I’m chatting with an American Airlines Captain. Not a normal circumstance as he’s (presumably) busy flying his heavy metal at 30,000 feet and I’m busy piloting the Plane Tales Plane 300 feet over the Rio Grande River Valley.
But this is what comes from trying to do the “right thing.”
Recently, after visiting the Albuquerque Center and spending half a day with the en-route air traffic controllers, we decided to try our hand at “Flight Following.” Following is a voluntary—as time allows—service provided by Centers for pilots flying under Visual Flight Rules, or VFR. Sorry about all the new vocabulary words today. VFR has rules, of course, but it’s as close as you can come in the modern world of going out and doing whatever you want to do in an airplane. You can legally fly VFR without talking to anyone. In fact you’re not even required to have a radio. How’s that for back to basics?
But if you want to, you can call up Center, just like the American Captain was required to do (as are all planes way up there at the “jet levels”) and tell Center who you are and what you are doing. They’ll assign you a transponder code so they can more easily keep track of you, and then give you calls when they see other air traffic in your area. Or weather. Or terrain. Sometimes they can even give you shortcuts through military operations areas. But it’s all advice. They aren’t “controlling” a VFR airplane that’s getting flight following. The pilot retains total control and has the benefit of an extra set of eyes on his or her plane and airspace.
So what’s not to love?
Well, for one thing, you have to listen to a lot of radio chatter, being constantly alert for your tail number, instead of jamming to your flying mix on your iPod. And for another thing, you have new opportunities to make a fool of yourself.
I learned to fly a at busy uncontrolled airport, which is like driving through a crowded mall parking lot at Christmas time, only three dimensional, and at 100 miles per hour. Because of my training, I’m pretty darn good at keeping aware, spotting other planes, understanding where people are from their calls, and talking to other pilots.
But when I have to talk to an air traffic control tower, I always stumble over my words, say my call sign backwards, get frequencies wrong, put my foot in my mouth, and just generally embarrass myself.
When I plan trips, I always opt for refueling at uncontrolled airports. They are more in my comfort zone. (Interestingly, Rio’s godfather trained at a controlled airport. He’s very happy talking to towers but gets all sweaty-palmed when having to fly into uncontrolled fields. I guess it’s true what they say about initial training molding the pilot to come.)
Naturally, given my track record with rude controllers caustically saying, “Seven-Six Hotel, did you actually mean to say __________?” that I had not been inclined to set myself up for unnecessary abuse and embarrassment by using Flight Following. I’m actually a good pilot, I just never sound like one when talking to a controller. But the controllers at the Center Rio and I visited were all so nice, and so sincere, and really made their case about how it’s actually less work for them to be able to talk to every radar blip rather than wonder who we are and where we are going, that Rio and I committed to try it on our next flight to somewhere, which looked to be a journey to a busy fly-in in the center of the State.
My first challenge when planning this first cross-country flight using Flight Following turned out to be finding the right frequency for the Center. Each center has dozens of frequencies. I spread my paper chart out on Tessie’s wing in the Plane Tales Hanger and searched in vain for a listing. I checked the area of the state I fly in. I checked the margins. I checked the back. I checked my memory of flight school 30 years ago and came up blank.
I finally had to Google it, and even then it took a while to get the answer.
It turns out center frequencies aren’t on the VFR sectional charts we uncontrolled pilots use. The frequencies are on the low altitude IFR, or Instrument Flight Rules charts, which makes sense, as IFR pilots are required to stay in touch with Center. The frequencies for each area, according to the World Wide Web, would appear on the IFR chart in a little box with scalloped edges, resembling a postage stamp.
Well, shoot. I don’t have an IFR chart, as my instrument rating is way out of date and the Plane Tales Plane isn’t even equipped for instrument flight. On the verge of giving up and throwing in the towel, it suddenly occurred to me that my iPad has every chart in the world. I booted up the Garmin Pilot App, switched my view from Sectional to IFR and bingo:
There it was. So now I had no excuse not to try it.
How did it work out? Well, I didn’t make too bad a fool out of myself, but I didn’t enjoy my trip as much as I could have because I was constantly worried about making a fool of myself, and the extra work load from all the radio traffic was taxing. Plus, we never got one word of advice from our controller. He only called once, to tell us he’d lost radar contact with us as we approached our mountain pass through the Sandias that separates the North East Highlands from the Rio Grande River Valley. I assured him we hadn’t crashed, and he assured us he’d be able to see us again on the other side.
See? Yes. Hear? Apparently not.
As we scooted out of the mountains and into the wide-open valley, our controller called us. We tried to reply, but apparently he was unable to hear our calls. I radioed several times over the next ten minutes, as did the controller. We could hear him plain as day, but he couldn’t hear us. And that’s how I got to chat with the American Airlines Captain.
Apparently the controller looked for a plane high above our radar blip, and like that game in which each person in a row whispers a message to the next person, we had a conversation chain.
“Center wants me to tell you that…” Roger that, American 305, please tell the center that… Via proxy, we were assigned a new frequency. And just as I was getting into some heavy traffic closing in on the fly-in, and looking forward to an extra set of eyes, the controller terminated the service, told me there was a ton of traffic ahead, and to have a nice day.
It was Christmas at the mall again.
But at least I was in my own element. So did we use Flight Following on the way home that afternoon?
No we didn’t.