FAA Flight Check operations

 - April 23, 2008, 12:23 PM

One of the things that most infuriates Jim Morton when he’s on his job is when he hears ATC telling nearby traffic, “Caution: FAA practice instrument approaches under way.” Morton is an FAA airspace system inspection pilot, and he and his crew must frequently emphasize to ATC and pilots that “we are not shooting practice approaches.” His mission is flight checking the accuracy of electronic navaids in the U.S. and abroad. When ATC and other pilots hear “this is an FAA flight check” on the frequency, they should be aware that navaid inspections are in progress, and these checks involve far more than just a “practice approach.”

Flight Check airplanes fly preplanned low-altitude patterns–such as grids, orbits, DME arcs, tracks, instrument approaches and low (50 ft agl) passes along the full length of the runway–often in the opposite direction of the normal traffic flow. At controlled airports, these flights typically receive special handling by ATC. At nontower airports, the safe completion of navaid inspections depends on pilot awareness and cooperation when “flight check” is heard on the frequency.

Morton and 188 other FAA pilots, flight technicians and support personnel operate a fleet of 33 airplanes–King Airs, Learjets, Hawkers and Challengers–in a never-ending effort to ensure that the more than 1,200 precision approaches, 1,900 NDB procedures, 2,700 VOR approaches, 3,300 GPS procedures and 3,900 procedures encompassing MLS, LOC, LDA, SDF, SIDS and STARS, in addition to the hundreds more in some 50 other countries, are functioning properly at all times.

To accomplish this awesome task, Flight Check crews–two pilots and a technician–are scheduled to fly virtually every day and many nights (to avoid high-density airports during busy traffic periods) in VMC and IMC all year around. The only things that keep them from their appointed rounds are severe low-level turbulence (80 percent of inspection flights are flown below 2,000 ft agl), the rare mechanical or technical problem and threatening weather, such as icing or thunderstorms.

Airborne checking of the accuracy of navaids is far from a new FAA function. It began long before there was an FAA, nearly at the same time that sophisticated electronic guidance systems were starting to be used–1926, to be exact. One of the first airplane types used for “airways surveys” was the Douglas M-4 mailplane. Since then, Flight Check has flown many different models, including Twin Beeches, DC-3s, DC-4s, Cessna Bamboo Bombers, Convair 240s and 580s, Sabreliners, Stinsons, Jet Commanders and even Lockheed Constellations. A Fairchild C-123 Provider and a Gulfstream I were also in the Flight Check fleet at one time.

Today, the fleet consists of six Learjet 60s, six Hawker 800s and 18 King Air 300s based in Atlantic City, N.J.; Anchorage, Alaska; Atlanta; Battle Creek, Mich.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Oklahoma City, home of Flight Check’s central operations center. Three Challengers are based internationally, rotating from country to country and flown by crews sent from the U.S.

Along for the Ride
FAA public-affairs officer Fraser Jones and I rode Flight Check King Air 300 N69 to observe a typical day in the life of a Flight Check crew. We were originally scheduled to fly in a Learjet 60, but when we arrived at the FAA Technical Center hangar at the Atlantic City flight-inspection office on a clear but windy morning, that aircraft was down for an unscheduled repair.

Except for the N-number, Flight Check 69 looks like all the other King Airs in the fleet. It’s painted blue and white, the fleet’s colors, and looks like a typical corporate airplane, except that the FAA airplanes are bristling with antennas– top, bottom, tail and nose. There are so many antennas, in fact, that it was a real challenge to get them installed in such a way that their signals don’t interfere with each other. Because the other Flight Check airplanes are larger than the King Airs, interference among the antenna array is less of a problem.

All Flight Check airplanes are nearly the same on the inside. Far from a luxurious corporate interior, these airplanes are filled to the brim with the computers and avionics needed to certify and measure the accuracy of navaid signals. Unlike the larger Flight Check airplanes, the King Air leaves room for just two “passengers.” Behind the pilot’s cockpit divider sits the airborne electronic technician, facing a computer screen and keyboard. A large calibration/printer unit to the technician’s right across the aisle is installed behind the copilot’s divider.

Other equipment in the King Air’s cabin left just two additional seats: one on the right about mid-cabin, directly behind the calibration/printer unit, and a rear potty seat against the aft cabin pressure bulkhead on the left side beyond the entrance door. It wouldn’t be long before we found out why even the passenger seats are fitted with shoulder harnesses and lap belts.

In addition to 10-year veteran Flight Check pilot Morton, our crew consisted of co-captain Durley Felder, who has been flying with Flight Check for 14 years, and technician Roger Smith, on loan from the Sacramento flight-inspection office and a Flight Check crewmember for 26 years. Flight Check pilots are all captains and must be current in two aircraft models. Morton and Felder are also typed in the Learjet 60. All Flight Check pilots go to FlightSafety twice a year.

