In control at the Waterloo tower

When I first started flying I never had to worry about talking to air traffic control. I earned my private licence out of Brampton Airport (CNC3), which is a small, uncontrolled airport just a few nautical miles northwest of Lester B. Pearson International.

And because it was uncontrolled, as that word implies there was no need to talk on the radio with air traffic services. Sure, there was some radio work, but it was simple enough: broadcast intentions to other aircraft, follow the rules when operating in an uncontrolled circuit, and it all worked out.

But eventually the day came, as it does for all new pilots, when it was time to act like one of the big boys, key the mic, and get permission to enter controlled airspace. Like most new pilots, when that day came, I was terrified. I rehearsed repeatedly with my instructor, wrote out scrips of what to say, but when the time came to do it for real, my heart was pounding. And that remained true for many years.

Randy Brown

Controller Randy Brown, unit operation specialist, at his post in the NAV CANADA control tower at the Waterloo airport.

If only I knew Randy Brown was on the other end of the radio.

Brown is a senior controller at NAV CANADA’s Waterloo tower, located at the Region of Waterloo International Airport (CYKF). His title is unit operations specialist. He’s a 32-year ATC veteran, 16 years of which was spent in the tower at Pearson, Canada’s busiest airport. He has a gentle manner, a calm, reassuring voice.

“I love working with and talking to new pilots,” he says. “There’s nothing to be afraid of when talking to a controller. “Please,” he says, “come talk to us.”

And he means that literally. Brown constantly welcomes pilots to the Waterloo tower for tours, chats, and information sessions, committed to breaking down the invisible wall on the radio, the one that separates those who drive aircraft and those who guide them when they’re in controlled airspace.

“We see pilots come in here who are obviously nervous,” says Brown. “We do our very best to assure them they’re in good hands.

“We’re just regular people.”

Eventually, with a tip from my instructor, I came to realize talking to a controller was pretty simple: Tell them who you are, tell them where you are, and then tell them what you want. And then just follow their instructions. I came to realize that flying in a control zone was easier, and likely safer, than at an uncontrolled airport. There was always somebody at the other end of that radio who had your back.

YKF (2013-01-26) Aerial

Region of Waterloo International Airport, featuring a 7,000-foot east-west runway (08/26). The control tower, terminal building and FBOs are located in the background of the photo, near the intersection of the taxiway paralleling 08-26 and runway 14/32. There are plans afoot to one day move the tower closer to the middle of 08/26 in order to give controllers better visual access to extreme reaches of the field.

The Waterloo airport, which is less than an hour’s drive west from Pearson, is situated within a Class D control zone, five nautical miles in diameter, extending up to 4,000 feet ASL. It is somewhat unique in that it is not only busy — the 10th busiest airfield in Canada, according to Statistics Canada — but it also handles a wide variety of traffic, everything from big jets to small training aircraft, helicopters and aerobatic airplanes.

“There’s a huge diversity here,” says Brown. “Not only in aircraft types and speeds and characteristics, but also the experience level of the pilots. It’s a challenge, and it’s also invigorating. It’s exciting and makes for an interesting day.”

There are interesting idiosyncrasies associated with the Waterloo area airspace. I wasn’t aware of this, but the airport, which is home to both a busy fixed-wing and helicopter school, also hosts a great deal of aerobatic activity, so much so that the controllers will often isolate a box of airspace within the zone for aerobatic pilots to practice within.

photo(1)

Controller Dave Clarke mans the ground control station at the Waterloo control tower. The large dark screen is his radar monitor. The touch-screen below it allows him to enter in aircraft data upon initial callup — no more paper slips. The technology was developed by NAV CANADA and has been sold to several other air navigation service providers throughout the world.

And traffic in the area is steadily increasing, up 14 percent since 2009. In fact, NAV CANADA, the private agency which administers Canada’s airspace and air traffic control services, has embarked on a study aimed at changing the zone from a Class D to a Class C, a change which could be in place as early as this summer. A Class C designation will require every aircraft entering the zone to be equipped with an altitude-encoding transponder and require them to obtain a clearance from ATC to enter, rather than merely making contact. Brown wholeheartedly endorses the change.

