International Operations

 - April 30, 2011, 4:10 AM

On the surface at least, NBAA’s International Operators Conference (IOC) is always about technique: customs tips to import an aircraft for the most international flexibility, where a satcom system should fit into an aircraft’s equipment list or a remodeling update on that FBO in Tanzania. Really though, true participant value emerges in the small-group conversations where pilots talk shop and politics, like the Middle East situation or the post-earthquake chaos in Japan.

This year’s IOC opened to news of a NATO-established no-fly zone over Libya in an attempt to push back the army and air forces of Muammar Gaddafi just a month after the fall of the Mubarak government in Egypt. All the while, unrest was growing in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, leading anyone traveling to the region to wonder where the next squeeze point would be. This news came only six months after the MEBA show in Dubai, an event that had convinced everyone this region would lead business aviation’s recovery.

Offsetting Middle East instability, however, are signs of expanding business in China, as well as Africa. In China, the business aircraft fleet is growing–it had reached approximately 120 turbine-powered machines at last count–albeit more slowly than aircraft manufacturers would like, but growing nonetheless. Parts of Chinese airspace, all tightly controlled by the military, are also beginning to open to more general aviation traffic.

Talk of Africa’s abundance of oil and other natural wealth is not new, but turning it all into a legitimate, working business is. ATC in Africa, long the inspiration for advice reminding pilots to monitor 126.9 everywhere for conflicting traffic, now has dependable areas of VHF radio and radar coverage.

According to Steve Brown, NBAA senior vice president of operations, “There’s an interesting challenge for business aviation crews and passengers these days, with more and more demand for flights into developing countries despite the recent instabilities. We’re hearing that international flying is up from 2009 levels, in some areas by as much as 10 to 50 percent, depending upon the industry. Companies supporting heavy industrial machinery, for example, are doing well. There is broad recognition that the North American economy is well developed and is beginning to grow again. But companies are realizing that future growth is emerging in developing countries, where a general aviation airplane is an important tool, especially in truly remote areas.”

Eyes Wide Open

What pilot Gary Tucker remembers of his introduction to international flying was a request six years ago from the CEO that the company–Ball Corp.–find an aircraft that could easily make the leap from Colorado to Europe with a single stop. The company settled on a Challenger 604 and crews took all the right training. “The real enemy of our international flying turned out to be fatigue, though. We never realized it would become so big a factor,” he said.

Almost every international operator agrees that the effects of multiple time-zone changes and long duty days can suck the energy out of a crew when they need it most, in the phase before landing. Craig Hanlon, DuPont’s manager of standards and training, related a bone-chilling story illustrating a case in which fatigue problems leapt from worrying to fatal. The company lost a GII in 1991 on a leg between Tokyo and Jakarta to a CFIT accident. Twelve people–nine passengers and three crewmembers–lost their lives.

Dr. Paulo Alves, MedAire’s vice president of aviation and maritime health, also weighed in on the issue of fatigue. “Regulations provide a framework of hours, but what you as a pilot do with that time is left to you. Fatigue builds in the body and needs to be removed from time to time. That means sleep.”

Long international flights disrupt both the quality and quantity of a crewmember’s sleep. Problems don’t arise only in flight but also during layovers, especially when the crew vaults multiple time zones. The hotel environment is often critical, since the amount of daylight or a room with fluctuating temperatures will affect the quality and quantity of rest.

Alves said, “All people, on average, need about eight hours of sleep.” Trying to function with less than an individual’s normal sleep cravings translates into a sleep debt that must be repaid at some point or the human body ceases to function effectively. Jet lag adds one more variable to the sleep-debt equation, an upset to the circadian rhythm that prompts yawning at approximately 5 p.m. daily.

Over the years, pilots have tried various methods (taking caffeine, for example) to fool their body clocks and extend the time they can remain awake. But such tactics only mask the problem. Drinking a cup of coffee when a pilot begins dozing off seems logical enough, but there’s much more to remaining awake and alert. “It’s about a crew knowing and understanding their circadian low spots and timing caffeine use appropriately,” Alves added.

Alertness Solutions president Leigh White said educating pilots and aircraft operators about the effects of fatigue, as well as the strategies to cope, is a key issue for her company. “We’re inspired to produce whatever a company needs to help manage fatigue,” she said. However, she pointed out a practical roadblock to developing a fatigue-management plan. “I don’t see a good translator between what the market knows and what scientists know about sleep issues. The first thing we do is look at a client’s individual education about fatigue to better understand what the operator can really do. We ask questions about what an individual’s body can do, on the ground and in flight. Most important, the individual must buy into an awareness of sleep and fatigue issues. Coping with fatigue issues though,” she said, “means realizing there is no magic bullet solution.”

