Getting the information you need to fly safely even when you’re in new territory
By Grant McHerron (aka Falcon124)
Most people are familiar with a number of pithy sayings related to the importance of knowledge. Some of the more common include:
“Praemonitus, praemunitus” – (latin – translated as Fore-warned is Forearmed)
“Be prepared” – Baden-Powell & the Boy Scouts
“Knowledge is Power” – Sir Francis Bacon
For almost 100 years pilots have been aware of the importance of knowledge and the importance of continuously seeking new information. Captain Travis W Shortridge (pilot of the ill-fated Southern Cloud) made this comment in an article published in 1930:
“No man can be born a fully-trained pilot; no pilot can ever be fully trained. All pilots should ever be learning, ever striving to increase their own efficiency. Efficiency begets confidence, and thus safety. So aim at being safe”
According to air law, the pilot in command (that’s you!) must be prepared with sufficient knowledge to support the flight (as per CAO 95.54 4.2, CAR 233, CAR 239, etc). You must plan the flight for the route to be followed and any aerodromes to be used covering:
- Current weather reports & forecasts
- Airways facilities available & their conditions
- Conditions of any aerodromes & their suitability to your aircraft
- Air Traffic Control rules & procedures pertaining to the flight
You must also carry (and have easy access to) the information you need during the flight, including:
- Maps covering the proposed area of operation showing aerodromes, controlled airspace, prohibited, restricted and danger areas along the likely flight path
- Any other information & instructions required
To be of any use, the information must be current & up to date. It’s no use trying to plan or fly with maps, weather and/or area notes that are out of date. Just because the information was correct yesterday does not necessarily mean it will be correct today.
Unfortunately too many people don’t bother to keep up with suitable information. Reasons range from “It’s just too hard” to “I fly in the same area all the time & I know it well enough” and “We’re just sport pilots so all that stuff doesn’t count for us.” Sadly, none of these reasons are a good defence if anything ever goes wrong.
In addition to the legal aspects of knowing your environment you will find that good knowledge of weather, terrain, frequencies and the rules can also lead to a better flight with fewer nasty surprises or unknowns. This is especially the case when flying in a new location where prior knowledge is essential to a successful flight.
Where to get Information
There are a number of information sources available to help you obtain all the knowledge you need. Many of them are available online for free while some must be obtained in the “real” world (but even then most can be ordered online, saving you a trip into a pilot shop or map store). These information sources include:
- CASA & AirServices:
- ERSA, AIP, DAP, etc (http://www.airservices.gov.au/flying/default.asp)
- CASR, CAR, CAO (http://casa.gov.au/scripts/nc.dll?WCMS:STANDARD::pc=PC_90902)
- VFR Flight Guide (this is an excellent summary of the rules and everyone should have read it) (http://casa.gov.au/scripts/nc.dll?WCMS:STANDARD::pc=PC_90008)
- AirServices’ Pilot Briefing pages (http://www.airservicesaustralia.com/brief/)
- NOTAMs (go to the AirServices area chart at http://www.airservices.gov.au/Brief/areabrf.asp and click on the area you’re in then. This will give you TAFs and NOTAMs in the one place)
- Maps are typically not available for viewing online but can be purchased and/or downloaded
- Bureau of Meteorology for weather information & observations
- The four day synoptic chart is great for seeing what’s coming up
- Forecast pages give a rough idea of the week ahead in plain English (Melbourne Metro)
- Weather observations give you an overview of the “now” and an easy link to the past 12-24 hours of observations for a specific location (State level and around a city)
- Weather radars are great for seeing what’s in that cloud or what might be coming up behind it
- The BoM’s Aviation Weather Services page has even more stuff available for you
- The Australian Ballooning Federation has a number of useful items online that you can read and/or make use of
But it’s all GEEK to me!
It takes a bit of practice to get used to reading maps, TAFs, METARs, NOTAMs and many other aviation related information sources. Like many things, the more you do it, the easier it gets.