“It adds another whole layer of safety,” he says.

And safety is what Brown and his staff of 10 controllers are all about. Generally the tower is staffed with two controllers, one handling ground and one handling arrivals and departures. They usually switch roles after an hour in the chair. Although the weather wasn’t the best on the day I visited, and traffic light as a result, it was impossible not to be impressed with the quiet confidence and professionalism in the tower.

Part of my interest in visiting was that even though I’m not a rookie pilot, there were a number of things I was unclear about and was eager to erase the doubt in my mind. Doubt, and airplanes, I’ve found, are an unsafe combination. Here’s some of my conversation with Randy:

Should pilots contact ATC if they’re transiting near, but not in, the control zone, or if they’re operating just outside the CZ boundary?

“It’s a good question, and we bring it up with pilots all the time,” Brown says. “Technically speaking, if you’re outside the control zone, you don’t need to talk to us.

“But it’s always a good idea to check in with ATC if you’re within about 10 miles of the airport. We use that five-mile radius outside the control zone as a kind of buffer zone. We can have Bearskin (Airlines) or WestJet (Airlines) setting up 10 miles final and coming right through that area.”

In other words, although it’s true that the controller can see on radar an aircraft with whom he hasn’t yet established radio contact, if that pilot calls early, he or she can obtain an advisory from the tower informing them where the high-speed traffic is and how to avoid it, improving situational awareness for everyone.

Calling early also helps simplify the controller’s workload.

“If an aircraft calls us 10 miles out, by the time they reach the edge of the zone, we’ve already figured out how we’re going to fit them into the traffic pattern and make it work. If we get a call at six miles, it just doesn’t give us enough time.

“The same is true vertically, as well. We’ll get an aircraft crossing overhead at 4,500 feet (ASL) and 4,000 is the top of our zone. Technically that aircraft doesn’t have to call us.

“But if we’re launching jets and they’re crossing through, that’s great information for everyone to have so it’s good to call us.

“We certainly don’t encourage people to fly right to the edge of the zone and then call. Sometimes we’re talking to people who are departing at high speeds, right up to five miles. Meanwhile, if there’s a guy at six miles who isn’t talking to us, there’s potential there for a problem.

‘It’s in everyone’s best interest to give us lots of warning.”

But by the same token, too much warning can also be a problem, unnecessarily adding to a busy controller’s workload.

photo(2)

The NAV CANADA control tower at the Region of Waterloo airport.

“Something I always tell students is that before you make a (radio) transmission, listen in.

“If you’re still some distance away and the controller is extremely busy, he may just acknowledge you and that’s all, because obviously his focus is going to be right at the field.

“If you’re 20 miles out and you listen in to the tower and hear he’s really working hard, probably the prudent thing is to keep a listening watch but don’t just jump in there. There has to be some kind of a limit.”

Is approaching or departing traffic at Pearson an issue for pilots in the KW area?

“Not really. Inbound traffic for Pearson, when landing on 05 or 06 (at CYYZ), crosses Waterloo at 7,000 feet. We’ll occasionally have an aircraft call us who is at 6,500 and we’ll hand them over to Pearson.”

What are common mistakes made by new pilots when talking to ATC?

“Mistakes are human nature, especially when you’re a student and learning.

“One of the most important things I tell new pilots is this: If you’re getting an instruction from ATC and you don’t quite understand it, you need to overcome your fear and just say, ‘Say again,’ or ‘Repeat the instruction.’

“Occasionally a student, because of his nervousness, will get a clearance from ATC and he’ll just say, ‘Roger,’ when he doesn’t quite understand the instruction and he ends up flying what he thinks he heard.

“If you don’t 100 percent understand, just ask. Clear communication is essential in this business.”

And that’s a good reminder even for experienced pilots.

“It’s a bit of a macho thing, sometimes,” says Brown. “Imagine a guy who has been flying for hundreds of hours outside of controlled airspace, and now (is flying in a control zone and) has a controller telling him to do a bunch of things he’s not quite sure of. He says to himself, ‘I’m certain (the controller) said to do (a particular action), so I’m just going to go head and do it,’ even though he’s really not sure. If you’re not clear, it’s opening yourself up to all sorts of problems.”

