Unicom

January 2004 Issue




Unicom 01/04: Privatizing Towers

Taking towers out of FAA’s hands constitutes a step in the wrong direction

Air Traffic Control does not generate revenue. Competition does not exist. Not in an Air Force tower, not in a Federal Aviation Administration tower, and not in a contract tower. It’s a service government provides as part of the ATC infrastructure. This needs to be emphasized because, more and more, the “free-market” analogy is being used in this debate, as if a profit incentive would foster quality of service and/or safety by privatizing more towers.

There is no profit incentive. Without user fees it can’t exist. And even then, it could only apply in rare instances because it’s not a “pick-or-choose” type of system. In its current form, tax dollars still pay for it. Privatizing more towers will not change this.

The controller, per se, is an irrelevant factor until “human-factors” is brought into the discussion. Assuming a given controller has the aptitude for the job, it’s the system under which he/she works and the tools/support available to him/her that dictate safety and/or quality of service long-term.

I’ve worn the different hats: Air Force Controller, Air National Guard Controller, Airport Authority Controller, Contract Controller, and FAA Controller. I can tell you from experience, when it comes to staffing the hat matters. It’s moronic to have a controller on a busy position for extended periods of time without a break. This directly affects safety and/or quality of service from a human-factors standpoint. If it’s not busy, it’s not an issue. However, many of the towers being targeted for privatization are very busy towers.

The Contract Tower Program provides “bare-bones” staffing. With such limited staffing, the controller isn’t protected from extended periods without a break because all it takes is a controller calling in sick or other unforeseen circumstances to dictate more continuous hours on position. Moreover, an extra set of eyes in the tower to oversee what’s going on is always better than none. In a busy environment, this matters.

The remedy – better staffing – is directly opposed to the contractor’s piece of the pie – dollar amount pocketed per contract. That’s an inherent problem. It defies reason to suggest that contracting busier towers can in any way, shape, or form make the operation safer or more user-oriented.

The FAA has a mandatory retirement age of 56 for air traffic controllers and a beginning age cap. There’s a reason for this:

On the basis of extensive studies and experience, it was determined that those unique skills and abilities necessary for the control of air traffic begin to decline at a relatively early age. As a result, candidates cannot get into the program once they’re 31 years old.

This law does not apply in the contract tower program because the program was designed for low activity airports where stress and mental fatigue are negligible. Does it make sense to expand a program (that consists mainly of retired controllers) to busier air traffic control towers and staff them with fewer people?

Traditionally, lower-level FAA towers have been a training ground for new air traffic controllers. If the remaining towers are privatized, this valuable element will be lost. The vast majority of contract tower controllers are ineligible for the FAA. Consequently, most trainees in the high-level FAA facilities will be brand new, without experience.

A contract program that would place an already-retired workforce in higher-stress environments to save money by using fewer of them is irresponsible at best.

-Chris Meyer
Mesa, Ariz.

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Stay-at-Home Dog
I’m just wondering about the author of “Dog-Gone Door” [Learning Experiences, November]. Since his dog “absolutely hates” to fly, why not leave the animal on the ground and everyone would be safe. That would leave the pilot free to ensure the door is closed and secure before taking off.

-Charles Nicholson
Via e-mail


The author didn’t say, but we get the impression these aren’t joy rides, but GA as useful transportation, which makes “leave the dog at home” a more complicated option.

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Nutty Regs
Mr. Phillips is technically correct [Enforcement, November] that one must report a “suspension” of driving privileges per 61.15 if a cop – without due process – takes possession of your driver license. The reason most pilots (and hopefully, most Americans) think the former stinks is because common sense says the intent of the FAR was to weed out pilots with potential drinking problems, not pilots who simply had the misfortune of being accused of drinking – perhaps by a cop having a bad day or needing to make quota at a checkpoint.

In theory, the underlying principle of our judicial system is “innocent until proven guilty,” and if your DUI case is dismissed, then you have maintained your innocence. No harm, no foul. But in practice, this is not the case and there is a foul, as Mr. Phillips demonstrates. This is wrong.

Government lawyers are generally not known for common sense, rather the perverse way they parse words and delight in using the law in ways it was never intended: to hurt instead of help. Since we can’t change their hearts, we need to change the law. The FAR needs to be rewritten to remove this trap.

-Mike Palmer
Via e-mail

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All POH Data is Not Approved
I was just reading “The Bible Says” [Stick & Rudder, July], because internal circulation is a bit slow here.

I would like to point out that the FAA does not approve any data relating to range or endurance. GAMA format handbooks have a slightly misleading statement that all the data found in this handbook is FAA approved. Not so.

The GAMA handbook will be derived from a Flight Manual, and the flight manual will have pages that say “FAA Approved” on them. It will also have lots of pages that don’t say FAA approved. The only parts that need approval are Limitations, Normal Procedures, Emergency Procedures and some Performance pages.

