack of effective trim (pitch trim) technique. I did not ensure that the airplane was properly trimmed for level flight, 6) Being in too much of a hurry in the before takeoff check. I should have “rebriefed” myself on climb and heading restrictions or should have contacted Cleveland departure control for a clearance through the airspace. As an FAA Safety Program Manager, I have taught and counseled pilots on the use of and respect for the airspace. I’m dismayed and embarrassed that “it happened” to me. Maybe I’ll be more effective!

This pilot’s analysis of his own mistakes was a laundry list of common awareness traps: fatigue, inattention in a complex environment, being in a hurry. He summed it up best when he admitted that he had lost “situational awareness in a critical phase of flight.

PROBLEM: Pilots tend to think that problems will happen to the “other guy.” The pilot in this story was an FAA Safety Program Manager who routinely gave talks on airspace. This is a great example of the fact that it can happen to anyone, no matter his or her experience level. At anytime awareness can insidiously slip away and any pilot can get caught off guard.

STRATEGY: The creeping loss of situation awareness can happen to anyone. Vigilance is the only defense. Cruise flight can be much less demanding than departure or landing. Pilots should keep themselves busy with the business of flight. To stay tuned in to flight operations when the skill-set demand is low, evaluate every situation to uncover and anticipate problems. We must prepare to be aware.

Law Enforcement Pilot Penetrates Class C without Clearance
NASA Number: 452410

While flying a surveillance mission, I entered the BUR Class C airspace without radio contact with the BUR tower. I had been flying inbound over Interstate Highway 5 at 1800 feet, talking to Southern California approach control, and awaiting a Class B clearance. As I came close to the Hollywood Hills area, leaving the Class B area, I canceled my clearance request and my radar services were terminated. I was about 1 mile from the BUR surface area, and while looking at my chart for their tower frequency, I entered the Class C surface area. I was one and one half miles inside when I realized my mistake. I am a new pilot with the county law enforcement unit. On this date I was working with ground units engaged in a mobile surveillance. I was monitoring other aircraft in the area, my ground units, and communicating with my observer. I got behind on my cockpit workload. I believe my inexperience played a role in this violation. There was a fatigue factor, due to long hours this week. Our crew consists of two pilots, and I should have let the other crew member fly while I observed, due to the fatigue factor.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Fatigue in a complex environment, distractions, and lack of experience are all themes that reoccur throughout the incident reports. But regardless of your experience level, there’s no reason to think you are immune. As pilots we know these problem areas exist so we should not get blind-sided. When pilot workload goes up, awareness must follow. When pilot workload goes down, vigilance must counter.