Sunday, June 27, 2010

Aviation Weather Sequence (SA) Reports Make More Sense Than METARS

In 1996, a major change to weather reports for pilots occurred. In order to standardize with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) the replacement for the Aviation Weather Sequence Reports (SA) was something the Europeans called METARS.  The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lays down the definition in its publication the Aeronautical Information Manual as aviation routine weather report.

I think it is time to go back to the Aviation Weather Sequence (SA) reports format.   Nothing was gained for the US pilot with the change except added confusion when this new format called METARS was introduced.

The most important weather factors for most pilots are the ceiling and visibility.  These are the very first two elements of the Aviation Weather Sequence Reports (SA). Here is a sample of one for Raleigh Durham,  North Carolina:
RDU SA 0150 M50 OVC 10RW- 094/74/59/1009/982

Translation - Raleigh-Durham, observation at 0150 ZULU, measured ceiling 5,000 feet overcast, visibility 10 statute miles; light rain showers; sea level pressure 1009.4 millibars; temperature 74° F; dewpoint 59° F; wind from 100° true at 9 knots; altimeter 29.82 inches. 
The ceiling and visibility are found right up front and  is a measured ceiling 5,000 feet overcast and a visibility of 10 miles. 

Here is the corresponding METAR report for Raleigh Durham:
KRDU 271951Z 10009 10SM OVC050  74/59 A2982

In the METAR Report, the first item you see is the wind direction and velocity and you have to dig into the middle of the  METAR to discover the visibility is 10 miles and the  ceiling is overcast  at 5,000 feet. When you are looking at a large number of weather reports, the difference in being able to create a picture of the weather  is much easier using the Aviation Weather Sequence (SA) report format. 

I discovered that the WSI,Inc. web site still makes the Aviation Weather Sequence (SA) reports available for the convenience of pilots today. Many pilots are not aware they are still available.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Major Upgrade to to add European Airspace Coverage has just announced a major upgrade to their flight tracking web site.  They now offer coverage of European flights as well as flights in the USA. See below:

FlightAware is proud to release a major upgrade to airline flight tracking on We have been working behind the scenes for several months to enhance our flight tracking services by adding many new features that are important to our users that track airline flights. When using to track airline flights, you will now receive international coverage, gate information, as well as more timely, accurate, and relevant information.

New features in detail
For many airlines at non-US airports, we now display real-time arrival and departure times as well as flight status information. You no longer have to wait for for the flight to get close to US or Western European airspace.

Instead of displaying "Scheduled / Not Yet Departed" until an airliner is airborne, we will now display "Taxiing (pushed from the gate X minutes ago)" for many airlines. Additionally, for supported flights, the "Status" row distinguishes between "Arrived" and "Landed" now; we will display taxi information upon landing.

We are starting to display terminals, gate assignments, and baggage claim carousel numbers information at most major airlines and airports around the world.
For most airline flights, you can now click on the "Scheduled" or "Actual/Estimated" column headers and view a list of all known times (gate pushback/takeoff/landing/averages/etc) that FlightAware has -- up to 14 in many cases. 

Last summer, we began tracking (radar positions on a map) many flights in Western Europe. With these improvements, we are more than doubling the number of flights that we can show real-time positions for. Additionally, we now list aircraft types for European flights where previously we tracked the flight but lacked the equipment details and other flight/route/schedule specifics.

For many airline flights, we've reduced the 5-6 minute delay to less than a minute for takeoffs and landings (but not positions).

Last year, British Airways, Virgin, and United (in some rare cases) began flying under flight identifiers that were not their flight number. For example, BAW11M instead of BAW287. This made the flights very difficult to track because there is often no pattern to the renumbering and users tracking BAW287, for example, would get no data other than "Scheduled" data. This is now corrected and we no longer use the alphanumeric assignments. You can now track the flight by the carrier and flight number now instead of by the arbitrary call sign.

We added the ability to "Track inbound flight" for dozens of airlines (including United, Continental, Delta, Air Canada, ANA, and many more) so that you can track the specific aircraft that's scheduled to operate your flight if it's not yet at your origin. We're adding several more airlines in the next couple months.

On airport activity pages, for both general aviation and airline flights, we'll now show a much more accurate estimated departure/takeoff time rather than the scheduled/filed departure time.

