Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Are You Guaranteed protection From A Collision When ON ATC's Radar...

When flying VFR either with or without a flight plan, are you guaranteed  protection from a collision with ground based objects as towers or hills, when on ATC’s radar screen? No you are not. Unless you are on an IFR flight plan and communicating with an ATC facility, ATC has no responsibility for warning you of danger ahead.  
A recent accident, taken from the FAA accident file offers a clear example of this. An ATP pilot with 22,000 hours of flight time, flying a King Air C-90 was on a repositioning flight from a nearby Pennsylvania airport to Morganton,WV (MGW). The trip was of no more than about 30 miles, tops 15 minutes in a King Air. No flight plan had been filed. The pilot initially climbed to 3100 ft.  Before entering the MGW airspace, the pilot called Clarksburg Approach Control approach control and was given a discrete transponder code.  Approximately 9 miles east of the airport the controller advised the pilot he was “Radar Contact”. At that time the plane was at 3100 ft and began descent to 3000ft. Not soon after the plane struck a communications tower.

Had the pilot filed an IFR flight plan, ATC would almost certainly have warned the pilot of the ground hazard and/or given immediate vectors around it. The other thing seemingly missing from this pilots flight bag was a current VFR map. Had the pilot studied the map before taking off, or even enroute, he would have noted the presence of two towers east of his destination. The highest one had an elevation of 2651 ft with other high ones around and mountains just over 3000 ft in elevation slightly to the north.

Now that we are in the midst of a very hot summer, we should all be prepared for the inevitable thunderstorm somewhere along our route of flight. Reviewing another recent accident, this one in Florida, should cause anyone who thinks about penetrating an area of moderate or severe thunderstorm activity, to think again.

A Pilatus aircraft flown by a private pilot with instrument rating took off midday from Lake Wales enroute Junction City Kansas. He filed for 26000 ft ( must be nice to have a turboprop). Not soon after takeoff not yet at flight level 260, Center advised the pilot of an area of precipitation with moderate, heavy and extreme echoes. The latter two are worthy of note. He was advised to deviate to the right and advise center when clear of the weather etc. Well, reading the description of the ensuing flight, it  sounds as if the pilot got into more than he could handle and ended up spinning, with loss of control, ending up in a pile of wreckage with all dead.

The message here is that even if you have onboard radar*, don’t assume that you can see through all the bad stuff and sort it all out. I don’t think even the big guys with the best radars can penetrate, or would try to bust through a storm that contains extreme echoes (meaning severe turbulence, icing and hail,?tornado)**. This kind of weather is more appropriately handled by a 180 degree turn, and a rescheduled flight, when encountered by a relatively slow non-airliner type plane. The moral: you can’t always continue, but may have to land and reconsider things. Always leave yourself an out!
So, as always, fly safely and well, and be mentally prepared for what may lie ahead.

Some interesting reference articles on the topic of flying with thunderstorms around are:
*On A Mission: Best Practices ON Thunderstorm Avoidance; www.AviationSafetyMagazine.com

**Various blogs about dealing with thunderstorms, Nexrad vs on board radar etc; www.AVWeb .com, Jun3, 2012-AvWeb Insider

PS- Almost all the articles say:Nexrad for strategy,airborne radar for close in work. But all say bewary.