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7-5, Taken Alive??

Please don’t misuse it…

When learning to fly I was taught a mnemonic (one of many learnt during training), which helps me to remember the three very important transponder squawks which are used in varying emergencies:

75 – taken alive, 76 – in a fix, 77 – going to heaven.

This is to describe the following squawks and their uses.

  • 7500 – Unlawful Interference – Hijacking normally.
  • 7600 – Communication Failure – Radio Inoperative.
  • 7700 – Other Emergency – Normally a May Day, where an aircraft or person aboard is in grave or imminent danger.

Emergency Squawks

The main thing they do is alert any radar operator to your peril – and they generally do this by highlighting the aircraft in a very prominent colour on the display of the radar operator.  The operator can then use this information to assist the flight much better, and if you have a Mode S transponder they will also have other information about the flight as well.

Of course we all hope we never have to use any of the emergency squawks, but we all use routine codes every day and will often have to change between them in flight, as we are assigned new codes by new ATC units.

Be Careful!

A post in this months GASIL reminds us that as pilots we have to be careful how we set these squawks… particularly near or around 7500.  Older transponders (in much of the GA fleet) are set by rotating a series of dials, whereas newer transponders are set with buttons and the code typed in.

Old Transponder
Old Transponder
New Transponder
New Transponder

The danger is that when changing squawk on an old style transponder you may scroll the dials through one of the emergency combinations.  7600 and 7700 can be resolved quite quickly by confirming with Air Traffic Control that no emergency exists…  however they are unlikely to believe that having squawked 7500 (even fleetingly) no hijack situation exists, no matter how much you plead.

Fighter Jet Anyone?

The point made in this months GASIL, which I am emphasising is that you must select standby when changing transponder codes on older style units.

Change the unit to standby, change the code, then put turn transponder back to On (Or Alt if available).

If you do not then in the current climate, and especially in 2012 with the Olympics in town, you can fully expect to be intercepted by an RAF Typhoon from the Quick Reaction Force.  This may take some explaining away…

… but if you do get it wrong you can find the Interception Procedures here!

Advice Of A Regulator.

Volcano - with Helicopter.  (c) BBC 2010.
Volcano - with Helicopter. (c) BBC 2010.

As readers are no doubt aware most commercial flying in northern Europe is currently suspended as a result of a plume of ash which is in the upper atmosphere as a result of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland. The effects of flying directly through dense ash are well documented, the effects of doing it twice witnessed in British Airways Flight 9.

At the same time here in the UK we have experienced some of the best weather this year so far with clear skies and low winds.  For the type of flying I do (VFR, Visual Flight Rules) the weather was, and continues to be, nothing short of ideal.  Most of my friends have been flying, but I have had other commitments.

The effect of the ash cloud is very limited on my flying.  The ash itself is at least 10,000 feet above where I normally fly, and I fly a piston engined aircraft which works very differently to a jet / turbine engine.

Part of the reason for the restriction of commercial flying in the UK and Europe is the ICAO standard which prohibits the provision of an Air Traffic Control service in areas affected by volcanic ash.  Clearly commercial operators prefer to operate in the “known traffic environment” of controlled air space which then requires the provision of an ATC service.

So, when the Met Office in the UK forecasts ash,  NATS (who provide ATC for the majority UK controlled airspace) are obliged to stop providing that service.  ICAO have said it’s unsafe, and who would voluntarily fly in an environment which is unsafe??

Enter the role of the CAA, who are the regulator of Civil Aviation in the UK (although part of the work is now done through / with EASA).  On their website they currently state:

All pilots are advised not to fly until clearance has been received from the Met Office and should check NOTAMs.

We’ll leave the issue of NOTAMs alone, as anyone who flys without checking them (especially in airspace as complicated as the UKs) shouldn’t be flying.  The more interesting statement is that of obtaining clearance from the Met Office.  Having spoken to a number of pilot friends no-one was aware the Met Office had the authority or even the means to issue such clearances.  How do I obtain one?  If I can fly safely in VMC at 3,000′ between point A and point B and in accordance with all other rules why do I now need a clearance from the Met Office?

Ash Cloud Coverage - (c) Met Office 2010
Ash Cloud Coverage - (c) Met Office 2010

It is my understanding that the Met Office issues weather forecasts – some specialised for aviation but not clearances for individual flights, or even flight as a whole.  It’s not their place and I doubt they understand the underlying technical issues.  They do understand weather though!