We now display scheduled flights in the "Activity Log" up to 36-48 hours in advance (previously only 24).

We now support regional formatting for date formats, temperatures, and more based on your location or preferences. FlightAware will auto-detect your preferred formats and begin to use that data to present data in a format and language that makes more sense to you.
If you prefer a different language or format, you can select from the drop-down at the top next to the flag(s). We currently support proper locale formatting for English (US, UK, and Australia), Japanese, Chinese, French, Spanish (Spain), German, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, Hindi, and Korean. So, depending on where you are, we can tell you about your flight on 金曜日 or the weather on Dienstag.
We'll be adding more languages/formats and expanding our use of our existing languages to include translations.
Regional maps and weather data will be based on your present position (e.g., map of Europe instead of US if you are in London).

Dozens of minor changes and improvements, such as: more international time zone support, more predictable results from the flight finder as well as a new "Left Gate" status, better international IATA/ICAO support for airline and airport codes, improved airline search functionality, flight data formatting improvements on tracking pages, more streamlined display for mobile devices, supporting (+2) for flights that land two days later, improved duration calculator for airborne flights, and much more.

Coming Summer 2010
The ability to track an airliner by the registration number.
For supported airlines, you'll be able to type in the registration (e.g., N12345) and track that individual airplane, even if it flies as an airline flight identifier.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Three Cockpit Crew Members Are Better Than Just Two

DC-10 Three Man Crew
@ 2008 and Sam Chui Photography
I have been a long time supporter of three man cockpit crews.  Three is the ideal number for a lot of really good reasons. I like to verify my opinions based upon personal experiences.

Consider the case where you are going to have a lunch with a good friend you have not seen in the past year.  Even though you have a lot of things and experiences in common, sometime during the lunch a period of time of not saying anything happens.  When I have lunch with three people that never happens and there are times when all three of us are talking at the same time.

In other words, the social side as well as the intellectual side of the experience is a much richer one. I believe this point was ignored when the decision to permit just two pilots operate aircraft carrying passengers was made.  I would suggest taking advantage of this phenomena when determining the size of the crew.

Another factor not talked or written about to my knowledge is a weakness in the two man crew concept. This factor is the relative strengths of the personalities of the two pilots.  If you have one very strong personality, it is most likely he will dominate the operation.  This is much less likely to happen in a three man crew in that the two other crew member can better balance and offset the domination.

The cost of the third crew member has been the driving factor to remove him. Consider the additional cost per passenger of the third member and the greater the number of passengers carried, the lower the cost.  In the case of the larger aircraft such as the A-380 with 560 passenger capacity, it is a really small number. Too small when you consider the advantages of having him on board.

Ever since the decision to permit the size of crew to be reduced to two, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in all the accident investigations it conducts, never mentions the positive impact a third crew member could have on the outcome or prevention of the accident.  It is a taboo subject in the world of aviation safety today.  No one even talks about it. Why is it not mentioned or talked about today?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Message of support I sent to BP on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

Oil Spill Relief Wells as of June 11, 2010
(Click on image to enlarge)

From : Captain Richard P. Siano
Date : 06/04/10 19:09

I am embarrassed by the media's and the government's negative treatment
of BP concerning the situation in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing in life
is risk free and the search and production of oil resources have risks
associated.  Accidents happen and should not be treated as criminal
BP should be congratulated for its success in discovering new reserves
of oil.  In my life the cost of fuel has always been a significant part
of my expenditures. More supplies of oil keep fuel costs down for all
of us. 
The costs of the cleanup and solution to this accident should be born
by all who benefit from the supply of oil and that means all of us who
use fuel should bear the costs. BP should not bear the costs alone.
I would appreciate knowing if BP is receiving any other supportive
messages such as mine.
Captain R. P. Siano

This is the reply I received from BP:

The following inquiry was submitted to Deepwater Horizon Response on
06/04/10 19:09 (362459):
From : Joint Information Center
Date : 06/05/10 04:35

Dear Captain Richard P. Siano 

Thank you for your support and comments. I assure you, BP is doing
everything possible to contain the oil and minimize environmental
impacts. We are working hard to clean up the effects of this spill. 

We know we will be judged by the success we have in dealing with this
incident and we are determined to succeed for everyone's sake - and, of
course,  for the sake of the environment. 

