International Operations

 - April 29, 2009, 7:39 AM

The greatest strength of the International Operators Conference (IOC) since its inception has been that it combines a review of the basics of international operations–avoiding gross navigational errors (GNEs), Customs and Immigration notification issues and ATC rules–with a relentless push to update flight department managers and crews about ever-evolving topics such as the moving target of new RNP technologies used to navigate oceanic airspace, a place where the lack of required equipment may soon translate into truly exclusionary airspace for some.

Another of the conference’s strengths is its ability to draw operators from around the world. At this year’s event–held from March 30 to April 2 in San Diego–attendees hailed from 17 countries. NBAA officials pegged attendance at 421 by the beginning of the second day.

Few crews attending this year’s event were aware that an ICAO requirement quietly creeping into place on ramp checks conducted at airports outside the U.S. will expect pilots to demonstrate progress toward the new guideline of an operational ICAO-approved Safety Management System (SMS). The compliance date for an SMS to be in place for all operators of non-commercial large and jet aircraft is November next year.

Earlier this year, the FAA petitioned ICAO for a “Notice of Difference” to the upcoming SMS rule that will inform other ICAO nations that the agency is not
prepared to administer such a program for U.S. operators. Don Spruston, director general of the International Business Aviation Council, says the FAA was notified about the SMS program through an official letter in March 2007.

Approval of the differences request will have little effect on U.S. Part 91 operators. They will still be required to comply with SMS program demands when traveling to other ICAO member states.

Don Baldwin, former director of aviation for Coca-Cola, believes operators need considerably more education about the demands of SMS program development. Baldwin’s new company, Baldwin Aviation, delivers SMS programs to Part 91 operators. “This is not going to be simply a pull-a-book-off-the-shelf solution that happens overnight,” Baldwin said. “Operators can build their own SMS program, but it won’t be a slam dunk at all.”

Senior international pilot Roger Rose, president of International Pilot Services in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., provided an in-depth look at the ramifications of the SMS. Pilots can expect to be grilled on how well their SMS is progressing toward completion as part of any SAFA check in any of the 44 European countries that regularly use the check to vet pilots transiting their airspace.

The industry worries that many Americans will see the SMS as just one more box of papers to print and stack on a shelf. Rose takes a different view. “If we open our eyes, SMS is an attempt to standardize the methods of threat identification and processes that can be applied to mitigate errors,” he said.

ICAO will soon be demanding that pilots flying into Europe share their experiences back home internally at their companies. “Although an SMS is not yet mandated, it can be expected to come up on SAFA inspections. Inspectors want to see data points to explain how you’re doing with the SMS building process. They will challenge you by asking whether you realize the due date is approaching. My guess is you might expect greater scrutiny if you mention [that you are unaware of] the upcoming deadline.”

There is an internal feedback process to a flight department’s involvement with the new SMS. “Once you break through to safety culture mentality,” Rose said, “every implementation I’ve seen grows into a self-reporting culture. All of our successes and failures are collective. The Brits are far ahead of the U.S. on a reporting culture to increase safety, I think.” Early versions of SMS have not clearly outlined immunity for crews, so Rose suggests U.S. pilots continue using the ASRS system until things settle down.

Rose also spoke to the use of Strategic Lateral Offset Procedures (Slop). “We’ve had two accidents and three aircraft destroyed because of the technical accuracy that we dreamed of for years. That means we should be careful what we wish for. It is extremely important that all other aspects of ATC function perfectly and that all users are competent in what they do.” Slop was not actually introduced for wake turbulence as some people believe, Rose added, but because one day someone looked out the window after we all began navigating with GPS and noticed all the contrails were lined up. The drift inherent in the older navigation units–now gone– was actually recognized as beneficial.

He explained, “Offsets, for example, are not technically acceptable to all states. You as a crewmember or pilot need to understand that whether or not a country accepts offsets–and more do today because they can see the consequences of this issue after the Brazil midair and the midair off the coast of West Africa in 1997–their use needs to be part of the flight-planning process.”