The bigger problem with the statement from the CAA though is that if I now choose to go flying (having made sure the flight is otherwise legal), I am flying directly against the advice of the regulator.  If anything were to happen you can be sure that any insurance company or prosecuting authority would almost certainly bring this up.  The fact it has no legal basis other than the opinion of the CAA is of course irrelevant; it carries weight.

The CAA is often colloquially referred to in the UK as “The Campaign Against Aviation” or “Cash And Angst”; and to date I have never experienced this.  They have always been polite, efficient and very much pro-GA in my opinion (as have NATS, who also have their detractors) – but this is clearly ill informed advice, which carries undue credence because of the source.

I’ve emailed them, and ask them to either clarify it or remove it.  I doubt they’ll do either… if they’re seen to be encouraging flight while tens of thousands of people (who don’t understand the difference between flying a R44 / C152 and Boeing 747) are stranded overseas it may be something of a PR mistake!

Post Maintenance Flights

I recently had to collect a helicopter from maintenance and move it back to the owners house.  It was the helicopter which I normally fly (I have an arrangement with the owner), and I had positioned it for maintenance earlier in the week.  Such flights are normally great for me because I generally either pay a very low fee for the flying or its free (they’re called positioning flights).  In this case I didn’t have to pay for the aircraft time, but sorted out my own travel arrangements to get home etc.

However, I always worry about post maintenance flights – you just don’t know exactly what has been done to the machine or how it was done.  You have a rough idea of what should have been done (as you know what type of service / fault you took it in for), and you know that the engineers involved are licenced and working at a licenced, audited facility.

There have been some monumental (and some fatal) errors made at maintenance though – for instance British Airways flight 5390, where the wrong bolts were fitted to a window resulting in the Captain being sucked out of the window at 17,000′.   The Griffin Helicopter Safety database lists Maintenance Errors as the sixth most common cause of accidents to UK registered helicopters (fifth really, as the list includes those still formally under investigation).

Calculated Risk.

I take the attitude that all flight is a risk to my health, but I can manage that risk down to an acceptable level through training, proficiency, currency, training, knowledge, more training and some other factors.  Ok, so that attitude is a little dramatic but it serves well to remind you that you need to minimise and manage risk at all times.  In fact at the Robinson factory safety course they teach you that you are essentially a taker of calculated risk!

Minimising The Risk.

That said, I then need to minimise any risk (which may or may not be real) on a post maintenance flight.  There are two ways I do this, and I’m happy to hear of any more suggestions.  The obvious one is a very very thorough pre flight inspection – if the slightest thing is awry or I am unsure of something I will go and find an engineer and seek advice.  This is fairly standard.  (On the flight in question I wanted to double check the MGB oil level as it was in my opinion close to the fill line – but engineers were happy with it; and they hadn’t touched it during the work in any case.)

I think the second is a little more unusual (and you can’t always do it), but I try and go and speak with the engineers and ask questions about what they’ve done and what it entails.  A good engineer will happily answer these; provided you phrase them so they don’t sound like your questioning their work.  This serves two purposes:  it will improve your understanding of how the machine actually works, and it will give you a clue as to where they have worked so you can pay extra special attention to that part of the aircraft.

Needless to say, thanks to the good work of the guys at Sloane Helicopters the machine was perfect and I moved it back home with no problems and caught the train home!

Interesting Links, 23 March 2010

One of the bloggers whose blog I read most days (I have set routine of sites to check first thing every day, working left to right on favourites bar in Chrome) often posts links to interesting articles that have caught her eye.  I think its a great idea… so I hope she doesn’t mind if I do the same!

  • An Eclectic Mind. This is the blog I was referring to.  Maria Langer is a freelance writer and commercial helicopter pilot from Arizona, USA.  Her blog is very addictive because of its diverse subject matter and the quality of the writing.
  • Virgin Galactic’s First “Captive” Flight. and Photo’s. Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise has made its inaugural captive flight, attached to VMS Eve from the Mojave Space Port.  Thanks to @mlanger and @richardbranson on Twitter.
  • First Flight of Chinese heavy heli.  Aviacopters AC313 has made its first test flights and secured a launch customer, but will it succeed against the likes of AW101 & S-92 given its near 50 year design heritage?