We are taking full responsibility for the spill and we will clean it
up, and where people have legitimate claims for damages we will honour


If you have further questions or would like more information, feel
free to contact us via the link below.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

2006 Mid-Air Collision Brazil (re-posted)

Embraer Legacy 600 
Photographed by Adrian Pingstone 

For your information, what  follows is a re-posting of the previous four part post by combining the four posts into just one post.     
Since I brought up the subject of mid-air collisions in my last post, I thought it might be appropriate to look at this particular example of a recent one.  I have been following the developments of the investigation of this mid-air collision that took place in the airspace of Brazil on September 29, 2006, almost four years ago.

The fact the Internet has made a lot more information easily available is taken for granted today.  If I attempted to gather information concerning this specific accident which happened in Brazil without the Internet, I would have most likely given up.

In particular, I used three internet sources for the majority of my information.  Wikipedia was my most used site however the richest source was the 280 page Accident Investigation Report by the Brazilian Air Force.

The third source was the most dramatic source since it contained the actual cockpit voice recorder recordings of both aircraft. This source was an article titled "The Devil at 37,000 Feet" that appeared on the Vanity Fair Magazine's web site written by Wolfgang Langewiesche dated January 2009.I have been around the flying world for along time and this is the first time I have ever listened to the actual recording of an aircraft accident and it turned out to be personally an emotional experience.

These recordings have also been placed on the YouTube web site.

This mid-air collision had seven survivors.  All on board the Embraer Legacy 600, N600XL survived. The number of fatalities was 154.  All 148 passengers and the six crew members on board Gol Transportes Aereos Flight 1907 were killed. No one on the ground was injured or killed.

Both of these aircraft had the latest and greatest collision warning and collision avoidance equipment (TCAS II) installed.  Both of these aircraft were being controlled by a modern air traffic control system using radar for separation purposes.  And both were crewed by professional pilots with extensive flight experience.  

Neither aircraft had strayed off the course cleared to fly by Air Traffic Control. Yet, a mid-air collision actually happened and 154 people are dead.

Why did this collision happen?

Boeing 737-8EH
                                 Photo Credit: Boeing Image

The Brazilian Air Force Accident report on page 258 quoted the contributing factors as: N600XL
... lack of an adequate planning of the flight, and insufficient knowledge of the flight plan prepared by the Embraer operator; non-execution of a briefing prior to departure; unintentional change of the transponder setting, failure in prioritizing attention; failure in perceiving that the transponder was not transmitting; delay in recognizing the problem of communication with the air traffic control unit; and non-compliance with the procedures prescribed for communications failure.

b) Air traffic control – a contributor
The authorization to maintain flight level FL370 was given to the crew of the N600XL, as the result of a clearance transmitted in an incorrect manner. 

c) Cockpit coordination – a contributor
The attention of both pilots of the N600XL focused on solving the question relative to the performance of the aircraft for the operation in Manaus, as they had learned of a NOTAM limiting the length of the runway of that airport. This hindered the routine of monitoring the evolution of the flight, because both pilots got busy with the same subject, creating the environment in which the interruption of the Transponder transmission was not perceived.

d) Judgment – a contributor
The pilots judged that they would be able to conduct the flight even with their little adjustment as a crew and with their little knowledge of the aircraft systems, mainly the fuel system and the calculations of the weight and balance. 

The PIC left the cockpit and stayed away 16 minutes, not considering the consequences of overburdening the SIC.

e) Planning – a contributor
The planning of the flight was inadequate. 

f) Oversight – a contributor
The oversight conducted by the operator for the flight proposed was inadequate. The composition of the crew, with two pilots that had never flown together before, to receive, in a foreign country, an airplane in which they had little experience, with air traffic rules different from those with which they were used to operate, favored the lack of a good adjustment between the pilots, along with the already mentioned difficulties of cockpit coordination.

g) Little flight experience in the airplane – Undetermined
The insufficient adaptation of the crew with this type of aircraft and with the DISPLAYS of the respective avionics may have contributed to the unintentional selection of the STANDBY mode and to the subsequent lack of perception of the Transponder/TCAS status.

This accident would not have happened without the multiple contributors cited above. 

