Monday, June 9, 2014

Helicopters and Traffic

I flew to see Mom on Saturday.

I fly into Oceanside Municipal Airport (KOKB), recently renamed Bob Maxwell Field.

There are two types of airports: those with a control tower (called, sensibly enough, a "controlled field") and those without (called "uncontrolled'). Most airports in the United States, by a large percent, are uncontrolled.

At uncontrolled fields there is no air traffic controller telling you what to do. There are some general guidelines and regulations that affect airman (and airwoman) behavior flying into uncontrolled fields, but largely you're on your own. It's up to the pilots in the traffic pattern to pay attention and avoid any unwanted interactions.

Communication consequently is a very big issue at uncontrolled airports. Communication is critical to any aviation, but at uncontrolled fields adhering to certain standards prevents unwanted surprises.

Saturday's flight was routine - I flew out of Oxnard on an instrument clearance to get out of the June Gloom that predominates coastal California weather in the summer, canceled and then went visual flight rules for the rest of the trip.

As I normally do I asked for and received air traffic control "flight following" which is an optional service provided by ATC that provides the requesting aircraft with traffic advisories and some other alerts along the route.

Oceanside had cleared up by the time I got there so I did not need an approach and ATC, not seeing any other traffic between me and the airport on their radar told me to "squawk VFR and switch to traffic advisory frequency" which means to set the transponder on the airplane to the general code of 1200 and change radio frequency to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency, which is the radio frequency to be used by all aircraft flying into and out of the airport.

Named for Tuskegee Airman, Bob Maxwell
My plane is equipped with a special piece of equipment called a Traffic Collision Avoidance Device. This unit has been pretty good at displaying conflicting traffic and I consider it a "must have" for flying the busy airspace of Southern California.

In fact TCAD has saved my bacon on several occasions. On one particularly memorable event late last year I was within the Los Angeles Class Bravo airspace (with the appropriate clearance, being followed by ATC radar) and was asked to descend to a different altitude. As I was descending the plane's TCAD alerted me to a possible traffic conflict directly below me by only about a hundred feet, so I leveled off and queried ATC on the radio to ask whether their system showed that traffic - the controller quite embarrassingly advised to hold altitude...

So as I made my entrance to the Oceanside Airport I called out my position on the CTAF: "Oceanside traffic, Bonanza 6641M at the river mouth heading towards the water tower at 2,000 feet descending to make right traffic, 24 ... Oceanside."

Note - there are four critical communication elements when flying into an uncontrolled field: who you are, where you are, how high you are, and where you are going.

There was another plane, a Piper Tomahawk, in the pattern and his radio calls were not as crisp or well constructed - I later learned that this was a student pilot who had been released to solo and he was practicing in the pattern. Made sense that his radio transmissions were loose...

There was another aircraft too - a helicopter. The male chopper pilot had partially announced his position by stating that he was "over the harbor heading towards the water tower." No who. No how high, and in fact the where description was a bit vague too considering the geography.

But I had TCAD - and it clearly showed the aircraft below me by 700 feet so I held altitude.

At the water tower I again announced my position and advised that I was "entering the 45 for right traffic, 24, Oceanside."

Around this time I heard the airport manager counsel the helicopter to not overfly the housing on the north end of the approach pattern - noise is a big issue at KOKB, particularly from helicopters.

A female voice came over the frequency sounding upset, announcing that an aircraft had just flown over head as she approached the water tower - and nothing more. "No s%#t" I thought to myself - that was me you moron, in case you weren't listening...

The helicopter ceded its position to me which was wise since I was still going about 120 knots, and since the student pilot in the Tomahawk was ahead of me in the traffic pattern, I ceded position to him, flying an extended downwind because he was long on position and slow in speed.

At each change of attitude in the traffic pattern I announced my position, in the manner recommended by the Federal Aviation Administration's published guidelines. The Tomahawk student pilot did too, albeit requiring more radio time to sort his thoughts into intelligible communication.

The female in the helicopter likewise made announcements on the CTAF, however missing some requisite details, such as altitude, and where she was, and still sounding a bit upset.

I landed and tied up my plane. I watched the helicopter come in for a quick landing and then take off again, leaving the area.