What will the impact be on controllers and pilots if Waterloo becomes a Class C zone?

“Well, it will add more safety,” says Brown. “Essentially our obligation to traffic will be the same.

“The only difference is we’re obligated (in a Class C zone) to give traffic resolution between IFR and VFR aircraft, whereas in Class D we only have to pass traffic (information).

How do controllers manage a shift change?

“When a new controller is coming on shift he or she has a check list to go through, just like a pilot does.

“He’ll plug in and begin listening (to the controller he’s replacing). He’ll watch the operation and bit by bit it gets handed over to him until he’s in full control. The (departing) controller will begin explaining all the background and history. Then when the handover is complete the (departing) controller will step aside and watch for another couple of minutes just to make sure (the new controller has) got it all.”

How does all that take place if the airspace is busy?

“The handover can take a long time if it’s really busy. And that’s ok. However long it takes is how long it takes.”

How do controllers manage stress?

“We all handle stress differently. If you’re really on top of things and you know what you’re doing and things are working well, the stress isn’t felt.

“It’s when things get out of control — if a pilot makes a mistake or there’s a weather consideration or mechanical problems with an aircraft, it can throw a wrench into things, and then the stress level can build.

“We’re taught how to handle that, how to prevent stress from interfering with the job.”

 How can pilots help ATC do their job more effectively?

“Full communication is all we ask. Let us know what you want to do and we’ll try to accommodate it as best we can.

“We base our control on reported intentions. If you’re at (a particular altitude), we expect you to stay there unless you ask for something different.

“The only tool we have is our voice, so we have to speak in a way that’s authoritative and at the same time reassuring and confident and let pilots know everything going to work out fine.”

If I’m a pilot and have a question, can I contact ATC?

“Absolutely. I encourage pilots to come and chat with us. Naturally we don’t want you to just knock on our door out of the blue because we might be busy, but with some advance notice — a phone call or an email — I’m more-than happy to answer questions and show pilots what we do.”

Contact information for Randy Brown:

519.648.3529

brownrb@navcanada.ca

The backstory of a front-page aviation story

photo (2)There’s a story behind every story, as they say. Here’s how an intended bearing360 .ca blog post ended up morphing into a front page story in the Toronto Star.

Early last January I stumbled upon a tweet posted by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board, which is an arms-length agency established by the federal government. The tweet, which included a link to a video, read as follows:

My interest was immediately piqued. Here is the TSB, as its known, stating its concern on social media. And the news value — that Canada’s rate of runway overruns is twice the world average — hit me immediately. I thought it would make excellent discussion material for bearing360. I had a look at look at the accompanying video and there was more news value, including this nugget: That runway overruns in Canada were four times the world average when runways were wet. The natural question, of course, was why? Moreover, I quite surprised at how straightforward and forceful the language was in the video. Quotes like:

“This … issue is one that can no longer be left unaddressed. The bottom line is if we don’t do anything to prevent landing accidents and runway overruns, passengers, crew and aircraft will continue to placed at unnecessary risk of injury or damage.”

Here’s the overall thing I found striking: The TSB wasn’t just sitting back, issuing reports. It was taking to social media to apply pressure. So, again. Why? One way to interpret that decision is it just wants to fulfill its mandate and make transportation in Canada safer. Another interpretation is that the TSB was growing exasperated with the amount of time it was taking Transport Canada to implement changes that the TSB recommended. I know enough about human nature to know that no one likes not to matter, and there is no reason to think the TSB would be happy with simply issuing recommendations and not seeing a payoff in the form of safer travel. At the very least both questions deserved an exploration.

So about a week late, with some time available, I started in on the story. I contacted TSB media relations official John Cottreau, who was kind enough to set up an interview with one of their senior aviation investigators and subject matter experts, Mark Clitsome.

