Featherston St, you have a problem!

14 February 2013 / by Brian Mackie / Consultation, Governance, Safety

Across the nation, spirits fell and eyebrows shot up when pilots’ eyeballs detected an anonymous article in the CAA’s January/February edition of Vector, counselling everyone on the correct use of radio frequencies. As well as eyebrows, hackles were raised by this statement in particular:

“There have been reports of pilots listening out on and using 119.1 everywhere, but this is a waste of time and not a lot of use to anyone because away from the aerodrome boundary other frequencies will be used. Using 119.1 adds yet another frequency unnecessarily to the mix, when a FISCOM frequency should probably be monitored.”

Tell that to the folks flitting around Opotiki, or running up and down the West Coast anywhere between Takaka and Hokitika, or flying low and slow in the Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay.

Bend an ear to their mocking laughter when the cloud base is 2500 ft, as Vector’s guru advises VFR pilots: “To ensure clear [FISCOM] reception you may need to be above 4000 feet, depending on your location and the surrounding terrain.”

The unknown author of this advice may be flying in a parallel universe, or may be armchair-bound. In the real world, and in the absence of a properly organised system of Common Frequency Zones, responsible pilots do something different. They talk to each other, and very often they talk on 119.1.

But here’s the real shocker: The author of this Vector advice (most likely a CAA employee) probably knew full well what most of the rest of us did not: that a solution to a potentially very dangerous situation had already been studied, developed and sent to the CAA; it was submitted to the CAA more than six months ago. It was also sent to other organisations, including AOPA and RAANZ, around September 2012.

There is no evidence that – despite its authors’ written request that it be distributed as widely as possible to encourage debate – either AOPA or RAANZ have informed their members. There is no evidence of CAA sharing the ideas with anyone, either.

And GAA only learned about it on February 13, almost by accident.

In the document, THE CASE FOR A NATIONAL NETWORK OF COMMON FREQUENCY ZONES (CFZ) IN CLASS G AIRSPACE, produced at Massey University’s School of Aviation, the authors state that it is time to deal with the problem of common frequencies, and they suggest a solution.

It is understood that this document has not been well received at the CAA.

GAA now publishes it.

You can read it under the SAFETY tag at the top of the home page.

Before this document found its way to GAA, we were merely occupied by the FISCOM-focused Vector article, and some interesting comments came in from other readers in response to an invitation from Des Lines. He used, as an example, the situation of a flight following the coast from Amberley Beach along the coastline to Banks Peninsula and the possibility of aircraft being on

&#9830 FISCOM 124.4, on the seaward side of the beach,

&#9830 Rangiora CFZ 120.2, on the landward side of the beach,

&#9830 CHC Tower in the vicinity of the New Brighton training area and then eventually

&#9830 118.75 Banks Peninsula CFZ.

Let’s kick off the debate with some of the first reactions:

This, from a pilot based at Rangiora:

“We have a small (but universal) uprising here. The informal rule is 119.1 at all times except when in controlled space, CFZ, MBZ or landing at a field with a gazetted frequency. Never use FISCOM – it will get you into trouble. You have to cope with their responses to the whole country, you have less chance to negotiate avoidance paths with others nearby, they take no responsibility for separation, so if you are on your own anyhow, why let a third party muddle the waters between you and those nearby? The problem is that some may be working 119.1 and others working FISCOM.”

And one from Hawke’s Bay:

“I had a chat with the guys in Bridge Pa and Opotiki. The general consensus is:

Nobody uses FISCOM when flying beyond Bridge Pa to, say, Waipukurau, Dannevirke, or Masterton. They use 119.1 because it’s the YP and DV and MS frequency. They, and it seems all the students out of Palmerston N, use 119.1 in most of Hawke’s Bay. So do the folks going over KY, and anyone passing NR en route WO, (they’ll, of course, talk to Napier on 124.80, and check NR’s ATIS on 128.00). At Opotoki, the locals use 119.1 and monitor Whakatane, because they know some of the Whakatane people will not change from their aerodrome channel until they are overhead OP or getting close to TG or Rotorua. They say FISCOM is a nonsense, simply because it is not used and everyone flying low is talking on 119.1 to the local traffic. What is the point of a FISCOM channel to someone navigating short local routes at low level?”

Hamilton-based Chief Instructor and Deputy Head of Training at CTC Aviation Training (NZ) Limited’s Greg Haggarty:

“This is a good topic for discussion. My view is that FISCOM frequencies are under-utilised and 119.1 is being over-utilised and inappropriately so. Regardless of this, it seems that many, many pilots are treating 119.1 as a general position reporting frequency. I have heard many position reports addressing ‘Waikato traffic’, ‘King Country traffic’ etc etc.

I’m aware of the proposal out of Massey to create a network of CFZs to cover the entire country but my view is we could achieve a similar outcome from more utilisation of the FISCOM service without having to create something new.”

And from Murray Fowler, CAA Aviation Safety Advisor:

“Unfortunately this issue has quietly worsened over the years because instructors have increasingly been teaching students that 119.1 is the way to go, in particular the helicopter fraternity.

We need to look at the basic original concept which seemed to work very well especially when we didn’t have to pay to do this or that (Airways), and there wasn’t quite as much traffic about. There are arguments for both 119.1 and FISCOM.

119.1 is recognised as the unattended aerodrome frequency which even in earlier days could become congested especially if conditions were right jamming would occur even between some north and south island aerodromes. For a large number of aircraft to remain on this frequency even when not operating in a circuit or other 119.1 designated area only serves to aggravate the issue. There have been other issues as well that the GA pilot might not be aware of, which necessitated some aerodromes having to change freq off 119.1. Wanaka was an example. The airline operating into WF doing the situational awareness thing early in the approach and trying to broadcast intentions or listen out was unable to do so because of the incessant prattle that was on frequency from all over the country. Above 9 or 10 thousand feet, you get it all.

I promote the use of FISCOM especially for en route / cross-country traffic. The fact is that is what FISCOM is for, and in the long chance, the pilot has an emergency on his hands, and provided he is operating within published coverage areas someone is guaranteed to be listening and required to provide some action. There is no such service on 119.1. Having said that, I don’t really have an issue with an aircraft remaining on the local aerodrome frequency if the flight is to be a very short local one. We used to do exactly that in earlier days to the west of CH. We didn’t have the proliferation of frequencies to use then, we just remained on CH Twr freq. Another issue to consider is that if no one wants to use FISCOM, it could possibly be another service we will lose.

In recent times, everyone has jumped on the bandwagon and decided to have their own frequency for their own bit of airspace. In my opinion, this has aggravated communications issues by introducing a myriad of airspace boundaries which is a safety concern in itself and compounds the issues of situational awareness due to, in some cases, numerous different frequencies being used in the same airspace. Off the coast of CH is a good example.”

This is a nationwide bugger’s muddle presided over by the CAA. The tragic collision involving two Massey training flights – most likely on different frequencies when the occupants were killed – should have been more than enough to concentrate minds down in Featherston Street.

Instead, we now know that the CAA received suggestions to resolve this problem, and instead of sharing the ideas with the aviation community, chose instead to publish an article in Vector that merely reinforced CAA’s established and confusing dogma.

Worse, there is evidence that some aviation organisations who received this discussion document back in September – along with a request that it be widely distributed to encourage debate – chose not to share it with their members.

Please read the Massey discussion document.

Then, please tell everyone out here what you think.