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Declaring an Emergency: What Really Happens Before and After the Fact

December 15, 2014

Declaring an emergency is an aspect of aviation safety often surrounded by some misconceptions that may dissuade people from employing this in a time of need. Some think only the pilot can declare an emergency and many of them are hesitant to radio such a declaration because they are worried about the post-emergency consequences rather than seeking assistance for the situation they are currently dealing with.

Using pilot reports the the NASA-run Aviation Safety Reporting System,  Immanuel Barshi and Todd Kowalski clarify these concerns and dispel the misconceptions in a concise presentation, Declaring an Emergency—Fact and Fiction. Many may find these facts surprising.

For example, pilots aren’t the only ones who can declare an emergency. Air traffic controllers, dispatchers, and airline/charter company representatives can make the declaration, and doing so without notifying the flight crew. ATC is not the sole decision maker on the type and amount of assistance given to an aircraft in distress. Yes, it gives the maximum assistance judged to be necessary, but pilots can demand or decline certain actions in the interest of safety. But pilots must communicate what they need and why, and if the situation improves, they can also terminate their declaration of an emergency.

For many pilots, especially those who fly professionally, facing an FAA violation seems to be an overriding concern. The FAA regulation 91.3 makes it clear that “the pilot in command may deviate from any rule…to the extent required to meet that emergency.” The NASA presentation then quotes an Air Safety Inspector: “I’ve never seen a pilot violated for deviating from a regulation when that pilot has either declared an emergency OR has stipulated in ANY written response to the FAA that an emergency existed at the time of the deviation.”

While the regulations provide immunity from any deviation committed to ensure safety during an emergency, they also say that pilots “may have to file a written report of a deviation during emergency situation only if one occurs.” The FAA routinely investigates most declared emergencies, reports IFR Magazine,  but pilots are only involved if there are questions about the situation that the FAA can’t answer. Often the questions are answered with a simple phone call. It depends on the situation.

Perhaps the Aeronautical Information Manual says it best: “Because of the infinite variety of possible emergency situations, specific procedures cannot be prescribed. However, when it is believed that an emergency exists or is imminent, take a course of action which appears to be most appropriate under the circumstances….” And under those circumstances, getting everyone on the ground safely should be the only thing on the minds of everyone involved.

NextGen Procedures Deliver More Efficient Operations to All North Texas Airports

December 1, 2014

imageFor the past week or so the delivery of the promised NextGen efficiency and resulting economy has dominated the North Texas aviation news. Most of it has been focused on the airlines and passengers that fly to and from Dallas/Forth Worth International and Dallas Love Field. But the new NextGen procedures deliver similar benefits to aircraft flying to and from the airports covered by the DFW Class B airspace, including Addison, Fort Worth Alliance, Denton Municipal, Arlington Municipal, and McKinney National Airport.

The FAA’s Metroplex video gives the impression that only airliners going to the DFW and Love Field are the only ones subject to NextGen’s performance based navigation procedures that allow them to fly the more narrowly defined routes, and only airliners are sequenced through time-based flow management so that they don’t bunch up in holding patterns. Air airplanes bound for North Texas airports on instrument flight plans receive the same consideration and sequencing as the airliners. The only real difference is the destination of the optimized route.

The network of Interstate highways that are the Metroplex’s primary arteries of ground transportation is a workable analogy of the invisible routes in the sky that are defined by the satellite navigation system. Each ramp that leads off and on the main arteries is designed for the amount of traffic headed to that destination. Unlike the NextGen system, there is no traffic control system to regulate the comings and goings of terrestrial travelers bound for the same areas at the same time.

Given their  efficiencies, the FAA projected that the Metroplex NextGen procedures would save 4.1 million gallons of fuel, which at 2013 prices worked out to $10.3 million. Looking at it another way, the fuel savings means Mother Nature will not have to deal with 41,000 metric tons of carbon each year. Naturally, most of the savings go to the airlines because they represent the majority of the traffic flying to and from the Metroplex, but the FAA computed the savings on all the aircraft activity, so everyone will enjoy their proportional portion of the savings of time, fuel, and money.