But there are a few tricks. A nap in the cockpit, for example, can deliver dramatic results on a long trip. “A decade-old NASA study showed that just a 30-minute nap–strategically timed–offers as much as a 34-percent improvement in overall performance along with a 54-percent improvement in alertness,” according to White. Judicious use of stimulant drinks such as coffee, Red Bull or Monster can be useful if they’re also well timed. “Caffeine takes about 15 to 30 minutes to work,” White said. “The effects will wear off in about three to four hours. Monster drinks can have as much as 300 mg of caffeine compared with 40 for a Diet Coke, so drinking one an hour before landing might make sleeping later difficult.” White said that a new caffeine gum is about to be made available.

Judgment plays a critical role in dealing with fatigue, too. Many at the IOC believe DuPont sets the bar for safe operations, yet even with that company’s embedded safety culture, events can set the stage for fatigue, as an anecdote from Hanlon illustrates. “Before an 11-hour trip between St. Croix and South Africa, a trip that would already have produced a long duty day, the passengers showed up nine hours late.” The crew opted to make the trip, but the flight department manager eventually spoke to the lead passenger and made it clear that kind of incident could not be repeated.

Africa: Continent on the Move

In talking about international destinations, pilots soon homed in on Africa. “Lagos?” one pilot said. “It’s a nightmare. I really don’t like flying there.” Anyone hearing this comment might regard Nigeria as a part of the same old Africa, a place where no one wants to fly but sometimes must, a place where ATC is minimal at best.

According to Nuno Pereira, managing director at aircraft handling company BestFly Angola, however, that’s the old Africa. A former UN pilot, Pereira acknowledges that while the continent is not up to western standards yet it is making significant progress. He spoke at the IOC to “bring people up to date on the new reality of Africa,” and specifically Angola, where he’s also a 777 captain for Angola Airlines. Contrasting Pereira’s views of the new Africa is, of course, the Failed States Index, a collaborative effort between Foreign Policy magazine and The Fund for Peace, which still ranks more than half the African continent as a major security risk.

But first, a few operational details.Much of Africa sits in the middle of the Intertropical Convergence Zone, the area near the Equator where upper-level winds are mild or non-existent and on a hot day cumulonimbus can quickly grow to heights above 50,000 feet and linger for hours, which makes them impossible to navigate over. Storms also grow quickly and are believed to have brought down the Air France A330 two years ago in the Atlantic Ocean west of Africa. (The main wreckage of that aircraft was located just last month, some two miles beneath the surface in mountainous seabed terrain.) Erratic HF radio still predominates over the continent, which is why the 126.9 MHz IFBP frequency is still relied upon. Aircraft are also expected to monitor 121.5 MHz at all times. Ghana, however, provides an example of ATC progress: that entire country now has VHF communications and radar coverage, and Angola is not far behind.

Despite some 30 years of near-constant warfare in Angola, Pereira said, “There has been a significant increase in business aviation traffic here the past few years. In fact, business aviation is now the fastest growing sector in Angola.” Gone, in Angola at least, are the days of high-altitude spiraling approaches and night landings without lights designed to avoid sniper fire.

Much of the jump in business aviation traffic is tied to oil and other mineral resources in the region. Significantly too, between 2009 and last year, 30 Angolan airports were either reconstructed or received some form of restoration to improve their safety and operational capabilities. Pereira said the “biggest challenge at the moment is training and adjusting the local manpower to the new reality of the industry.” Safety and security have become a prime focus in the country as Angola works to achieve the FAA’s Class 1 rating to allow international airline service to the U.S.

The Angolan government has invested heavily in aviation to support and attract foreign investment, all with the goal of continuing an economic growth spurt that Pereira says has been averaging approximately 10 percent annually. With Luanda serving as the hub of Angola’s aviation activity, the plan is to cover the country with radar and VHF by the end of next year. For now, HF is still plentiful but often erratic. Flights operating in Angola also require a dispatch authorization before engine start, a formality that tells the tower all fees have been paid and immigration procedures complied with.

