Category Archives: Airspace

The FAA Wants You to Text While Flying

That’s right. The FAA wants pilots to text while flying. But not on your phone. A VHF Data Link, is the digital conduit for text messages between ATC and airplanes. Consider it the next step in the Next Generation Air Transportation System. Right now participation is voluntary, but one way or another, that may change once we get past the ADS-B deadline of January 1, 2020 (How are you doing on that, by the way?).

There’s no telling if or when there will be a similar mandate for data communication equipment, but ATC has ways of encouraging aircraft operators to step up. First among them is serving first those aircraft with the desired equipment. And with data comm, being equipped is the only way to take advantage of the service.

For those fuzzy on exactly what data comm is, and what it can do, in simple terms, it’s a text message a controller sends to a pilot. When the system is fully operational, it could be anything from an IFR clearance to reroutes to a alternate destination and just about anything in between. The messages use a set format. Upon receipt, the pilot reads and then pushes a button to accept or decline the instructions. If accepted, the pilot then hits another button to load the instructions into the airplanes flight management system.

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Class B: Inside or Out, Be Aware of Invisible Lines in the Sky

Class B PWKClass B airspace is a three-dimensional sculpture defined by invisible lines of altitudes and radial distances from the airport that anchors this funnel of protected airspace to the ground. In our case, that’s Chicago O’Hare International. Before the advent of moving map technology that, if enabled, makes these boundaries visible, pilots had to keep close track of their position relative to them. Apparently, technology has not solved the Class B incursion and excursion problem. If it had, would the FAA have issued a Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO 17001) dedicated to this issue?

Chicago Exec is tucked into a Class B notch in ORD’s 10-mile ring. It’s like an attic bedroom, with narrow walls that angle toward a narrow ceiling just 3,000 feet above the ground. Considering the number of aircraft the share this small alcove, and the speed at which they fly, it’s not a lot a room, especially when Mother Nature is in a meteorological mood. Making aviator awareness of aircraft position even more important are the winged behemoths above the line that are descending toward O’Hare.

The SAFO addresses both Class B incursions and excursions. Not singling out any specific Class B airspace, it says that some instrument approaches that take an airplane operating in Class B across the line, and then back in. Other excursions occur when pilots sink, for a moment, below a glide path that scrapes the floor of that Class B layer. If there’s another airplane outside of the Class B that’s crowding the boundary altitude, or if either airplane hasn’t accurately set its altimeter, bad things can happen. If they are lucky, they will escape with Near Mid Air Collision (NMAC) and the resulting increase in heart rate and blood pressure.

Now pilots know that they need clearance from Air Traffic Control (ATC) to enter Class B airspace, and it’s the controllers job to keep airplanes in Class B airspace from inadvertent meetings. And they do a world-class job of it. But they may not be working airplanes on the other side of the line. When these dedicated pros get busy, which means a heavy load of traffic, the SAFO explained, ATC may give an airplane instructions that will take it across the line, which is why pilots must always know where they are relative to that boundary. Why? Because “they may not be advised of such an event during times of high controller workload.”

And if ATC is busy, the chances of aircraft outside Class B getting flight following are nonexistent to not good. In other words, it behooves pilots on both sides of the line to not only know where they are relative to it, but to also keep their eyes open and searching and not depend on ATC to find and call out the traffic for them.

The SAFO recommends that pilots review and brief the Class B boundaries when their flight will be in or near it. And they should compare those boundaries to the instrument approaches they might fly and where they are relative to the Class B airspace. Whether the approach begins just below or just above the floor of a Class B layer, think of it as scud running through a maze, a situation in which there is little or no room for error, especially when following ATC vectors. Pilots should always be aware of their position relative to the maze’s vertical and horizontal invisible lines and redouble their see & avoid scan when they get close to either side of the line.

To Keep Your Proper Distance, Use the Correct CNS Capability Code on Every Flight Plan

Few pilots flying today would turn their backs on the aviation advances made possible by digital communication, navigation, and surveillance (CNS) avionics. Newer aviators grew up in the GPS generation, so really know nothing else. And for the VOR generation of pilots, maybe it has been so long that they take technology’s benefits for granted. But in either case, all the wonderful stuff modern CNS equipment does to make an aviator’s life easier comes with responsibilities. First among them is using the correct CNS capability code on every flight plan, so ATC can employ the proper separation standards and keep everyone safe.