Mark confirmed and echoed the concerns expressed in the tweet and video, that the TSB was concerned about the number of overruns in Canada and had been for some time. He didn’t say explicitly that the TSB was frustrated with Transport Canada — it’s not his job to start a battle with Transport Canada — but he did say that the runway overrun issue had been on the TSB’s watch list for some time and concern was growing. It’s easy enough to connect the dots and infer frustration with the pace of change.

I then started in on the research, looking for documentation about the state of runway overruns in Canada and what Transport Canada was doing to remedy. If you’re a journalist today, the web makes things so much easier than it was before documents were available online.

Of some interest to me was a Transport Canada document TP14816, Transportation in Canada 2011, which stated “Transport Canada is proposing regulations that will require certain designated certified aerodromes to install and maintain a Runway End Safety Area (RESA).” In the same publication TC said it was “revising TP312 — Aerodrome Standards and Recommended Practices in cooperation with industry experts.”

I also armed myself with current international runway standards. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) governs international rules on air travel. The TSB had said to be on the phone that Canada was not in compliance with ICAO rules on runways. Hmm. Why?

So I contacted Transport Canada’s media relations office, reaching a staffer I had dealt with on a story last summer, and asked a series of questions, among them:

  1. What is the status of proposed runway regulatory revisions? Are they in force or no?
  2. Are revisions to TP312 complete. If not, what is their status?
  3. Why, in the opinion of TC, have overruns not significantly decreased since 2010?
  4. Why does Canada not require airports to be in compliance with ICAO standard?

I received an immediate reply but was informed there would be an undetermined wait for the answers. I expected this. Government agencies will spend a great deal of time and energy shaping their message so as cause the least amount of harm to the agency and its political master. Every few days I’d check in to find out what the status was of my query.

After nearly three weeks I was beginning to think an answer wasn’t going to come, so I politely informed TC that I was going ahead with a story anyway and would be happy to include their response when they were able. My thinking was I’d fall back on that journalistic maxim: Go with what you have and fill in later if you can. My contact at TC appreciated the heads up and said she’d do what she could.

To my surprise, a couple of days later, just as I was about to post a story on bearing360,ca, I got a response.

Some questions had been answered and some hadn’t. It was clear to me, however, that I had a story. The concerns raised by the TSB were still being addressed, Canada was not in compliance with international standards, and it would be some time before a policy change would take place.

At this stage I realized I had a story that a newspaper would likely find worthy. Not only was there a news peg — that Canada lagged in runway safety standards and unsafe incidents were higher than the world average — but aviation stories generate quick interest among editors and readership because when something goes wrong with an airplane, the outcome is often ugly. Runway overruns, in particular, are a hot-button issue in Canada with the 2005 episode at Toronto’s Pearson International, when an Air France jet ran off the runway in wet weather and burned — precisely the scenario of growing concern stated by the TSB in its video. It also stood to reason that because of this episode, there was pressure on Transport Canada to take action.

So I wrote a story and then contacted a former Globe and Mail colleague who, as luck would have it, happened to now be the national editor at the Star. I pitched the story in a short, bright, couple of paragraphs. He was immediately interested. We worked out freelance payment terms and I filed the story.

A day later he wrote and asked if there was any reason he couldn’t hold the story and put it on A1 (front) for Sunday. I said no reason whatsoever. I knew from my days working as the front-page editor at the Globe and Mail what he was thinking: Weekend papers, specifically the news cycle of Saturday-to-Sunday and Sunday-for-Monday, can be slow. Offices are closed, government departments closed, so it’s difficult to generate news.

My story happened to have a not-bad news peg and it could sit for a few days without undo harm. In other words, it was perfect for a weekend paper.

Low-and-behold, it showed up on front.

I got the much-appreciated heads up of its publication on Sunday morning from the aerial photographer for whom I work as a pilot. Something entirely appropriate about that, I thought.

I then spent the following day building a follow-up package for bearing360.ca based on the Star story. My days as deputy sports editor at the Globe taught me the value of packages. They’re a way to stoke interest and flesh out an issue. This blog post is part of that package. You can find my related side-bar here.

