Thursday, June 22, 2006

Shooting a GPS Approach at Flint

Subscribe to Airspeed using iTunes, visit us at, or use the following RSS feed.

If you wish, you can follow along on the approach using the approach plate available at the link below.

Approach plate for RNAV (GPS) Runway 36 at Flint Bishop International Airport

More information about US terminal procedures is available at the following link.

FAA - Aviation System Standards - Main Page for US Terminal Procedures

As regular Airspeed listeners are no doubt aware, I’m training for my instrument rating. For those non-pilots out there, an instrument rating essentially qualifies a pilot to fly an aircraft without looking out the window – To fly solely by reference to instruments. To simulate those conditions on nice days, I fly with a view-limiting device that attaches to my headset. At about 400 feet off the ground, I flip it down and I can only see the instruments in front of me. Sure, I could cheat a little if I wanted to (it’s hard not to catch a glimpse out the front window when you look at the magnetic compass up on the dash), but I expect to go fly in the clouds for real once I get the rating, and I really need to learn this without sneaking peeks.

Anyway, I thought I’d take you along on a flight so you could get a better understanding of one of the most crucial aspects of instrument flight, and that’s communication with Air Traffic Control or “ATC.”

Air traffic controllers are some of the most talented people with whom I interact. Bear in mind that I interact with some of the smartest people in the country on a daily basis as a technology and aerospace lawyer, so when I say that ATC personnel are special, I’m really saying something. I talk to at least a half dozen on each flight. They’re ground controllers, tower operators, approach and departure controllers, center controllers, and others. Each does a special job that bears on a different phase of flight.

The flight today is a standard training flight as I prepare for my Stage Three check flight as part of the Part 141 program at Tradewinds Aviation at the Oakland County International Airport just outside of Pontiac, Michigan. The airport is called “Pontiac,” even though it’s located in Waterford, and I tell you this because you’re going to hear me call it that on radio calls.

We’re going to take off from Pontiac and then fly about 30 miles north to Flint Bishop International Airport. On this particular day, we shot a total of five approaches. An approach is a way of navigating an airplane to a runway to land without being able to see out the windows until you’re very close to the runway. Many approaches will make it so that you can be in clouds and rain and other clag all the way until you’re 500 feet or so off the ground and a half mile from the runway. Believe me, that’s low and close.

You’re going to hear the first approach we did, which the “RNAV” approach to runway 36 at Flint. “RNAV” stands for “area navigation” and you fly RNAV approaches using GPS – the Global Positioning System. An RNAV approach is just one of about a half dozen different kinds of approaches that I have to know how to do.

Runway 36 is a strip of pavement that runs basically north-south. When you land on it going north, it’s Runway 36 (“36” meaning that the nearest ten-degree magnetic heading to the landing direction, which is 360 or 36 for short). That same strip of pavement is Runway 18 if you land on it going the other direction because your heading is roughly 180.

RNAV approaches usually look like the letter “T.” The runway is at the foot of the T. There are named waypoints at each end of the crossbar of the T and at the intersection of the lines of the T, as well as along the vertical part of the T. Because we’re inbound from the south, you have to turn the T upside down to visualize it on a map that has North at the top.

There’s a link to both the FAA’s Aviation System Standards office, which prepares the approach charts, as well as a link to the chart for the RNAV 36 approach in the show notes at We’ll repeat that link at the end of the show. Download it and follow along if you can.

Anyway, let’s go flying. We’ll start out sitting on the ground at Pontiac with the engine running. I have my view limiting device at the ready and my flight instructor is in the right seat. Ground control has cleared us up to a taxiway intersection near the departure end of the runway. I key the mike and call the tower to tell them that I’m ready to go.

[Audio 1]

I’m now cleared to pull up to the runway – but not onto it – and wait for clearance to take off. The tower controller is checking to see if the route I’m flying is clear and make sure that there will be room for me to land when I get to Flint.

Then it’s time to go.

[Audio 2]

Here’s the takeoff run. I self-brief the important airspeeds as the aircraft gets going and then call out the speeds up to rotation at 55 knots.