Despite the fact that Angola lies in a region where Yellow Fever is endemic, shots are not mandatory for crewmembers, although they are recommended. Flying to other countries from Angola makes those shots mandatory for all. Malaria is also rampant. Check with your U.S. physician about the proper medications before you arrive, and always arm yourself with the standard precautions against mosquitoes.

Safety Management

When they hear mention of ICAO’s safety management system requirements, some U.S. flight department managers can think of little beyond the work involved to comply. The good news is that an SMS is not required here in the states … yet. The bad news is that it has been required in Bermuda since last November, and many more countries around the world will be demanding the same before the end of this year. Although the FAA does not yet require an SMS for domestic travel, flying an N-registered aircraft to a country that does means you may need to demonstrate compliance during a ramp check (SAFA checks outside the U.S.).

Beyond the rules, we asked Ball’s Tucker why his company challenged him to create the first stage of the IS-BAO application registration. Tucker said there was simply an internal drive at Ball to connect with a higher tier of professional standards. He and his manager began asking questions about other flight departments like DuPont or 3M. “How do you know how they fly?” they both wondered. “Are they sharper than us? I’ll bet they know more than we do. But what does that mean exactly?” He reflected the IS-BAO philosophy. “They’re trying to promote a safety culture, a set of enduring values and attitudes regarding safety that are shared by every person at every level of an organization.”

Tucker asked an important question when the discussion about SMS moved to the additional scrutiny of a flight department’s safety culture required in IS-BAO’s Stage 2. “If you were a detective, how would you know one [a safety culture]? I believe safety cultures are empowered, learning and recording [of events].” One of the most important aspects of the SMS Ball Corporation developed according to Tucker? “We agreed to a company-wide safety policy and our chairman and CEO signed off on it.”

Now, before each flight, all Ball pilots evaluate their personal risks, as well as those of the flight. They consider the currency of the pilot, the level of fatigue that might be encountered before and after the flight, the number of time zones they’ll cross or whether it is the first time the company has flown to a particular destination. Are there any maintenance squawks on the aircraft? What about airport conditions at departure and arrival? The crew gives each element a score, and if the total exceeds a set company threshold, both pilots must consider strategies to mitigate the risks.

At the end of the trip, each pilot helps fill out a hazard identification and tracking system (Hits) evaluation report to record the data. “There are always naysayers about something like Hits,” Tucker said. “Some pilots always claim they did the assessment in their heads anyway and wonder why they have to write it down. Sure, it’s a confessional sheet of sorts and you could rat on the other pilot I guess, but we don’t use it that way. We use it to reveal the truth.” An SMS is about fixing what’s broken the first time the hazard appears…before anyone gets hurt or any machinery gets broken.

Tucker said his department experienced an “a ha,” when “we began finding out that the SMS was better than we thought it might be at first glance. It has given us the confidence to share ideas. Think about this: why do the Thunderbirds spend hours in pre- and post-flight briefings being critical of each other? Because they want to be the best.”

“I came to a big insight about Hits myself, too. It’s really not anything brand new. [Capt. Elrey] Jeppesen started recording and documenting what he observed flying around different airports, what was safe and what wasn’t and even made a business out of it. So when we grab Jepp charts, we’re using a Hits report. We have an entire system, but SMS is making it personal for every pilot.”

The North Atlantic and Beyond

North Atlantic crossing issues always seem to take precedence over those headed west over the Pacific, and Air Training International’s Stohr said the reason is simple: “There is about five times as much traffic crossing the North Atlantic every day. There is also considerably more free airspace to work with over the Pacific than the North Atlantic, where more than 1,200 aircraft cross on an average day.”

Stohr said there is enthusiasm among pilots plying the North Atlantic for the plan to extend ADS-B coverage via a northerly corridor near Greenland that would allow aircraft to be under surveillance on the entire trip across the Atlantic. Iceland and Portugal are both expected to complete their ADS-B systems next year, he noted.

Despite reports to the contrary, satcom is not yet certified for routine ATC use over the North Atlantic and probably won’t be until a number of requirements are met. One major element will be a system to record satcom conversations. Another is establishing a means for ATC to override routine conversations on a satellite phone.

From the UK William Leipnik, manager of NATS’s Swanwick Center, also known as the London Area Control Center, addressed the topic of altitude deviations, or “level busts” as the Brits call them. Any altitude deviation of more than 300 feet raises the alarm. Leipnik reminded listeners of the worst midair collision in aviation history in 1996 when a Saudia Boeing 747 collided with a Kazakhstan Air Lines Ilyushin Il-76 seven minutes after departure from New Delhi, killing all 349 people aboard both aircraft. The midair between an Embraer Legacy 600 and a Gol Boeing 737 over the Brazilian rainforest in September 2006 is also fresh in the memory for many.