Some may say that they always provide the proper CNS code, and this may well be the case with you. But it is not universal, which is why the FAA issued Information for Operators (InFO) 16015. “The Federal Aviation Administration continues to experience operators/pilots filing the incorrect CNS codes due to aircraft system deferrals, aircraft not properly equipped or approved, or pilots not qualified for CNS capability on the FPL [Flight Plan Filing]. Given the congested Chicagoland airspace, making sure your aircraft is properly equipped and approved, and that you are properly trained and qualified on that equipment, and that you use appropriate CNS code on every flight plan makes life easier, more efficient—and safer—for all who share the sky.

All of this became especially important in November 2012 when the FAA harmonized its flight plan with the International Civil Aviation Organization flight plan box 10, Equipment  & Capabilities,  and box 18, Other Information such as RNAV and Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) capabilities. To make sure you are employing the right CNS codes you can start with the handy FAA ICAO FPL Quick Guide. To get deeper into the topic, see FAA Operations Specifications/LOA [Letter of Authorization]/Approvals Required to File Various Capabilities. It is an overview and portal with links to the related regs and requirements.

Airplanes, Airspace & Chicago Executive Airport

Terminal ChartTo those on the ground, airspace is invisibly boundless. All that changes in an airplane. To make flying safe for pilots, their passengers, and people on the ground , the sky is subdivided into unseen slices delineated by altitude and distances from specific points on the ground, like airports. In each of five airspace categories, pilots and aircraft must meet specific training, equipment, and procedural requirements, from weather and visibility minimums to getting clearance from air traffic control before crossing one of these invisible dividing lines.

Naturally, the more airplanes and airports there are in a given area, the more complex the airspace, like that which covers Chicagoland. O’Hare International (ORD) anchors the angular funnel that is Class B controlled airspace, which is roughly 10 nautical miles in diameter where it touches the ground. When measured east to west, the top of the funnel, at 10,000 feet, is 60 nautical miles in diameter. If O’Hare was the only airport covered by this funnel, guiding airliners to and from it would be a simple matter. But it is one of roughly 16 public and private aerodromes, one of which, Chicago Midway (MDW) is encompassed with its own bubble of Class C controlled airspace.

Looking at the Chicago Terminal Area Chart above, Chicago Executive Airport (PWK) is easy to find. It is in the notch cut into the 5-to-10-nautical mile ring that encircles O’Hare. That cutout raises the floor of Class B airspace, entry into which requires an air traffic control clearance, from 1,900 feet in the rest of the 5-10-mile ring to 3,000 feet, as do the corner slices adjacent to the PWK notch.  Those wide blue tinted lines cutting through the rings denote the recommended paths and altitudes for pilots flying under visual flight rules beneath the Class B airspace.

And it is a busy airspace funnel. The FAA’s Air Traffic Activity System tracks and reports the number of operations (takeoffs and landings) at airports with control towers and the number of airplanes fed to those airports by the air traffic control facility responsible for the airspace, which for Chicagoland is located in Elgin. In 2015, it handled 1,248,503 operations, with 782,905 of them being airliners, most of which were on their way to O’Hare or Midway. That same year Elgin routed 318,434 air taxi (aka charter flights) and 110,407 general aviation operations to their destinations.

PWK NotchPlugging Chicago Executive Airport into the Air Traffic Activity System showed that in 2015 its control tower handled 76,901 operations. Of that number, the FAA classified the majority of them “IFR Itinerant,” meaning the airplanes taking off or landing were going to or coming from some other airport. Of the 34,188 such operations in 2015, general aviation accounted for 21,719 and air taxi (charter) tallied 12,376. It’s a busy place that is a notched neighbor of an even busier place.

The point is that each operation represents an airplane that’s going someplace, either starting or concluding its flight. The floor of the Class B airspace over Chicago Exec starts at 3,000 feet and climbs to 10,000 feet. Nearly all business jets depart PWK on an instrument flight plan. Before takeoff, air traffic control  clears them through and out of Class B airspace on a specific departure route that keeps them safely separated from all the other airplanes flying in the funnel. ATC reverses the process for airplanes bound for Chicago Exec.

When the weather is good, most of the other general aviation traffic, from people flying their own planes on business or for pleasure and newcomers learning to fly, stay out of Class B airspace by flying beneath its floor. Over Chicago Exec, that’s 3,000 feet, but directly east or west it quickly descends to 1,900 feet with steps down in the adjacent transition areas. So when you look up at the sound of an airplane flying over, see no other airplanes in the immediate vicinity, and wonder why it is so low, remember that the pilot is avoiding the invisible layers of the Class B airspace, and that this single airplane is just one of more than a million making its way to or from Chicagoland every year.