I promised to pass along some lost communications stories. I might have written nothing, shut down the blog, and called it an object lesson, but I have lost my taste for sarcasm and excessive irony. So let me communicate about not communicating.
I had just gotten my instrument rating. I was trying to listen to local IFR traffic on a scanner, but all I heard was someone giving instrument instruction to a student. This guy was good; he was patient with the student, and used memorable phrases. "Missed approach!" I heard, "Pitch, power, trim." I learned a lot from listening to him coach his student. "Missed approach!" I say, "Pitch, power, trim." Just like him.
The problem is that I was not his student. I was driving around in my car, and he had a stuck microphone, and nobody else could use the frequency. In other words, he was lost comm (or NORDO, as the controllers say), and so was everyone else on the frequency. It was an approach control frequency for a Bradley (Hartford-Springfield), a busy Class C airport, during the rush.
I was a student on the downwind at Carlsbad-Palomar, a busy Class D airport. No answer from tower. No answer from tower. No answer from tower. "Better call them on ground," my instructor said.
Years later, I was on the downwind to Boise, another busy Class C airport. It was VFR. Airplanes are checking in with the tower, but the tower had become the Roach Motel ("Roaches check in, but never check out."). So I called ground, "Boise Ground, 00X, tower's not answering, we're on the left downwind for 28L." "Clear to land," they replied, "Somebody turned off the transmitter."
It was IFR and I was going into Olympia, Washington. Radar vectors for the ILS. Downwind, then base, then
"Approach, Skylane 1234X, I departed from Klamath Falls about two hours ago, VFR, on top, red with white and yellow trim, my wife's on board, and, um, we're squawking 1200, 4 thousand 500, going to Bremerton, and, um..." He went on and on and on and on. Guess what? That makes me "lost comm." No equipment has failed, except for the space between someone's headsets, but lost comm is lost comm.
I'm getting close to the localizer, wondering whether I should turn in, when the guy finally let go of the button. "Seneca 4BR, this is a vector through the localizer, turn left heading ... ." The controller got it all out quickly.
This is an incredible dangerous situation. If you are on base for the ILS to runway 17 at Salt Lake City and some confused VFR pilot ties up the frequency like this, it could kill you: you only have a couple of miles to sort it out and you are already below the mountains.
You do check the volume on the receiver every time you change frequencies, right?
Departing London, Ontario (CYXU) eastbound, tower says "Clear for takeoff, contact Cleveland Center on xxx.yy when airborne." Shoot, I was at 3,000 MSL in an Archer, there was no way my little GA transmitter could hit Cleveland Center all the way across Lake Erie.
Then things got spooky. I flew over an airport than wasn't on my charts (it was Aylmer, an abandoned RCAF field). A DC-3 flew directly over me, 1,000' above, heading in the opposite direction. I started to feel a little, well, panicky. So I did the right thing, and called London Tower.
"Oh, right, you're still a little far away, try him again in 10 minutes."
This used to annoy me going into Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Salt Lake Center would hand me off to the next sector before I could hit their transmitter, which seems to be deep in some valley. There was no problem as far as traffic, but a few times I flew by the IAF for the approach I wanted while waiting for them to answer, which meant a big turn. I tried asking for the approach from the previous sector, but they would never give it to me. Luckily, I usually flew this route empty, so the passengers didn't think I got lost.
Faster airplanes sometimes get out of transmitter range before the controller can hand them off. Usually they'll call another aircraft from the same company and ask for a relay. "American 123, can you call American 456 on Guard (121.5) and tell him to contact Denver on ... ?" Just as often, you'll hear "Any aircraft on Guard, United 789, can you find out what frequency they want us on?"
These stories might sound a little scary to the uninitiated, but they're not. The lost comm rules mean that everyone knows what do, and the risk of a collision or even a so-called "near miss" is very, very low.