To help you get on top of understanding all this information, here are a few “how to” places that will help you decrypt the codes:
- How to read a weather report in TAF or METAR format:
- Check the AIP GEN 3.5 section 25 – it has great instructions for understanding what they mean
- The Canberra Gliding club has a great discussion in their forum that talks about understanding weather reports
- How to understand a NOTAM:
- The VFR Guide provides a great summary of the air rules and has helpful “how to” sections for weather reports, etc
- The folks at RA-Aus provide a great summary of airspace regulations that’s worth checking out
Putting it all Together
To put all of this information together, let’s consider a potential flight in an area we’ve never been to before. For this example, I’m going to use Mildura as I’ve recently gone through all of this as part of my preparation for “The Lake 2010” event.
First up, look for charts (both aviation & topographic) so you can start assessing airspace boundaries, what airports/airstrips/ALAs are in the area and what Area Forecast zone is it in. Use the Planning Chart of Australia (PCA) to find that it’s in Area 30 and is on World Aeronautical Chart (WAC) 3458. You can also get the Low Level EnRoute Chart (ERC LOW) #2 to see any step levels and radio frequencies in the area. Finally, pick up the VICMAP topograhic maps for Meringur & Merrinee so you can make a good assessment of the area (roads, lakes, rivers, etc).
You can use the EnRoute Supplement Australia (ERSA) to look up Mildura in the list of airports to get its identifier (YMIA), airport layout, frequencies & notes. Then use the AirServices area briefing to start monitoring weather & NOTAMs in the area as well as at Mildura.
Once you have that information, you can go to the ABF website and check for PZs, SZs and other notes. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot listed there so those folks who know Mildura might want to send some info to the ABF so it can be updated :)
If information about ballooning issues in the area is not available, make use of the ABF member directory to find people living in Mildura and give them a call. Most people would be happy to pass on their knowledge about flying balloons in their area so this is a vital step in your preparations.
Should you not be able to find anyone with ballooning knowledge about the area you are going to, start making calls to the airports in or around the space you want to fly. Call the tower if they have one or the airport manager if they’re listed. Start finding pilots in the area who can talk about what to watch out for, weather patterns & so on.
With all of this information you can start building up a mental image of the 3D picture of the space you will be flying in (landscape, boundaries, hazards, etc). This information can help you do some “what if” thinking of how you might fly for various wind conditions, what to watch out for, etc. Based on this, mark up your maps and create some quick reference cards (cheat sheets) with information about frequencies, names, etc so that it is easy to find all you’ll need when you’re in the air.
This may seem like a lot of effort but the rewards are certainly worth it. Being prepared and having the information you need will help give you a safer, more enjoyable flight. It also makes you a better pilot and reduces the chances of you making mistakes that could hurt you, your passengers and/or the reputation of ballooning.
Helping to spread the knowledge
We all need to be willing to help each other with the knowledge we might have as you may have information that helps a fellow pilot have a safe & happy flight in your area. Ways you can help include:
- Provide information about PZs, SZs & hazards in your area to the ABF so they can update their site
- Be available for calls from other pilots who may want to fly in your area
- Use online forums to raise & answer questions (eg: Aunty Monkey, DownWind)
- Attend social events with other pilots
In the end, it’s all about airmanship and, like the awareness that knowledge is essential to safe aviating, airmanship is an issue that has been on our minds since we first began to fly:
Somehow ‘airmanship’, which is not just flying, but is everything flying means, is a very neglected subject … If only young pilots would forget that a ‘joy stick’ is in many ways only a secondary consideration, that ‘circuits and landings’ do not make a pilot, that they never will learn all that the air can teach them, and that advice from old hands should never be disregarded – well, lots of young pilots would still be pilots!
Captain Travis W. Shortridge
“Blind & Bad Weather Flying”
Slipstream Magazine, 1930
(pilot of the ill-fated Southern Cloud)