 

Time for government to fund runway safety improvements

photo (2)There are still several issues left outstanding in the wake of my Toronto Star story of Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013. (“Watchdog warns of risky runways“)

Transport Canada declined to answer several of the questions I posed to them regarding runway overruns and the steps they’re taking to bring Canada into compliance with ICAO standards. Among the questions left unanswered:

  1. Why, in Transport Canada’s view, runways overruns have not decreased since 2010.
  2. Why it was taking so long to introduce changes to policy.
  3. Transport Canada said it is “collaborating with industry stakeholders to discuss approaches to RESA at Canadian airports,” however it declined to say what the status was of those collaborations.
  4. If it was within Transport Canada’s authority to simply mandate that airports install ICAO-standard runway end safety area (RESA).

In the absence of answers, it’s worth speculation and discussion.

I exchanged some observations with an airport operator over the weekend and he pointed out that there is resistance at airports to install runway end safety areas and engineered material arresting systems (EMAS) because of lack of space and cost. Understandable.

No doubt this is behind the delays in implementing change in policy. The conundrum faced by Transport Canada is how to achieve compliance without downloading financial hardship on airports. If a given airport were unable to comply due to lack of money and was forced to close because it was not in compliance, the outrage from people and communities who depend on that airport would no doubt be considerable — and the government would feel the full brunt of that outrage.

In fact, I’ve read, in particular, that northern airport operators are resisting changes because they don’t have the space or the money. Just this point is made on the very good Aviation Law Blog provided by the B.C. law firm Alexander, Holburn, Beaudin & Lang LLP. They state:

“This proposal has encountered strong opposition from the Northern Air Transport Association (“NATA”), which argues the unsuitability of the proposed RESA regulations for northern airports.  NATA argues that the cost of building RESAs at some northern airports would be prohibitive, resulting in a reduction of air services to communities already receiving limited service.  NATA points out that aircraft using many northern airports land at speeds far below those of larger aircraft operating in the south.  In the north, where many runways have gravel surfaces, NATA urges that the priority for limited capital expenditures should be the paving of existing runways, not the construction of new RESAs.”

However, the airports at which improved RESA and EMAS facilities are most required are the larger airports with the most number of aircraft movements: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver prime among them. These airports primarily handle the larger aircraft which require longer runways and these airports are far better able to absorb the costs because their landing fee revenue is so much higher than smaller facilities.

What needs to happen, of course, is that the federal government, in the name of meeting the recommendations of the Transportation Safety Board, should authorize the release of funds in conjunction with Public Works in the form of infrastructure projects. Jobs would be created and public safety improved.

Transport Canada would then be free to make its runway policy changes quickly and effectively and enhanced safety would be the payoff.

 

Weather meant for flying a … desk

images

Ick

TAF CYTZ 080148Z 0802/0902 06025KT 1SM -SN BLSN OVC008 TEMPO
0802/0803 3SM -SN OVC010
FM080300 06025KT 6SM -SN OVC010 TEMPO 0803/0806 3SM -SN OVC008
PROB30 0803/0806 2SM -SN -FZDZ BR OVC005
FM080600 06020KT 3SM -SN OVC010 TEMPO 0806/0808 11/2SM -SN OVC008
PROB30 0806/0808 3/4SM -SN BLSN
FM080800 06020KT 3/4SM -SN OVC008
FM081100 06020KT 1/2SM SN VV005 TEMPO 0811/0821 1/4SM +SN BLSN
VV002
FM082200 02020G30KT 11/2SM -SN BLSN OVC012 TEMPO 0822/0824 3/4SM
-SN BLSN VV008
FM090100 35020G30KT 3SM -SN BLSN OVC015
RMK FCST BASED ON AUTO OBS. NXT FCST BY 080800Z=

Pilot types will recognize the above information as a TAF. For non-pilots, a TAF is weather forecast. TAF stands for Terminal Aviation Forecast. It’s a tool used to predict weather at a given airport. The TAF shows the weather at an airport for a radius of five statute miles.

I’ve provided below the translation of the TAF I’ve included here. It shows the weather at Toronto’s Billy Bishop (Island) Airport, an commuter airport located near Toronto’s downtown. It’s about an hour-and-change drive from my home.