Before every flight, one of the pilots is designated the PIC throughout the mission. The mission may have several legs and the pilots may change seats on different legs, but the pilot-flying (PF) is always in the left seat and the pilot-not-flying (PNF) handles navigation and communication.

Flight Check annual operations currently average 20,000 hr in the air, equating to more than 600 hr per aircraft. Since records have been kept, Flight Check aircraft have been involved in three fatal accidents: a Jet Commander in 1988 (in which three people were killed); a King Air 300 in 1993 (also fatal to three); and a Sabreliner 40 in 1976, killing two. Two of these fatal accidents occurred during actual or preliminary flight-check operations, and the NTSB was critical of some of the FAA’s procedures. Those criticisms have since been addressed by Flight Check, according to the FAA. The Sabreliner ditched near Recife, Brazil, after running out of fuel. The NTSB said the pilot “wrote a wrong course on his navigation chart.”

Perhaps the relatively low fatal accident rate is due in part to the flight crews’ training regimen, as well as experience. Flight Check pilots average between 8,000 and 10,000 hr TT. Minimum requirements for hire include 1,500 hr TT, 100 hr in the previous year, 500 hr multi-engine time and passing the ATP written.

As Morton and Felder did their preflight, technician Smith gave his two passengers the customary safety briefing, along with an unexpected but recognizable item–a sick sack. Smith cautioned us that there was moderate turbulence in the forecast (the wind on the ground was already buffeting the airplane) and that there would be plenty of low-level maneuvering. He noted we should not be surprised if we feel a little queezy, or worse. “It has happened to the most experienced aviators,” Smith said, adding that the ride would be particularly uncomfortable in the rearmost seat because that’s where the yaw of the airplane would be felt the most. I took the forward seat to maximize my coverage of the mission because the aft seat didn’t have a headset or radio-switching panel.

This flight’s mission was to inspect the ILS approach for Runway 19R and the GPS approach for Runway 12 (yet to be published) at Washington Dulles International Airport. After a fueling and lunch break at Dulles, we would then check the ASR approaches at nearby Andrews AFB followed by a check of ATC’s low-altitude warning system. (The military used to do its own navaid inspections, but after budget cuts and other factors the task was handed over to the FAA several years ago.)

Belted in and with barf bags at the ready, we launched for Dulles on an IFR flight plan that would be canceled before the flight-inspection maneuvers began. The checks that were about to be performed were routine–that is, based on a prescribed schedule. For instance, precision approaches get checked every 270 days; nonprecision approaches every 540 days; and VORs/Vortacs every 1,080 days. In addition, unscheduled checks are performed on request by ATC for certification or recertification purposes, after an accident in which a navaid might have been involved and in response to reported discrepancies.

Yankin’ and a Bankin’

Upon arriving in the Dulles area, Morton in the right seat advised ATC that Flight Check 69 was in the area for an ILS inspection. ATC is supposed to know in advance that Flight Check is coming, but frequently the controllers on duty don’t get the word–as in this case. After some initial radio exchanges, the ILS for 19R was “switched on,” along with the approach lighting system, also a part of the ILS inspection checklist. Smith, meanwhile, was calibrating his equipment and, on a separate frequency, talking to facility technicians on the ground. Then he turned to look at his two passengers and, with a sly smile, said the “yankin’ and a bankin’ is about to begin.”

Smith turned back to his console as Felder began a descent to 1,500 ft. Passing through 2,000 ft, the turbulence suddenly hit. At exactly 1,500 ft and at about 10 mi off the extended runway centerline, we began a five-mile holding pattern maneuver on each side of the centerline to check the accuracy of the localizer. With just five-mile legs, we were turning often and banking steeply in each turn to establish us on the opposite-direction leg quickly.

This maneuver was repeated several bumpy times until Smith’s equipment and the ground technician’s equipment confirmed that the localizer signal was within tolerances, after some minor adjustments. The short legs and steep banks were intended to provide for the most accurate navaid check in the least amount of time, so as to minimize any disruption to normal air-traffic operations.

As the localizer check was under way, I glanced back at Jones to see if he looked as green as I felt. It was hard to tell, but he did give me a weak smile and tipped his sick sack over to show me that it was still empty. I showed him my bag, too, but I wasn’t confident. At about this time, we broke off from the localizer check and positioned for the glideslope inspection, which is nothing more than shooting the approach, but aiming to do it as accurately as possible.

