May 24, 2008

Failed and Forgotten

Another busy week has passed. Albany claimed our area's first operational error in the last 290 days. We had the longest running streak in the center. Now to begin another one, though they seem to happen in bunches.

The only other hubbub of note involves a little airport in upstate NY. The story begins when someone realized that Massena (MSS) VOR was unreliable at low altitude. Approaches to MSS, Malone (MAL, the airport in question) and Cornwall in Canada were immediately deemed unsafe and made unavailable. The FAA sent in flight check aircraft to survey the scope of the limited use of MSS VOR. Flight check concluded that MSS was unusable below 10000 feet (we only own 6000 and below) and they shut it down to supposedly fix it. Then they sent us a notice that SOME of the airways around MSS would have a minimum en route altitude of 10000 when MSS came back on the air, an increase of 5000 feet in some places. Meanwhile, MSS is still broke and shut down.

There is a little used rule in the 7110.65 that is outdated and needs revising. In a nutshell, it states that any aircraft that is non-radar (in this case, below radar coverage) and/or does not have a GPS/FMS to navigate by cannot be cleared anywhere it can not receive a ground based radio aid signal. The rule is complicated, and very inconvenient. Someone upstairs in Saftey Assurance has started cracking down on this rule being used when we give clearances out of MSS, PTD, OGS, and MAL. Since MSS is dead "indefinitely", we are forced to clear ALL aircraft departing these airports to navaids that are within range of the airport when the aircraft enters controlled airspace (about 1200 feet about the ground, give or take). OGS has the OG radio beacon; PTD has an associated beacon as well. MSS has MISSE outer marker. All of these beacons are issued as clearance limits on departure, with no delay expected, and the radar controller must then clear the aircraft beyond the beacon once the aircraft is radar identified. This increases workload significantly.

MAL doesn't have a beacon. No other VOR or beacon is close enough to be used appropriately. Keep in mind, when these aircraft are forced to be cleared short to these beacons, they are mostly all equipped with GPS, and subsequently cleared to far off points via direct routing, as if to spite the very rule we're so concerned about breaking. The rule shouldn't apply to GPS equipped aircraft, but the rule hasn't been updated lately.

So, after considering all options, we decided that we were unable to issue an IFR clearance off MAL airport in any direction. Aircraft would be forced to depart VFR and then receive clearance once airborne. When the weather is marginal, this is widely considered much less safe than having an IFR clearance before taking the runway for departure. In addition, there are mountains to the east and south of MAL airport. The preferred procedure would be to clear aircraft direct MSS (northwest of the field) and then on course (away from the higher terrain). Keep in mind, an actual VOR signal is not required to navigate to a VOR with a GPS. All the fixes are stored in a GPS so that it can be overflown regardless of its operational status. This is allowed in radar coverage, but for some reason, flying direct to a broken VOR isn't allowed below radar coverage.

We haven't cleared an aircraft off MAL airport in months, so all of this was brushed off with a "don't worry, this won't ever be a factor anyway, no one flies out of MAL". Lo and behold, no less than an hour after this realization that we can't clear anyone out of MAL, an aircraft needs a clearance because the clouds are low enough that the pilot can fly VFR east over the mountains. "Unable" is the reply. So Safety Assurance scrambles for a solution. They decide that Plattsburgh (PLB, about 40 southeast of MAL) is usable for this departure procedure rule (officially known as Nav-aid use limitations). Montpelier sector is called to block for the departure, and they note that Burlington approach control owns about 15 miles east of MAL. Our sector doesn't have a line to ask them to block either, so we ask around and figure out a way to dial their number. They begrudgingly approved the block and we issue the clearance.

A few hours later, another aircraft requests IFR clearance from MAL to somewhere in Wisconsin. We get Montpelier and Burlington to block for the departure, and issue the clearance "cleared via revised routing, direct Plattsburgh, direct London (Ontario), then as filed, etc etc". The pilot of course is scratching is head why he has to fly eastbound towards mountains instead of flying westbound towards low terrain and his destination. Ultimately, it becomes more of a climbing right turn loop departure, as the jet is quickly radar identified and turned on course. While the rules are being followed, and the staff folks are happy upstairs, its hard to believe breaking the rules wouldn't make the world a safer place for the pilots departing westbound out of MAL.

The next day, Burlington refuses to block all the way to PLB, and we have to refuse IFR clearance again. I never found out what happened, as it was right before my time to go home. I'm sure he's safe, somewhere.



Anonymous said...

Hey! Nice job. I am all caught up, so start writing more. I like your writing style.


John said...

This is a very interesting post.

A few years back on an instructional fligh departing Hayward, CA for Monterey, my student had carefully checked NOTAMs. He discovered the Woodside VOR was out of service. When we called for our clearance, it began with "... radar vectors Woodside ..." We both scratched our heads.

Our aircraft had a TSO-129 GPS and the AIM says:

"The avionics necessary to receive all of the ground-based facilities appropriate for the route to the destination airport and any required alternate airport must be installed and operational. Ground-based facilities necessary for these routes must also be operational."

We tried to tell the controller we couldn't accept the clearance because Woodside was out of service. They told us to work it out with Norcal after departure.

After takeoff and handoff, Norcal told us "direct Woodside when able, resume own navigation ..." A short discussion ensued about whether or not we could legally do this. The controller insisted it was okay since we were slant golf, I insisted that with a TSO-129 GPS receiver the underlying VOR had to be working. We finally agreed that he would radar vector us to the airway with kind of a wink and a nod. This wasn't dangerous since we were VMC during the entire flight, but it set a bad example for my student from an instructional standpoint.

There has to be a better way ...