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Aviate, Navigate, COMMUNICATE

by Rod Ridley, Regional System Safety Officer, Prairie and Northern Region

Anyone who flies has heard the old rhyming phrase that is the title of this article. These three words form the fundamentals of safely piloting an airplane - fly the airplane; get to where you want to go safely; and talk to people about where you are going. Unless you are flying circuits from your own grass strip in the country and never fly anywhere else, chances are you will eventually fly into and out of airports that have a control tower, or a mandatory frequency (MF) that has certain basic requirements as outlined in sections 602.97 to 602.104 of the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs).

At these times, talking to people takes on a high degree of importance because you must share the airspace with other folks in large and small aircraft. If you don’t talk to others about where you are, or if others don’t tell you where they are, the risk of problems arising increases, with dramatic results. Take these recent cases in point:

Case 1: The instructor and student were conducting circuits in a single-engine aircraft at a satellite airport, and were descending on the base leg. Pre-landing checks had been completed and a position report made on the MF. Just seconds before turning final, a twin-engine executive aircraft passed right in front of the training aircraft, on a straight-in approach to the active runway without so much as a word on the MF. Fortunately the instructor and student saw the other aircraft before a risk of collision could occur, but this incident could have had a different outcome.

Case 2: During another dual training flight in a single-engine airplane, the instructor and student were performing circuits at an uncontrolled airport with an MF. As the aircraft levelled out on the downwind leg, the instructor saw an air force jet trainer joining the circuit at the same altitude at his 3 o’clock position, closing fast and just a few hundred feet away, which made evasive action imperative. Again, not a word was broadcast by the jet aircraft.

Case 3: The twin-engine turboprop commuter plane had just taken off from an airport with an MF in effect, and was climbing out over the adjacent lake, when a single-engine float aircraft flew through the departure path of the active runway, causing the commuter plane to have to quickly manoeuvre away from the other traffic. Was there any communication from the float aircraft? You know the answer by now.

The risks inherent in a mid-air collision are well known to pilots, and to the travelling public as well, yet why are the required communication practices are often ignored by pilots flying in MF areas. We have all heard the phrase "big sky, little airplane" and can be lulled into believing that the chances of a collision are so remote that we relax our need to be vigilant. The regulations described in the CARs are clear and meant to be helpful. In fact, they reflect common sense and are designed to minimize the risk of a mid-air collision.

For the purposes of simply illustrating the importance of communication while flying, let’s use the analogy of driving our car through an intersection. While communicating by radio doesn’t apply when driving, the need for controls at intersections does, and we can fully understand the need for stop or yield signs or traffic lights. Imagine driving straight through any intersection without obeying a traffic sign or light. The consequences could be catastrophic given the right timing with another vehicle.

Now, extend the analogy to an airport, with the MF as our traffic control. Traffic converges at airports, just as it does at intersections, and airports are statistically the sites of the majority of mid-air collisions. In places where air traffic control towers or terminal control centres are not warranted, the pilot has a great deal more freedom from rules and procedures. But, as with any extension of freedom comes added personal responsibility, and in the case of flying in MF areas, the price is a relatively small one - tell people where you are and where you are going. Failing to do that in the sky with its extra dimension of space, and in multiples of the speeds of vehicles on a road, makes the price of not talking to one another potentially deadly.

Flying is, for most pilots, a joyful and highly satisfying activity, whether it’s done for business or pleasure. Playing by the rules when we fly allows for maximum safety, and assures that all of us can continue to experience the benefits of air travel. Remember the three fundamentals and, please, when you’re in an MF area, TALK TO US, WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!