Leipnik says that while total NATS GA traffic is down some, the number of level busts has dropped significantly over the past three years, to 281 total in the UK as of the end of January. Business aviation counted for about 2 percent of total traffic, but unfortunately made nearly 30 percent of the altitude busts. Most interesting, of course, are the causes. The top reason for blowing an altitude was the pilot’s correct readback of ATC instructions but subsequent incorrect execution of the clearance. Altimeter setting errors and misinterpreting the controller’s instructions were the second and third most common reasons, respectively.

A close look at London’s complex airspace and its many busy airports–Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City–partly explains the prevalence of altitude confusion. Many of these airports use step-climb SID procedures, which invite mistakes, and each of London’s SIDs runs over some element of others, making adherence to crossing restrictions. The most common altitude error for business aviation in London is busting the initial 4,000-foot restriction when departing Runway 8 at Luton Airport.

To reduce level busts, NATS has developed specific one-page guides for select airports, such as Luton and Stansted, and made changes to ATC phraseology that reduce the likelihood of mistakes. NATS is also redesigning some of London’s airspace to prevent more close calls.

Aviation Security

In light of the events in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, Tom Winn, senior chief of operations and intelligence at Medex Global Solutions (MGS), said, “I can’t remember a time when ‘know before you go’ made so much sense.” MGS categorizes countries by threat levels. Libya is considered “very high risk” and designated MGS 5. Tunisia and Syria are designated MGS 3, for “medium risk,” while Yemen rates an MGS 4.

But it’s not simply the Middle East that worries Winn. Mexico has been on the IOC list of trouble spots for years as drug lords battle for turf and take no prisoners. “Fifteen months ago the problems were primarily along the U.S./Mexico border, but that is no longer the case, according to Winn. In April last year, a commando-style kidnapping raid took place in the Monterrey Holiday Inn Central, leaving an immigrations and customs enforcement agent murdered along the highway between Monterrey and Mexico City.

Even once-safe resort areas like Acapulco have seen more violence, with taxi drivers being targeted. In mid-February this year, nine drivers and three of their passengers were killed in separate incidents. In addition to a grenade attack at a nightclub not far from the hotel zone in Puerto Vallarta, Winn says there was also a wave of attacks in Guatemala and Mexico that involved Molotov cocktails and grenades this past February. Helmut Rueckert from ASM Corp., a Mexican handling company, provided another perspective on the country. When asked whether Mexico is a safe place to fly, he said, “Sure. You take the same chances here that you take in any major city in the world. You should check with your handler for local knowledge and just use common sense.”

On Japan

Despite reports to the contrary, Japan is not off limits. Cade Schalla, international manager of trip support at Baseops, said, “Right now if you’re flying to any of the Tokyo airports there are no restrictions.” The Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism website confirms, “All the airports in Japan, including four major airports, Narita, Tokyo International (Haneda), Kansai (Osaka) and Central Japan/Centrair (Nagoya), with the exception of Sendai, have been operating normally and functioning as bases for the rescue and reconstruction of the disaster-stricken areas.”

While this all sounds simple enough, sources tell AIN that any business jet operator headed to the region needs to plan especially carefully before the flight. Schalla said, “We are advising people that parking and landing slots are tighter than usual due to congestion from humanitarian flights. Some domestic airports are open in the region for limited humanitarian ops, but aircraft can only offload and depart. There is also a 30-km prohibited area around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.”

Schalla reminded pilots who normally use Sendai as an easy tech stop to avoid Tokyo congestion that this is no longer an option and might remain unavailable for some time. “We’re also telling clients that things in Japan are still changing daily and sometimes hourly.” Scott O’Brien, project manager of NBAA’s operations service group, said “radiation levels for the region near the power plant are being published on the Narita Airport website” at http://www.narita-airport.jp/en/. He also advised pilots to check the State Department website for additional warnings.

A significant concern for all bizav operators considering a trip to Japan, according to Universal Weather & Aviation, is that most insurance policies are null and void for any losses “arising from radioactive, toxic, explosive or other hazardous properties arising from the damage to the Japanese nuclear power facilities.” o