 Please see below the pictures of the Radio Management Unit (RMU) and the Primary Flight Display (PFD) installed the the Embraer Legacy for indications of the transponder and TCAS status.

                  Radio Management Unit (RMU)
Transponder Status Indication

Primary Flight Display (PFD) TCAS FAIL Indication

The single item that most would agree to be determined as a primary cause of this accident was the fact the transponder was not operating at the time of the collision.  As a result, the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance Systems  (TCAS II) with which both aircraft were equipped was not able to alert either crew of a possible collision.

There are several conspicuous indications of the TCAS/Transponder status in the aircraft instrument panel – eight visible indications in all, with two in the Radio Management Units (RMUs), two in the Primary Flight Displays (PFDs) and another two in the Multi-Function Displays (MFD) (when the MFD was set to display TCAS), and the blinking amber transponder reply light in the “ATC window” boxes on both RMUs.

The Brazilian Crash investigation was unable to discover why it was not turned on even though considerable resources were expended.  A special ergonomics committee was established to see if there was the possibility of a leg or foot movement that could accidentally turn off the transponder.

One positive result of the study discovered not enough consideration had been spent to make the on/off status of the transponder clearly displayed to the crew under all lighting conditions.

The authors of the Brazilian Air Force Accident Report, a 268 page .pdf document failed to emphacize two very important points.  The first one was the failure of either crew to apply the principle of randomness in their aircraft's track.

A brief mention was made to the possibility of a pilot supplied OFFSET being applied to the aircraft track is made on page 14 of the accident report. This is what the report said: Regulate and operationalize the use of OFF SET flight procedures in regions which present communication/radar coverage deficiencies.”

The concept of randomness is recognized today in the form of the Strategic Lateral Offset Procedure (SLOP).  SLOP is in use today and much of the world's airspace, especially the non-radar coverage oceanic airspace as well as in Africa and in China while in radar contact with ATC's approval.

See this Blog's post entitled "Randomness is good!" posted in January of 2010.

They also failed to mention the value of a third cockpit crew member.  Without a doubt, the ideal size of an aircraft's crew is three.  (I recognize I may be beating a "dead horse" when bringing up the subject of minimum cockpit crew size of three.  Today's trend of automating and remotely controlling aircraft is a move to decrease the size of the crew to one and even to completely eliminating the crew.)

If a third crew member had been on board each aircraft, there is increased opportunity for enhanced safety in operations. The richness of the intellectual results of three pilots working together far exceed the results of just two pilots working together.

Since the advent of two man crews in the early seventies, this consideration has been dropped and not ever mentioned in National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident investigation reports. The subject of possible three man crews is a taboo subject.

Cockpit Voice Recorder
I am going to post on this page the actual cockpit voice recorder recordings.  You can access the YouTube web site to listen to them as well. Click here to listen to N600XL and click here to listen to GOL Transportes Aereos Flight 1907.

I would like to suggest you to listen to N600XL recording first to gain a sense of how the operation was being conducted.  It contains approximately two hours and 5 minutes  of the flight.  The sound of the actual collision can be heard at 1 hour and 23 minutes and 45 seconds into the recording.  

The crew of N600XL had not talked to Brasilia Air Traffic Control for almost an hour.  Many attempts to regain contact were made however. There was also no attempt to contact other aircraft for assistance on the air to air frequency of 123.45. 
Please note the pilots of the Legacy only use the word "emergency" in all 10 of their transmissions after the collision had happened.  They did not use the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) phraseology standard word "MAYDAY" in any of them.

The fact the none of the authorities involved mentions or acknowledges the deliberate application of randomness in aircraft tracks is shocking to me. I personally have been applying randomness to my aircraft track for more than 50 years. (Once again, see my post on January 26, 2010 "Randomness is good!")

The application of Strategic Lateral Offset Procedure by either or both crew would have prevented a collision.  The application of randomness in  some form is clearly an option of the pilots-in-command that is rarely talked about or applied but may be the last resort to assuring separation in the event of multiple errors or procedural failures.

The authorities need to take the actions necessary to inform and encourage pilots on the value of randomness.

Do you apply randomness to your aircraft's track? 
If you do not, why?
Should the application of randomness be optional on the part of the pilot-in-command or should it be made mandatory by new regulations?
Your  comments please!