Welcome to the General Aviation Advocacy Group of New Zealand

None so blind as those who cannot see: Transponders at regional airports

If our transponders are for Air New Zealand's benefit, perhaps the airline will pay for our ADS-B kit...

If our transponders are for Air New Zealand’s benefit, perhaps the airline will pay for our ADS-B kit…

An interesting – and revealing – incident occurred on a recent trip to the Mainland.

A bunch of Tiger Moths and others arranged to fly into Invercargill airport for a commemorative flight back to Gore, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first ever cross-country flight in New Zealand.

This was arranged and agreed to by Airways Corporation at the highest level, and under special conditions because some of the participating aeroplanes were not transponder-equipped.

The plan sounded simple enough. We were to depart Mandeville at one-minute intervals, each keeping one mile behind the one ahead and to report at specified points, with nordo aircraft spaced to follow and be followed by radio buddies. We assumed that the tower would be able to verify our whereabouts by those who were squawking transponders.

The only hitch was that it was a very hazy afternoon, and keeping sight of a Tiger Moth in profile one mile ahead was not that easy. Anyway, we achieved the task, with only one drop-out, a nordo who lost sight of his buddy and did the sensible thing by bailing back to Mandeville. A much better plan – and one we have used very successfully in the past – would have been to have any nordo fly formation with his buddy and break to stream on final approach, but this was not allowed.

The main thrust of this story, though, concerns two of the Tigers. A southern local had flown all the way up to North Cape and back on this trip, we suspect so he could claim the trophy for the longest journey to the AGM. He was keen to round Bluff to complete the trip, but Airways would not allow him to fly to Bluff because he had no transponder (though he had radio).

I was asked if I would shepherd him with my recently installed magic beeper. This I was happy to do. We arranged to overfly the tower and continue to Bluff, and were issued 1500 feet. Halfway there, I asked NV tower to confirm my transponder altitude squawk, only to be told they don’t have radar in that area so could not see me (or the other Tiger.)

So why was his non-transponder-equipped aircraft barred from flying to Bluff unaccompanied?

The only possible reason was that Air New Zealand Link crews want to be able to see a blip on their TCAS – but they don’t fly south of NV anyway.

The fact is that transponders are not for the regional tower to be able to see and control. They are for the airline to be able to control the sky their aeroplanes fly in. The towers have no discretion to allow flight in their space that is unlikely to conflict with airline flights.

A couple of weeks later, I flew to Gisborne and requested clearance into their zone to overfly the field, to locate an airstrip only two miles away from the field. I was cleared at 1500 feet over the field, and once more asked the tower to confirm my altitude by transponder.

I was told they do not have radar coverage below 8000 feet, so again they can’t see me.

So the only reason transponders are required for low level aircraft is for the convenience of the airline’s commercial operations.

This is why all light aircraft operators have to spend thousands of dollars and continue to pay for biennial checks just to be allowed into the same space as the airlines, regardless of the fact that a controller could easily separate them by radio.

A radical new approach: Crash barriers in the sky

GAA monopoly-moneyWe all know the CAA is struggling with financial crisis, Airways is under-funded and raising prices for traffic control services and proposing to extend these into previously uncontrolled areas. Operators want to improve their bottom line by streamlining their flight profiles to save fuel, and so on.

All for the benefit of the safety of the air travelling public, we are told.

Now, take a look at the road transport system. All funded by tax on fuel, right? OK, plus vehicle licensing, GST and a few minor fees and fines.

Automatic traffic lights streamline flows in congested areas; motorways have expensive median barriers to keep conflicting traffic in proper lanes. All in the name of safety for the motoring public, funded by the motoring public and those who choose to drive. Enlightened councils are beginning to separate cycles from cars by dedicating lanes to them, still funded by the motorists (and by ratepayers, only some of whom are also cyclists).

What if all the tax on aviation fuel and motor fuel used in aircraft were put entirely into the aviation system?

A system already exists to collect the hours flown by every aircraft in New Zealand, although it is not used for microlights. CAA Form 605b is a mandatory quarterly reporting process enabling the Authority to gather statistics to assess the effectiveness of safety measures across the spectrum. (The fact that microlights are excluded from this data-gathering does have the effect of rendering all the statistics totally meaningless, but that’s another story…)

Each aircraft could have a declared fuel consumption rate applied and the tax applicable to the fuel burn for the hours flown set against a client account from which all CAA fees and charges are deducted, as well as all Airways fees for services provided to that aircraft. And any credits could be returned to the client, or some put into a fund to provide aviation safety-related equipment and services.

This would be a win-win. All operators would have an incentive to file the mandatory stats report to get their account into credit, an incentive to do more flying (same logic); CAA and Airways would have funding on tap, operators who for whatever reason are not flying would not be charged for ‘participating’ with an aircraft sitting idle, and the tax rate levied can easily be moved up or down to adjust for inflation, etc.

Now to The Fund. Suppose Mode S transponders became mandatory for all air operations, in the safety interests of the travelling public. The airlines and large operators already have TCAS because they say it is no longer practicable to look out the window, and high-speed aircraft also have this problem.

To make TCAS fully effective, small aeroplanes also need to be squawking. However, owners of the smaller, slower aircraft should not have to pay for expensive equipment they do not need.

Mandatory fitment of such equipment should be financially supported by The Fund. It could be scaled by subsidising the costs based on, say, the stated cruise speed of each type – full funding up to, say, 100 kts, and scaled back by a percentage for each 20 kts above. Using this method, those who need (or choose) to fly with the big boys pay their way and those mostly in the recreational category, who normally stay down in the weeds, are playing their part in aviation safety without being penalised.

Sounds radical? Not really. Back in the 50s of the last century, fuel tax was refunded by a monthly return based on fuel dockets for fuel dispensed into aircraft…

Which raises another can of worms: why should microlighters pay for road improvements through the taxes raised on the mogas used in their aeroplanes? But that’s another story, too, along with how you are hit if you happen to own a fizz boat as well.