JOHAN LOTTERING'S FOCUSED FLYING-BE CULTURALLY CORRECT WITH ATC
By Johan Lottering
In the clash between two different worlds of business and aviation a 'culturally incorrect' approach often prevails in speech patterns. In aviation 'his master's voice' invariably belongs to a mere a blip on a radar screen… and the bigger blip prevails. Whilst the semantics of a similar phrase or expression may be 'legally sound' and wholly effective in a business milieu, resulting in other directors and heads of departments getting entire teams on the move, handling an aerials situation or problem like an 'MD' or 'CEO' may be wholly counter-productive.
ATCs are primarily concerned and preoccupied with traffic separation and flow-control. Anything else would constitute conflict. They communicate with traffic which may be out of range to other pilots on the same frequency. Unlike most crews they are also aware of approaching traffic still in other airspaces. Potential disruption must therefore be clearly justifiable. From the pilot's perspective, the quickest and surest way to avoid misconstruence in dealing with an imminent technical malfunction such as loss of cabin pressure is to declare an emergency in no uncertain terms.
In busy airspaces ATCs economize words. They neither pay undue attention to vocal intonations, nor pre-empt problems or embark on series of interrogations. A paradigm shift is therefore needed among pilots in dealing with pressurization problems. As more and more owners emerge owning the super-singles and VLJs, this may introduce an entirely new 'batch' of participants in upper airspaces previously reserved for the 'pros'. Of particular significance is that insidious loss of cabin pressure may be diagnosed very late into a situation, whilst mental faculties are already affected.
A leaky seal can sometimes be either silent, or go off like a siren. With the advent of automation new problems were introduced such as 'mode confusion error', 'clutter' and 'information overload'. Crews may misinterpret, dismiss or even 'rationalise' warnings of a particular nature. In the Helios Air disaster (more below) the cabin depressurization was treated as a 'misconfiguration error'. Passing the buck to ATC with failing mental faculties is the last thing crews wish to do, though vital.
Decompression-related accidents like the Lear 35 crash involving PGA golfer Payne Stewart and five fellow-occupants on October 25, 1999, show a mere six minutes (between radio-transmissions) can make the difference between useful consciousness and incapacitation. The flight was underway from Stanford, Florida to Dallas, Texas before veering off course, flying on autopilot some 1, 300 nautical miles across the Midwestern United States, before running out of fuel and plummeting from an incredible 46, 400 feet into a field in South Dakota. The aircraft had previous pressurization problems.
Notwithstanding, crews still do not seem to regard loss of cabin pressure as 'sufficiently' life-threatening. Many seem hesitant of 'overstating the predicament' perhaps trying to avoid unjustified attention. We seem to dread the prospect of 'creating a stir'. Worse is having to declare 'ops normal' after a rapid descend, having scrambled everyone else out of the airway and sounding foolish after e.g. 'finger trouble' such as incorrect mode setting.
In the Helios Air Flight 525 disaster the engineer had forgotten to return the cabin pressure controller to 'auto' after attending to pressurization problems. The failing pilots could simply not figure it out what he was trying to tell them over the company frequency. All 121 occupants aboard the Boeing 737-300 were killed when they eventually flew into a mountain near Athens. All the 'bells and whistles' were misinterpreted. The record suggests pressurization problems should warrant a 'MAYDAY' and not merely a 'PAN' call. Overall, crews would do well to rethink and adhere to the fundamental 'Aviate, Navigate and Communicate' or 'ANC' approach during such emergencies. Trouble-shooting can always be done at a safe, lower oxygen rich level. Harm by an un-stowed tea trolley would be comparatively negligible.
At the first indication of loss of cabin altitude, the best would be to don masks, turning 90 degrees off the airway to minimize risk of collision with other traffic whilst closing the power or condition levers and disconnecting the autopilot. Drag can be added by deploying spoilers and lowering gear and flaps once within structural airspeed limits. In a turboprop or jet the rates of descent yielded are up to 8, 000 to 10, 000 feet per minute. During training many pilots omit 'minor things' like activating the mask microphone, checking the grid MORA or squawking 7700 (the emergency code) on the transponder ident.
Nevertheless, commanders factor all sorts of 'secondary' consequences and even 'liabilities' into their decision making. Should 'ops normal' be declared after sorting out a problem and something goes wrong later, they would have lots of explaining to do. As a rule nobody would thank them for saving their lives, especially not in the corporate or charter-flying environment. The potential loss of business is a major deterrent.
Business people participating in aviation are invariably captains of industry. Some can neither handle not being in control nor influencing the potential outcome of situation. This perhaps explains the thrill and appeal of owning and handling the 'super-singles'. Furthermore, business people are used to being surrounded by those eager to please, instantly responding to their slightest wish, expressed as a 'want' or a 'need'. In military environments the same applies. Subordinates are trained that an officer's request is a command, even if dressed up as a diplomatic 'question' or 'suggestion'.
Without pointing fingers, the events of September 5, 2014 may serve as a painful reminder to revise our approach. It seems few if any had foreseen that with the automatic MFD regulated pressurization schedule, problems of this kind could still occur, as events suggest. Notwithstanding, a pristine specimen of the world's fastest single-engine turboprop plunged from 25, 000 feet into the Caribbean sea off the coast of Jamaica. The most likely cause was loss of cabin pressure with subsequent pilot incapacitation due to hypobaric hypoxia. The occupants were the pilot and chairman of the TBM Owners' and Pilots' Association, Larry Glazer, and his wife for 47 years, Jane. The family blog shows the Glazers were warm, family and community oriented people. According to a friend Glazer was 'a true gentleman'. This admirable character trait is perhaps the most compelling reason to sit up and take note.
With 5, 000 flying hours behind his name and an instrument rating Glazer was no rookie. He attended safety conventions, like the one in California attended by 42 TBM aircraft and owners this year. He had flown the route between Rochester County Airport in New York and their second home near Naples in Florida in his previous aircraft, a TBM 700, since 1994 numerous times. Upon reaching North Carolina at the cruising Flight Level 280 he would be composed in advising ATC, "N900KN", (the aircraft call-sign), "we need to (emphasis added) descend down to about 180. We have an indication which is not correct". Listening to the CNN broadcast of the audio recording of the rest of the dialogue with ATC, Glazer seemed neither unsure nor unassertive about his requirement. He was told to 'stand by', then cleared to Flight Level 250 - which would not have helped. Glazer simply reiterated, "Two Five Zero. 900 KN. We need to get lower"… Minutes later he could no longer respond.
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