This particular TAF, issued at 08:48 p.m. Eastern time (01:48 in the morning, Universal Time Coordinated), on the night of Thursday, Feb., 7, 2013, depicts weather that is, well, pretty ugly, commensurate with the nasty storm due to roll through southern Ontario and much of the U.S. northeast. Cloud ceilings are low, Visibility is terrible. Lots of blowing snow. And what’s striking is how often the conditions are forecast to shift through the night. Not the kind of stuff you want when landing an airplane.

Some translations of the translation:

  • SM means Statute Miles, and refers to the miles of visibility.
  • Z means Zulu Time, or Universal Time Coordinated.
  • The numbers after the word “Overcast” state the cloud ceiling, so Overcast 800′ means the ceiling is at 800 feet above the ground.
  • The numbers that look like this: 060° 25 KT, depict the wind direction and speed. In this case it means the wind is blowing from the direction of 060 true degrees, or northeast, and at a strength of 25 nautical miles per hour.
  • IFR means Instrument Flight Rules.
  • VFR means Visual Flight Rules.
  • MVFR means Marginal Visual Flight Rules.
  • LIFR means Limited Instrument Flight Rules.
Reported
Fri, Feb 8, 01:48 Z
Valid
Fri, Feb 8, 02:00 Z – Sat, Feb 9, 02:00 Z
Initial Weather
Light Snow, Blowing, Snow
Overcast 800′
1 SM
060° 25 KT
MVFR
Temporary 2:00 – 3:00 Z
Light Snow
Overcast 1,000′
3 SM
MVFR
3:00 Z
Light Snow
Overcast 1,000′
6 SM
060° 25 KT
MVFR
Temporary 3:00 – 6:00 Z
Light Snow
Overcast 800′
3 SM
IFR

3:00 – 6:00 Z
Light Snow, Freezing, Drizzle, Mist
Overcast 500′
2 SM
MVFR
6:00 Z
Light Snow
Overcast 1,000′
3 SM
060° 20 KT
IFR
Temporary 6:00 – 8:00 Z
Light Snow
Overcast 800′
11/2 SM
LIFR
6:00 – 8:00 Z
Light Snow, Blowing, Snow
3/4 SM
IFR
8:00 Z
Light Snow
Overcast 800′
3/4 SM
060° 20 KT
LIFR
11:00 Z
Snow
Vertical Vis. 500′
1/2 SM
060° 20 KT
LIFR
Temporary 11:00 – 21:00 Z
Heavy Snow, Blowing, Snow
Vertical Vis. 200′
1/4 SM
MVFR
22:00 Z
Light Snow, Blowing, Snow
Overcast 1,200′
11/2 SM
020° 20 KT Gusts 30 KT
LIFR
Temporary 22:00 – 0:00 Z
Light Snow, Blowing, Snow
Vertical Vis. 800′
3/4 SM
MVFR
01:00 Z
Light Snow, Blowing, Snow
Overcast 1,500′
3 SM
350° 20 KT Gusts 30 KT
In short, get your snow shovel out.

WestJet’s financial climb performance

WestJet announced its fourth-quarter profit yesterday. and the airline continues to show remarkably strong growth and a share price that keeps headed north, closing yesterday on the TSX at $$22.55. The share price has almost doubled in the past year. Here’s a chart. Amazing recent performance.

Oh, here is my standard boiler plate when I write about WestJet: I used to work for them and have a definite bias in favour.

But rival Air Canada is doing well, too. Although its stock price is much lower compared to WestJet’s, it, too, has nearly doubled in price, closing yesterday at $2.44. Late last March it was as low as 79 cents.

What’s intriguing is that although the share prices of the two airlines differ greatly, their increase on a percentage basis has been somewhat uniform. Here’s an overlay (below) of the two. WestJet is in blue, Air Canada in green.

Still waiting to hear from WestJet about the initial routes for their new regional, Encore. The announcement was to have been made at the end of the January but for some reason has been delayed. In a tweet yesterday, WestJet said:

So. We’ll just have to stand by.