changing the rules

New week, new things – and this time, we actually had a briefing about it before.

I start the monday as Executive on the sector Donau-Low. The first good deed of the day is to break apart two formations of two military jets each so they can land individually at their airfield, Neuburg.

This is called “split” in our lingo, its aim is to get a distance between the jets so we can call it “separation” – in this case, that is either 1000 feet vertically or 5 nautical miles horizontally. Naturally, I take the easy way out and initially just descend one of the two jets (Eurofighters, for anyone actually interested), breaking him away to whatever direction I desire once I have the 1000 feet.

The good thing about easy ways is that usually they work quite easily – no disappointment this time either.

The next challenge is airplanes intending to change their flight rules – from VFR to IFR or vice versa. I guess a bit more of an explanation will be required at this point though…

VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules and basically means airplanes finding their way completely on their own, relying on visual clues (terrain or man-made objects) to navigate, keeping themselves separated without the help of Air Traffic Control (there are certain exceptions to that, but I will get to those later). This is probably the easiest way to fly with the most freedom, but also the one least relying on any outside support (namely ATC) and thus less safe than IFR. Also, good weather is a must here. As is daytime, because at night, it’s dark, and there is so much less to see (d’uh). Thus, mostly small private airplanes fly according to these rules.

IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules. In this case, airplanes are constantly in contact and under the control of ATC, which has to ensure they are separated from other airplanes. Instead of navigating via visual clues, they mostly use special radio beacons, inertial navigation systems or GPS, removing the need for good weather and daytime (good weather is still quite liked though). This is the more heavily regulated form of flying, however usually considered more safe than VFR. In general, all transport airplanes (airliners) will fly according to these rules.

Alright, got this out of the way.

The first flight rule change of the day is a very, very, very, very old Beech 18 on its way to Gunzenhausen, a very, very, very, very small airfield in our sector. Since this airfield is not served by Air Traffic Control (too small, too remote, too little traffic), we can’t get IFR flights to it, so they have to change to VFR (“cancel IFR”) before they can land.

Before they can do that, they have to be descended below flight level 100 (roughly 10.000 feet altitude), because as a rule, they can’t (usually) fly VFR above that. They also have to find a spot of nice weather where they can actually see. And yes, daytime comes in handy, too.

Today we have perfect weather conditions, it’s a clear day and the Beech very quickly cancels IFR once below flight level 100. As is customary, I tell him his position (“Gunzenhausen at your 12 o’ clock, 30 miles”), instruct him to change his transponder setting to indicate a VFR flight and allow him to leave my frequency. With that, he’s gone, meaning he can freely roam around the skies (within certain, well-regulated airspace, airspeed, traffic etc. pp rules of course – this still is Germany), and we have one less airplane to take care of. More time for the newspaper. Oops, we forgot to tell him his QNH – yes, coach, next time I won’t forget it, promise. :)

Next, an airplane taking off from Gunzenhausen (still not served by ATC. Thus he departs under VFR) wishing to change to IFR (an “IFR pick-up”). Easy as pie – give him his clearance…no wait, first give him his discrete transponder code so we find out where he is on our radar scsreen…oh, he also should know the QNH? Okay okay…now give him his clearance…no no no, first ask if he is actually ready to copy his clearance (pen in hand, preferrably)…now his clearance – who was the other airplane just calling in on our frequency? Ah, he can wait – now the clearance…I think I better climb the guy now.

“IFR starts now”. As I said, easy as pie. Well, next time, with some luck…

This continues throughout the whole run, with mostly military jets either wishing to cancel IFR (the weather is so good today, why be bothered with those ATC guys) or changing from VFR to IFR (let ATC guide us home, it was a long day anyways).

To make matters interesting, there is also other traffic, Donau-Low’s usual mix of departures from Munich and Nuernberg, arrivals to Munich and Nuernberg and some overflights. It actually gets busy when three departures want to get separated against two arrivals while three military jets want some flight rule change, and if we could have that right now please?

But it’s a good run for a Monday morning with new things to do, and next time I really won’t forget to give him the QNH, honestly…

The rest of the day is rather uneventful, two times as Planner on Donau-Low respectively Wuerzburg-Low, and the last run as Executive on Wuerzburg-Low.

In order not to bore my coach too much though, I add in two cleared conflictions (i.e. “airplanes will be too close for comfort if you don’t change the crap you just instructed real quickly”) in that last run.

With big thanks to the ever attentive coach (first one) and a great Planner (“Are you sure they are going to be five miles apart?” “Of course” “Well the system says three miles” “Err….Adria 212, turn left!”) I manage to just-so prevent the simulated aluminium shower over both the south-eastern and the north-western corner of Wuerzburg-Low.

P.S.: I’d like to point out the small ATC dictionary I added to this blog, for all those strange words we tend to use in this business. It may just make this blog a bit more understandable for normal people. :)