Saturday, October 20, 2007

Attention Aviatrices!!

I am still reeling from something I witnessed yesterday. It was my first day on the road this tour, and my co-pilot and I were holding short of the runway awaiting our takeoff clearance from an airport.

Another airplane was inbound to the airport and we heard it made a radio call announcing that it was intending to land there. First, a little background: There are two sets of regulations underwhich pilots can fly. You can either be under IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) or VFR (Visual Flight Rules). Pilots first learn to fly under VFR - think good weather. With time, pilots get their instrument ratings so they can fly in "not so good" weather (ie clouds). Flying under instruments means you have to use all those navigation radios and instruments in the cockpit (and these days usually a GPS) to follow routing given to you by Air Traffic Controllers. There are a lot more rules to know and abide by. It takes a little longer to fly around like this - it's like driving via asphalt roads, via taking short cuts off road.

So, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has dictated what the dividing line is between allowing people to go VFR and IFR - in the interest of safety. You can fly your entire career under VFR, lots of people do. But many pilots have gotten themselves into trouble by thinking they can stay "visual" but get confused in cloudy conditions (pilots must trust their instruments -which is hard for people that rely on seeing the horizon to stay greasy side down) -- think JFK, Jr. These pilots that find themselves in this situation can "declare an emergency" and receive special treatment from ATC -- trained to assist them to safely land.

All right, so this pilot calling into the tower controller at the airport is coming in VFR for whatever reason (it's not a very nice day), but the tower calls her back to say that the airport is no longer VFR. I've talked about ATIS before (the prerecorded weather information pilots listen to on their way into an airport) and the ATIS said she could stay visual (or under the clouds). But the tower said that he was updating the weather, the clouds were lower than the ATIS stated, and they were now IFR. This pilot, in other words, was operating illegally (there was no longer enough room for her to operate under the clouds). She had a few options. The easiest would have been to acknowledge the new weather report and ask to be vectored onto an instrument approach (if she was instrument pilot). If not, she could have asked for a Special VFR (but honestly I don't know if this was an option to operate under reduced weather rules). She also could have declared an emergency. A lot of people are reluctant to declare an emergency, but it is always an option if a pilot is in trouble. You get a little leeway on the rules - you have to file some paperwork to explain yourself to the FAA, but she could have given herself a "pass" to come in and land.

But she didn't. When she told the controller that the weather was reported VFR on the ATIS, the tower told her again that he was "overriding" the ATIS with his updating information (warning #2). So here's where my copilot and I started cringing: She says, on the radio, "I really need to get in there" still looking for the tower to clear her to land visually. And warning #3, the tower repeats the weather and asks her what her intentions are. And here's the WORST part: She says, "I won't tell if you won't tell." It was like watching a train wreck!

Folks, ALL ATC radio transmissions are recorded!! Everyone has access to these recordings, including the FAA which is well within their rights - and obligation - to site this pilot for unsafe operation and confiscate her license. Additionally, the tower controller is obligated to REPORT her actions, and she was asking this guy to risk his license which he did by clearing her to land. If I (or anyone else witnessing this whole mess) were so inclined, they could get her tail number and report her, as well.

When she appeared to us on short final, she turned out to be the pilot for a commuter airline. Which meant she had to have her instrument rating and could have come into the airport on an instrument approach. No problem. Instead, she risked her license, the tower controller's license, a violation for her employer, the safety of her passengers, AND made an embarrassment of herself on the radio!

Now, I am not saying that she is the ONLY one to have ever done something like this. I'm sure a lot of people do this stuff all the time and get away with it. And I'm sure she was under a lot of pressure from her company to "get the job done." But she obviously knew she was wrong. If she loses her license over this, she'll have no one to blame but herself. Was it worth saving the ten minutes not having to shoot an instrument approach?? Was anyone's life in danger because of her actions? Probably not. Clearly she could see the airport and considered herself in a safe position to land. But accepting the role of pilot means sometimes we have to stand up under the pressures from the people (usually employers) standing on the ground safely or passengers who really want to get somewhere who may not understand or care about the inherent risks, reponsibilities and rights of operating an aircraft. Know the rules and abide by them at all times no matter who is watching or listening (and declare an emergency if necessary). Your license to fly and lives depend on it!

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