The FAA approves takeoff, climb and landing performance data, but definitely not range and endurance. Not even for a 747.

The solution is that every aircraft should have a fuel flow meter, and pilots ought to learn how to use them.

Later in the July issue there is an article called ‘Fat and Happy’ that talks about overweight takeoffs.

What most pilots don’t understand is that if you take off overweight, not only are you in violation of FAR 91.9, but you are also flying the airplane in violation of its type certificate data sheet, and this will also invalidate your airworthiness certificate. No airworthiness certificate, probably no valid insurance.

-Shawn Coyle
Via e-mail


We read our insurance policy, had our lawyer read our policy, and called our agent to be sure. Our policy contains no exclusions for if the aircraft is operated outside of its certificate of airworthiness nor does it contain exclusions for if the aircraft is operated in violation of the FARs. We then checked a two-year-old policy from another underwriter and found language that excludes coverage if the standard airworthiness certificate is not “in full force and effect, while in flight.” This is vague enough to give plenty of room for interpretation.

From the insurance company’s standpoint, any determination they make on whether to push this issue must be weighed against the probability that you will sue them for coverage, which would inflate their cost. That makes most of them willing to pay unless they see a pattern of willful misconduct or the dollar amounts are extremely high.

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Pattern Breakdown
I read your article “Rippling Surprise” [Editors Log, September] and have a few comments.

First; You never mentioned the pattern direction, which made it confusing because the absence of it leads to the assumption it was left traffic until “the Skyhawk broke into a 45-to 60-degree left bank” and “he was going to go west.” Thus, I guess, right-hand traffic?

Next; I instruct in my PA-28R-200 Arrow. I suggest the gear down (the first slow-down device) followed by one notch of flaps before turning into the pattern – usually on the 45-degree entry. The airplane is all set for downwind and the pilot can concentrate on traffic, especially since the turn to downwind – for either pattern direction – raises a wing and blanks out the view of any downwind traffic behind.

Finally, with all that was going on in the traffic pattern, it certainly was not the time to be planning a test of the emergency gear extension system. What were you guys playing with outside the Class D? You should have advised your companion to “Shuddup and watch for traffic!” That way you could have been watching, listening and sorting out what was going on.

Excuse me, but I see that there were three “goofs” in that pattern.

-Vince D’Angelo
Naples, Fla.


The pattern was left traffic and the aircraft in front made a 270-degree turn toward the inside of the pattern.

Our strategy for slowing the Arrow varies somewhat from yours. We use one notch of flaps until abeam the numbers on downwind, then drop the gear. We were not flying a downwind on this approach and were just coming up on the point in the non-standard (tower-controlled) pattern where we would have dropped the gear.

Finally, with respect to the “test” of the emergency gear system, this was not a maintenance check but simply a demonstration of how the airplane’s glide doesn’t look right without the drag from the gear, regardless of the GUMPS check. As such, we feel it was perfectly reasonable to plan for the manual extension on final.

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Verify Stall Speed
In “Max Maneuvers” [Stick & Rudder, November], you advocate the “impossible turn” (turn around after takeoff) be done at 45 degrees of bank and 5 knots over stall speed. The point is also made to be sure to know the stall speed. However the point wasn’t made that the stall speed in a 45-degree banked coordinated turn will be approximately 20 percent above the straight ahead stall speed.

For example an older Skylane has a 1 g stall speed of 64 mph. The stall speed in the 45-degree banked coordinated turn will be about 77 mph. It is likely that this maneuver would commence after an engine failure while climbing at best rate (88) so prompt reaction will be necessary to preserve sufficient speed.

-Jaime Alexander
Council Bluffs, Iowa


As we stated, the Impossible Turn is a maximum performance maneuver. We strongly encourage anyone who has not tried it to enlist the help of an instructor. And that certainly ought to cover the issue of how bank angle affects stall speed, if the pilot hasn’t realized it already – which we suspect most have.

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All Wet
Many years ago, so the story goes, a 747 driver took off from Delhi and all systems failed at night in the soup.

He had a glass of water on the glare shield and drove wings level and turned as required while the engineer figured out the problem.

Ever since I have kept a half bottle of water on my glare shield. One has to remember the water is always pulled to ground which looks opposite than the directions one is going. Example: When climbing the water flows towards you and away from the nose. When turning left the water rises to the left.

It’s foolproof unless you are an astronaut, and then it doesn’t matter!

-Bill Levy
Via e-mail


We suspect the 747 story is apocryphal, but in any case water is not always pulled to the ground. A perfect barrel roll is a 1 g maneuver that would keep your half bottle of water looking just like you were straight and level. Please don’t rely on this technique.

Gravity is, in the end, an acceleration, which we normally consider to be an acceleration toward the center of the earth. However, as an acceleration, gravity can be mimicked or countered by accelerations applied in different directions.