[Audio 3]

Very shortly after I get off the runway, the tower hands me off to a controller in Detroit who will control my progress to Flint. The tower controller does this over a land line to Detroit. Normally, I have to call up Detroit approach by saying something like “Detroit approach, Cessna Niner One Eight Tango Alpha, with you at one thousand five hundred climbing for three thousand.” But the approach controller is really on the ball today – or really busy and wants to get me going north as soon as possible. Here’s the handoff. Note how quickly this happens after I switch frequencies.

[Audio 4]

I’m “under the hood” now – I have pulled down my view limiting device and I’m completely on instruments.

After five or ten minutes, Detroit approach hands me off the Flint approach. The Flint approach controller will handle me until I get within about five or ten miles from the airport itself. I have filed an instrument flight plan that tells the Flint approach controller and tower that I’m going to do practice approaches. But they don’t know precisely what I want to do, so I need to tell them. The approach that we’re going to hear here is the first one for which I ask the Flint controller. I call it the GPS approach, but he uses the RNAV nomenclature, which is more proper. He clears me to a waypoint called FISKU, which is the eastern tip of the crossbar of the inverted “T.”

[Audio 5]

We’re getting closer. The controller tells me to descend from my present altitude of four thousand feet above sea level (or about three thousand feet off the ground) to three thousand feet above sea level (or about two thousand feet off the ground).

[Audio 6]

I’m approaching FISKU now and passing it. We approached FISKU heading almost due west and we’re supposed to fly a course of 275 degrees magnetic between FISKU and the next waypoint. The next waypoint is called HITMO and it’s at the intersection of the two lines of the T. A lot of self-talk here as I brief the approach out loud.

Approach clears me for the approach, which means that I can fly the approach all the way to the runway, but I’m not cleared yet to land. That will happen after approach hands me off to the tower controller.

[Audio 7]

Now the approach controller hands me off to the tower. I’m now past HITMO and on my way to JORDI, which is about halfway along the vertical part of the T. I’ve been stepping down my altitude here so that I arrive at the runway low enough to get down and land. I’m at 2,400 at HITMO. JORDI is the “final approach fix.” On this approach, it’s the place from which I can descend to 1,260 feet (or about 500 feet off the ground) and start looking for the runway so I can land.

[Audio 8]

The tower now clears me to land. “The option” means that I can land and stop on the runway, do a touch-and-go, go around, or shoot a missed approach. As a courtesy to the tower, I tell him that I want to do a missed approach. This has two functions. First, we only have about two hours to fly, so I don’t want to take the time to actually land and then take off again. I want to get to the point where I could land the plane if I wanted to, then go full throttle and then get on with the rest of the training maneuvers for the day. The other thing is that I want to fly the published missed approach. This is what I would do in practice if I got down low and the weather was bad enough that I couldn’t see the runway environment well enough to land. Each instrument approach has a missed approach procedure. In this case, it’s a straight climb north of the airport and then a right turn to hold at a point about 12 miles east of the airport called KATTY. The tower clears me, I tell him about the miss, he checks the airspace to the north and east of the airport to make sure that it’s clear and then tells me that I can expect the published miss.

[Audio 9]

So here’s the crucial part of the approach. You’ll hear me counting off the feet until we’re at the Minimum Descent Altitude of “MDA.” This is very important because there’s no outside vertical guidance on this approach. Just me looking at the altimeter and remembering how low I can go. If an instrument pilot obsesses about anything, it’s usually about the MDA. You don’t want to be low, because there might be antennas, buildings or innocent podcast listeners down there and you don’t want to hit any of those things. That would be rude and it upsets flight instructors and FAA officials alike.

Then I’m at 1,260 feet doing about 90 knots. If this was for real and I didn’t have a view limiting device on, I’d be dividing my scan between the instrument panel and out the window looking for the runway. As it is, I keep the view-limiting device on and fly it all the way to the missed approach point, then tell the tower that I’m going missed.