As I was exiting the gate the airport manager, with whom I've become good friends due to my frequency at Oceanside, commented that the helicopter "instructor" sounded upset at me.

Ah, things were coming together now. The male voice I first heard in the helicopter didn't sound entirely professional. The female voice, the instructor, sounded professional enough, but wasn't communicating professionally.

Another local pilot commented to me that she was a local instructor and that "helicopters just think that everyone has to get out of their way and watch out for them - like motorcycles of the sky."

Well I've been riding motorcycles since I was 10 years old, so that last comment didn't seem accurate to me, but his point was well taken. Helicopters have the unique ability to hover. Fixed wing aircraft must keep moving forward at a minimum speed or they fall out of the sky.

Regardless of her professional designation as a Certified Flight Instructor, her flight communication was less than professional.

In aviation, communication is everything. One wrong word, one failure to convey accurately, can be disaster.

And of course this leads to workers' compensation, and where we are in California with SB 863.

The architects of SB 863 I think had good intentions - they wanted to bring the conversation down to the level of the basic stakeholders: employers and employees.

In theory that seemed a good idea. Theory doesn't translate well into practice many times though and I think that is what is happening with SB 863.

The failure to communicate who, where, what and where going with the law not only became a monopolization of the conversation but has carried on into the implementation of the law - as the recent WorkCompCentral exposes on the Independent Medical Review contract bidding has shown and likewise the recent flap on the Qualified Medical Examiner process.

The administration seems to be in a helicopter with the attitude that everyone should be looking out for them and to stay out of the way; maybe there will be communication, maybe not, but certainly only on their terms if and when communication is made.

But the system is a fixed wing aircraft - it can't just stop; the momentum continues, air moving over the wings giving lift. Constant, accurate communication and information is the only thing that keeps it from colliding with the helicopter, or the ground. The current administration doesn't seem to value that ideal. It seems more intent on controlling the process all the way in a death spin into the ground.

A real danger exists when government behaves in this manner: it loses credibility. A government without credibility can not remain effective for long - it too will crash.

Leaving the attorneys, the doctors, the insurance companies and all of the other ancillary vendor voices to the system out of the reform conversation may have been ideal from the standpoint of the folks that wanted to accomplish what THEY wanted to accomplish, but there are other aircraft in the traffic pattern going to the same place, perhaps with more momentum, and perhaps willing to work in the pattern so long as the limitations of physics are safely observed.

At some point the helicopter is going to depart the traffic pattern and everyone else will be left to clean up the mess from the rotor wash and deal with the noise complaints from neighboring homes.

It doesn't have to be that way.


  1. The only people who leave plenty of room for motorcycle riders and get out of their way are fellow motorcycle riders who happen to be driving in their cars at the time.

  2. I'm with you, David - with respect to the disturbing evidence of rigid communications. I would like to add my own sentiments in a different context. I recently expressed my concerns in a private discussion group to our higher (Federal) government and group partners, about this problem. Consider this different focal point, on the same theme:
    "As we practitioners learned to chant, in our early "discovery" years of the benefits of "TTWA" interventions and negotiated SAW-RTW processes and outcomes, "It's not rocket science!" and "It's WIN-WIN-WIN!"
    Perhaps these days, the fairly simple acts of respectfully engaging stakeholders in the "IPRA" process IS "rocket science." I have seen (and facilitated) suitable trial accommodations, sometimes considered "TTWAs," and on other occasions leading to longer term interventional processes. These tend to leave people - really, all stakeholders - a lot happier and more hopeful of a positive outcome than when functional work disruption is left to simmer, gather steam, draw in polarizing advocates, thrust healthcare providers into untenable and contentious postures and predictably, devolve toward heightened permanent disability levels, adverse personnel actions and worse.
    Some iconic celebrity of the 20th century used to holler, "Can we talk???"
    Can the elemental content and interactive nature of that "talk" be taught, and actively promoted by government?"
    Clear, persistent and on-topic communication that can recognize, adapt to and respond to shifting realities is still EVERYTHING in effective human relations. This will never be less so, in guiding legal/statutory processes toward successful outcomes. Wasn't that the idea, in the first place? Pick your context or reference point, and it will remain true.
    Trying as ever to keep it real, and human -
    Robin M. Nagel, MS, CDMS