Mike Wittman, CEO of Pacific Coast Forecasting, provided a look at how to plan for weather in the inter-tropical convergence zone, the airspace within about 20 degrees both north and south of the Equator. The region can be extremely demanding for the uninitiated aviator. This is an area where upper-level winds are light, Wittman said. “Have your airborne radar working well because large areas of convective weather dominate the climate.” That can translate into weather with tops higher than most U.S. pilots have ever experienced.

“Where we live in the mid-latitudes, about halfway between the poles and the Equator, we have lots of jet stream action, which translates into lots of atmospheric change. They don’t get that at the equator, where very large land and sea masses have lots of influence. But with light upper-level winds in an area where the atmosphere is much thicker than we ever see it, there’s nothing to stop thunderstorms from growing as high as 50,000 or 60,000 feet.” These large areas of convective weather are slow to move and can last for many hours. As a result, good long-range planning and plenty of extra fuel are important.

“We look at weather as a big part of flight planning,” Wittman explained. “What makes foreign flight planning difficult is the need to apply for overflight
permits in so many different countries. If you don’t apply early, or at all, you reduce your options for deviating around weather.”

Wittman said there are some benefits to operating jets in the region, however. “With little upper-level wind, true airspeed is pretty much what you get all the time.”

Preventing GNEs
A gross navigational error is a rather simplistic explanation for an airplane showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time, at least as far as Oceanic ATC is concerned. Technically, a vertical deviation becomes a GNE when altitude separation is off more than 300 feet from the assigned level, while a lateral error is anything more than 25 miles off course. Although 25 nm might sound like a considerable distance from the perspective of a U.S. domestic operation, the evolution of North Atlantic ATC will soon include lateral separations of only 30 miles, making the opportunity for two aircraft to pass close together more likely and navigational mistakes on the part of pilots certainly much less tolerated.

Flight Safety’s Mike Schaaf told the conference that the number of business aviation GNEs remains greatly out of proportion with the number of general aviation operations across the Atlantic. According to Schaaf, last year there were 423 GNEs across the region, and nearly 80 percent of them were committed by general aviation flights. Business aviation accounts for 5 percent of the traffic across the Atlantic. Nearly three-quarters of GNEs were committed by the flight crew, while just over 10 percent were ATC issues.

Some 122 of the GNEs involved ATC intervention, and the majority of GNEs involved loss of vertical separation. One item that does not change from year-to-year on the GNEs reported is that the lateral mistakes still continue to occur because flight crews fly the clearances they filed, rather than the oceanic clearances ATC delivered to them on coast-out. The remedy is the same now as it has been for decades: check the clearance waypoint by waypoint and be sure that what is loaded in the box conforms with what ATC delivered.

European airspace sees as many as 33,000 movements per day in peak season and continues to be one of the most complex chunks of airspace, with reduced vertical separation minimums (RVSM) airspace representing only the tip of the iceberg. Not RVSM equipped? Don’t even think about transiting European airspace between FL290 and FL410, including trying to pass through the airspace on the way up or down. No exceptions. Want in or out of busy London airspace? Better make sure the mode-S transponder is installed and operating.

Nearly three dozen European countries participate in the Integrated Initial Flight Plan Processing system (IFPS), which brings its share of requirements to aviators in the region. For example, flight plans must be filed at least three hours before departure time. Calling the local ATC facility for help getting an IFR flight plan into the system early (as the FAA allows in the U.S.) is out of the question. Crews can also file flight plans as much as five days in advance.

Remember that the space for a departure time is the estimated off-block time (EOBT), not the actual departure time. Need to change the EOBT by plus or minus 15 minutes? That requires a communication to IFPS. If the change relates to a later time, crews need to file a delay message, while an earlier departure time means going back to the drawing board with an entirely new flight plan.

In Europe, slots are a way of life most of the time and translate into not only airway slots for the en route portion, but also departure slot times, and a need for airport arrival slots in much of the UK, Germany and Switzerland, with London Gatwick, Heathrow and Luton being prime examples. Eurocontrol offers Web-based training in operational and planning concerns for the region’s Central Flow Management Unit.