[Audio 10]

So I’ve gone missed. Full throttle and pull the nose up and get out of there. If this were for real, I’d be down low and flying blind, so it’s very important to get the heck up and out of the way of the aforesaid antenna farms, buildings, and podcast listeners. The tower hands me off to the departure controller (actually, the same guy that I earlier called “approach,” but I’m outbound now so I call him “departure”). I’m cleared for the published missed approach procedure and the controller gives me a time to expect further clearance.

[Audio 11]

That’s it. Did you notice how efficient the controllers were? How about Flint tower, which had two different people working – The woman who cleared me on the approach and then the man who handled the clearance for the option and the missed approach? How about their interaction coordinating the transition from approach to tower to departure? For 6that matter, how about Detroit Approach, where I didn’t even have to call him up?

What you didn’t hear much of was the other traffic and the other aircraft that all of these people were handling. It was a busy day at Flint. Airliners, training aircraft, and people further away that were getting flight following. ATC is made up of absolute professionals and I take my training very seriously because I need to be able to receive, understand, and execute the instructions they give me so that they can work me in to some really busy airspace.

Yes, there are surly controllers who will yell at you at the drop of a hat. There are also guys who occasionally don’t have their heads in the game. But those are definitely the exception rather than the rule. I really enjoy flying in the system and controllers like these really make me want to be worthy to be in their airspace. I can’t say enough about controllers in general, but I’m especially grateful to the controllers at Flint. Russ Chew, are you listening? These are first-class people, but I’m sure you already know that.

I should also note that I edited out several parts where I stuttered or had to ask a controller to repeat a clearance, as well as one point where the clearance got a little complex and I had to ask my instructor over in the right seat to acknowledge the clearance and scribble it down. But hey, it’s my show.

So that’s an instrument approach from takeoff to missed approach? Sound like fun? Stay tuned for more!

- Steve

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Airspeed - Transitions

One click subscribe with iTunes.

or copy this address into your podcast application:

Note: Airspeed in Brief is being merged into Airspeed! If you only subscribe to Airspeed in Brief, please make sure that you subscribe to Airspeed as soon as possible! The iTunes link and the RSS feed are shown above.

[Following is a pretty close approximation of the verbiage from the episode entitled "Airspeed - Transitions" that appeared on Airspeed beginning beginning on June 11. You can subscribe to the podcast using the links at]

One of the philosophies of this podcast has always been to keep the administrative stuff to a minimum and talk about aeronautics and aerospace as much as possible. Part of the reason is that the short version of the podcast, Airspeed in Brief, airs as a regular radio show in some markets and I’m too lazy to produce a separate version of the podcast that radio listeners won’t understand because they’re listening to the radio and aren’t as actively involved as podcast listeners are.

So this one’s just for you, my pod people!

We’re going to be doing some new things with the podcast. First off, we’re going to merge Airspeed and Airspeed in Brief into one podcast under the flagship Airspeed name. That’s going to mean some variability in the podcast as we merge the two and we have the different perspectives, audiences, and lengths of the program through a single RSS feed. You’ll probably hear differing lengths of programs and the focus will vary between those shows meant for non-aviators and those meant for seasoned pilots.

We’re doing this for several reasons.

First, producing two different podcasts is a lot of work. We’ve done it for about four months now, and we seem to be finding that the audience isn’t much different between the two podcasts. It’s really not necessary to break it up because a lot of the audience seems to subscribe to both of the podcasts.

Second, it turns out from the feedback that we’ve been receiving that the general public, to its credit, is perfectly willing to accept material that goes a little over its head (pun intended), and that it doesn’t mind us getting a little technical. Maybe we’ll be serving a better purpose by letting everybody have the undiluted aeronautical stuff and piquing the curiosities of those who don’t fly regularly.

