June 2020 Aviation Articles

How to Handle Lost Comms in Controlled Airspace

Well well well....another week of instructing has not only added more time to my logbook but more learning experiences to teach from. Aka, this week did not go smoothly by any means!

I've always been taught about lost comms procedures in controlled airspace and yet have never had to use them. One of my fellow coworkers had to a few months ago...but my time finally came and it happened at the worst possible timing. But I'm still here writing this post so that's a good sign ;)

So, first, let's do a review of what happened to my coworker, and then I'll tell my story. Because honestly, mine is a lot cooler - and more valuable to learn from (which I guess is more important).


Pictured above is the DA 60 at KEFD - similar to the DA 62 featured on our sale page

Here's a cool picture above of what my view is while I write this post! 

So the first incident, which both of these happened in the same plane about 2 months apart, my coworker and his student were practicing landings in the pattern and on the go tried to call tower for requested left closed. They got no response, so-called again.....still no response. The Garmin 430 showed the "tx" when he pressed the button indicating he was transmitting, but there was just silence on the other line. So as another resort he held the PTT and let the tower know he was transmitting blind, would be keeping left closed traffic, and come in for a full stop (no one else was in the pattern at the time). Almost immediately after they got the light gun signal from tower steady green, showing they were cleared to land. There wasn't even a need to squawk 7600. So they landed, plane went down for maintenance and that was the end of it.

THEN my day came a few days ago. My student and I took off and were cleared for right closed traffic and instructed to call on downwind for the option. In the pattern above us were two Air Force T38's, behind us two cessna's, and on a 8 mile final the NASA WB-57. Quite literally the busiest day I have ever experienced in the pattern as all of us except the high altitude plane was staying in the pattern to practice landings. 

So, the student is flying the plane and starts her landing procedures while I go to call on downwind....nothing. I can't hear myself talk and I can't hear a response from the tower. I look over to my student and start talking and she can't hear me either, so all comms were lost. I hurry and switch to our second comm and get the same result. So now it's time to turn base....time to implement some aeronautical decision making. Do I continue the landing? Turn around and leave the airspace? Try and diagnose the situation? All of these things ran through my head within a matter of .2 seconds. 

I decided to continue my turn to final because that was my last clearance: to maintain closed traffic. The issue was the T38's were right above me and we were both coming in at the same time. I was likely cleared to either extend downwind or do a 360 but because I couldn't hear anything I decided the best thing to do was turn to final and look for my light gun signal.

Nothing. So because I wasn't cleared to land I executed a go around and started heading to leave the airspace to a nearby uncontrolled field. On upwind the T38's came up beside me (coincidentally also having to execute a go around because of me) and leveled off for a second before they broke off to the right. So imagine this: no comms, executing a go around after about not even 20 seconds of losing complete communication with everyone and then seeing military jets right next to you watching you. Fantastic.

As I broke left and continued to leave the airspace I immediately remembered I had tower's number in my cell phone, so I stuck my phone in my headset and talked to them and let them know what happened while I continued to fly the plane. They cleared me to come back and land on a different runway and went ahead and gave me a taxi clearance with instructions to call back after I park.

So, after we parked I called and the controllers were just wanting to make sure I was okay. I asked if I did everything like I should've or if there was something I could've done better. Tower told me everything I did was safe and I made the right decisions! The only thing I forgot to do/didn't have time to - SQUAWK 7600. My student and I had just briefed transponder codes a few days before and what do ya know we had the perfect opportunity to use them and didn't!

The moral of the story here is I have 3 pieces of advice:

1) Don't forget your squawk codes, if I would've done this when I first lost comms on downwind I likely would have gotten a light gun signal. 

2) Save the tower phone number in your cell phone if you're out of a controlled field! It comes in handy in all types of situations.

3) APPRECIATE YOUR CONTROLLERS. The fact they wanted me to call back just to make sure I was okay and thanked me for making safe decisions made my day. They keep us safe and deserve so much recognition. 

Any questions or comments?! Maybe you've also had lost comms before? Let us know what happened below! We're all here to learn from each other's experiences.

 

Why Should An Aircraft Lessee Use An Operational Control Briefing?

As many of you are aware, the FAA has increased both its investigation of and enforcement against illegal charter operators.  One of the consequences of this heightened oversight is an increase in the FAA's scrutiny of Part 91 dry-leasing structures.  Using an operational control briefing in connection with those Part 91 flights can help minimize unwanted FAA attention.

To start, if structured properly, these leasing structures are legal and comply with FAA regulations. They ARE NOT illegal charter. However, in order to be legitimate, dry-leasing arrangements must be documented correctly.

The actual flight operations also need to be conducted consistent with those documents and the applicable regulations.  But proper documentation will not save an operator from FAA enforcement if the operations ignore the documents and are conducted as illegal charter flights.

How does the FAA figure out whether a properly documented operation is actually being conducted as an illegal charter?  FAA inspectors start asking questions.  For example, if an FAA inspector conducts a ramp check of a Part 91 dry-lease flight, he or she will first speak to the pilot. Next, the inspector will talk to the passengers in the back of the airplane.

The passengers' answers to the inspector's questions need to be consistent with a Part 91 dry-leasing structure. Incorrect answers can, and have, resulted in an illegal charter investigation of an otherwise proper Part 91 dry-lease flight.  And this is where an operational control briefing given by the pilot at the beginning of the flight can make all of the difference in the world.

The operational control briefing is intended to ensure that the passengers are able to tell the FAA inspector who has operational control of the flight.  Subject to a few very specific exceptions, the lessee, not the lessor, has operational control of a Part 91 dry-lease flight, even if the lessee or its principals are not physically on the flight.  The passengers need to know this fact so they can answer the inspector's questions correctly.

So, what should be included in an operational control briefing?  Here are a few, but not necessarily all, of the points that should be covered with the passengers:

  • The flight IS NOT a charter flight.
  • The flight will operate under Part 91 of the Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
  • The flight is operated under a lease between the aircraft owner (or another lessor) and the lessee.  And a copy of that lease agreement is in the aircraft.
  • The flight is under the operational control of the lessee.  (Identification of the lessee is critical, especially when the aircraft may also be leased to other affiliates or related entities).  This means that the passenger, by virtue of his or her relationship with lessee, has operational control of the flight.  He or she has the authority to initiate, conduct and terminate the flight.
  • The pilot is on board to help the passenger operate the aircraft in a safe and prudent manner and in full compliance with the applicable rules and regulations.  He or she will comply with the instructions and directions provided by the passenger, both written and oral, to enable the passenger to exercise operational control.
  • The passenger will still have operational control.  That operational control is only be subject to the pilot's authority to make all safety related decisions relating to the aircraft and the flight.

The operational control briefing should be used regardless of whether the flight is carrying the lessee (or its principal) or the lessee's employees/guests/invitees.  Although the lessee should understand the nature of the Part 91 dry-leasing structure to which it has agreed, the briefing can serve as a reminder of the basic requirements.

When the flight is carrying other passengers, the briefing is an important tool to make sure those passengers understand the nature of the flight so they are able to convey that information to an FAA inspector if or when asked. This will help prevent confusion and, perhaps, an unwanted investigation.

At the end of the day, it is the lessee's responsibility as operator of the aircraft to make sure the lessee's flights are conducted legally. An operational control briefing is a simple, but effective way to make sure the folks in the back of the aircraft also understand who is responsible for the flight.

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