When it comes to flying precise manual approaches, the Flight Check pilots are a cut above even most instrument instructor pilots. Once they take over from the autopilot below 250 ft or so, they must remain on the localizer and/or glideslope if the automatic calibration equipment in the airplane is to record and report accurate readings. Morton conceded that there are days in which turbulence causes the pilots to break off the check. But, as rough as it seemed to me, this was not one of those days.

The ILS check included the fun of flying down the runway at precisely 50 ft to check centerline alignment. Again, to minimize time, at the end of the low pass it was power on, gear up, begin a maximum-effort climb, slowly retract flaps, steep bank and get the heck out of the way of normal traffic as fast as possible. Typically, an ILS check requires just one run. (That was fine as far as the passengers were concerned. The “bags” beckoned, but Jones and I toughed it out.)

Taxiing into Piedmont Hawthorne at Washington Dulles for fuel and lunch was like an obstacle course. It was evident that the corporate jets and smaller general aviation aircraft that otherwise would be using Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (still closed to GA traffic at the time of our visit) are now using Dulles. Piedmont Hawthorne is Flight Check’s contract fuel supplier at Dulles, but Flight Check also contracts with other FBOs. Morton said Flight Check pilots look for quick turnarounds in the FBOs they choose.

Part of Flight Check’s mission, when there is time, is to taxi around an airport to look for the FAA required and readable runway and taxiway signage. Unclear or unapproved signage is noted for follow-up action. We skipped that exercise on this stopover because of time constraints. But the lunch break did give us a moment to learn more about the everyday flying experiences of Flight Check aircraft and their pilots.

Birdstrikes Common
Flying at low altitude on prescribed patterns in terminal areas, often against the flow of traffic, makes midair collisions a top safety concern. While see-and-avoid diligence has so far prevented any midairs with other airplanes, that’s not the case with birds. Birdstrikes are common. Although most incidents cause little or no damage, there are exceptions. The most recent on record was on January 30, when N83, another Flight Check King Air 300, landed at Baltimore Washington International Airport after the crew reported a birdstrike. It was determined that the airplane suffered “substantial damage,” but there were no injuries.

As for close calls with other aircraft, the worst that Morton can recall was a Piper Tomahawk on an apparent collision course from about 11 o’clock high, in a blind spot caused by the windshield post. Fortunately, the left-seat pilot saw the smaller airplane in time to move the King Air, and the single-engine trainer passed harmlessly overhead. Morton estimated the two airplanes came within 200 ft of each other.

Despite the fact that Flight Check airplanes are subjected to more low-level turbulence than typical corporate jets over their lifetime, Morton claims that the fleet hasn’t needed additional maintenance or repair downtime. He added that had we been riding in the originally scheduled Learjet 60 we would have experienced much less turbulence than in the King Air–a function of wing loading.

After the lunch break at Dulles, we were up and off to Andrews to do ASR/PAR approaches and low-altitude warning system checks. For these checks a technician is not required, so Smith offered his console seat to Jones, who gladly accepted after riding out the first leg in the aft seat.

Although the turbulence hadn’t eased, flying the ASR/PAR approach was relatively mild, giving us a chance to digest our lunch properly. Morton, now in the left seat, became PF. With the military ground controllers verbally providing glideslope and localizer corrections, he flew the approach and checked it off the list.

Jones and I girded ourselves for the final check of the day’s mission–to determine if ATC’s low-altitude warning system was working properly. For this check, we climbed to a higher altitude, dumped the nose over and began a relatively steep descent. When the airplane finally reached the appropriate altitude, ATC alerted the crew that it had just started receiving a warning, and the altitude readout in the airplane was compared with the altitude readout at the controller’s station to ensure they were within tolerance.

At one point in the mission, ATC asked Flight Check 69 how much longer we were going to be around, saying that the regular traffic flow was being inconvenienced. Flight Check pilots hear this refrain often and have a prepared response: “If we can’t complete our checks, then you [ATC] must shut down the navaid until we can return. You will have to explain to arriving aircraft that they can’t shoot a particular approach because its accuracy hasn’t been verified.” The usual response from ATC: “Proceed with your checks.” Flight Check also has the authority to require ATC to shut down navaids immediately if they are found to be out of tolerance.

After five hours of flying it was time to go home. The pilots picked up an IFR en route clearance and we climbed into smooth air for the 30-min flight back to Atlantic City. Trips to and from inspection areas more than 50 mi distant are filed IFR. Even if the pilots and technician were up to more flying, they would be limited–Flight Check operations are conducted under the duty- and flight-time regulations of Part 135.

On the return leg we thanked our hosts for allowing us to observe their demanding, but rewarding, job. We also thanked them as pilots, who now have a deeper appreciation and understanding of what the FAA does that enables us to navigate with confidence in IMC.

After N69 came to a stop on the ramp at the FAA Technical Center, Jones and I proudly handed back our sick sacks–unused.