Third, consolidating the two podcasts will allow us to spend more time going after the interviews and features that you’ve told us that you like. We’re going to respond by really ramping up some of the features. Watch in the upcoming months for feature interviews with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds, the United States Air Force Thunderbirds, Lima Lima, Frank Ryder of the Oreck Flight Team, and Michael Hunter of Flight for Diabetes. We’ve arranged opportunities to meet with, and talk to, these cutting-edge aviators and, as you know, we do our research to come up with the best questions and make the best podcast episodes we can. Count on in-depth and solid coverage from us.

Lastly, and this is perhaps a petty reason, but I really want to know how Airspeed stacks up against some of the other aviation-related podcasts out there. I have long suspected that having two podcasts results in some cannibalization in the iTunes and other ratings versus some of the other aviation-related podcasts. By consolidating down to one podcast, we’ll have the chance to see how we truly rank. Airspeed has ranked as high as number two out of the active aviation podcasts on iTunes, and I can’t help but think that a single podcast concentrating all of the listenership would allow us to see how we really stack up.

In case you’re wondering, the other podcasts with which we compete are primarily Jason Miller’s The Finer Points, Pilot Dan, Pilot Kent, and Pilot Mike’s PilotCast, and the Flying Pilot. No cross-promotion here. We didn’t cut a deal with those podcasters for reciprocal mentions or appearances. We just think that they have really good podcasts and we’re honored to share the flight levels with them in terms of subscribership. But we’d really like to see how we stack up with no cannibalization by our own sister podcasts. I’ll bet we catch a few of them but, even if we don’t, that’s some pretty rarefied company to be in and we’re all pretty lucky to have access to a high-quality group of media presentations on the things we love – Turning avgas, Jet-A, or your favorites combustible into beautiful noise and pure excitement.

And here’s some other good news. We’re going to keep going with the features that you’ve told us that you most enjoy. We’re delighted that you like the Steely-Eyed Missile Man series and we’re also going to do a few more episodes about what to expect in flight training. You’ll also get more audio from the cockpit and real-world experience with general aviation. As you know, I’m going after my instrument rating and spending a lot of time in the cockpit. I’ll be taking along my MP3 recorder and plugging it into the intercom so you can hear what’s happening as I continue my own journey in flight training.

So here’s what to expect. We’ll probably pull the plug on Airspeed in Brief during the next month or so. If you subscribe to Airspeed in Brief and not to Airspeed, please be sure to subscribe to Airspeed as soon as you can. We’ve got it out there at iTunes and Podcast Alley and we’ll probably take the time to add the RSS to all of the other podcast aggregators over the next few weeks. We’ll put an announcement on Airspeed in Brief shortly before we pull the plug and we’ll leave it out there for awhile so that anyone who didn’t hear this episode can find his or her way to Airspeed.

Finally, we’d like to throw open the suggestion lines for listeners. By the time this goes live, you wonderful people will probably have downloaded episodes more than 75,000 times since January and we’re very grateful for the way you’ve picked up this podcast and made us want to give you the very best. We have listeners in the US, Canada, Germany, Australia, Japan, the UK, the Netherlands, and 28 other countries. Between 10 and 20% of the listenership is outside the US and we’re very grateful for such broad support.

We’re betting that, with such a broad audience, many of you have story ideas and/or contacts that you can share with us. Do you have a story idea? Are you an astronaut, flight controller, aerobatic pilot, airline pilot, aerospace worker, or demonstration team member? Or do you have an in with any of the above? Drop us a line at and let us know. We’ll respect your time and energy and that of your contacts and, if you’ve been listening for long, you know that we’ll do a fair, in-depth, and exciting story. We’re especially looking for opportunities for media orientation flights.

So. Thanks for your support in the early days of Airspeed. Airspeed 1.0, if you will. We look forward to bringing you Airspeed 1.1 in the weeks and months ahead and we hope you’ll stay in the right seat for the ride. We’ve really enjoyed flying with you so far and we can’t wait to see what happens next.

For Airspeed, I’m Stephen Force. Airspeed is cleared as filed. Runway heading to three thousand and expect flight level six-zero in no time flat. Contact your favorite podcast aggregator for departure control and squawk five-one-five-zero. Have a great flight!

- Steve