Thursday, June 04, 2009

A Note for T-34 Drivers

I know several of the Whiting NAS pilots read this blog. If you could, please pass this on to your squadron mates. Call it a "heads up".

Yesterday, we had a VFR T-34 orbiting over Whiting NAS at 9500 feet. He was there for what must have an hour and a half, cutting holes in the sky, not talking to us at all. We know he was a T-34 because he had never squawked 1200 when the Whiting departure sector terminated his radar services and was therefore on his departure squawk code. I was actually able to locate a strip on him.

Note: Just a word on the T-34 flight plans. Many Whiting T-34s will file VFR departure flight plans with a route similar to this: NSE..TROJN..VFR..1R8. NSE is Whiting NAS, the TROJN fix is a local fix and 1R8 is an uncontrolled airport about forty miles west of here in Mobile's airspace. However, the "VFR" in the route terminates the flight plan's routing and doesn't let us handoff to Mobile. Essentially, what that flight plan means is that the T-34 wants to 1) depart Whiting, 2) terminate radar services locally once they're clear of Class C, 3) play around locally VFR, and then 4) eventually head over to Bay Minette on their own.

Here's the problem. All of our high altitude northeast jet departures have to go out over Whiting, climbing to 10,000 feet. Due to an Eglin AFB restricted area to our east, we have a very narrow corridor of about a 360-030 heading off Pensacola. At the same time, all of our high altitude jet arrivals from the northeast are descending to 11,000, coming in through the same corridor.

Once Jacksonville takes the handoff on our 10,000 foot departures, they are permitted to climb them up to 15,000 feet. So, that usually works out nicely, as we step the 11,000 arrivals down and they climb the departures up and out.

It looks like this:

However, this is what that T-34 was doing.

Perfectly legal? Yes. He was clear of Class C. He had his transponder's Mode C squawking over the Class C. He had followed his flight plan to letter. Depart Whiting. Climb clear of Class C. Go play VFR.

Complete headache for us? Absolutely! Of all places and altitudes to go goof around, he had to choose those. It couldn't be worse. It seemed like everywhere we had an arriving or departing airliner, he was right in its face. Seriously, every time. It's like he had some kind of "Sixth Spidey Ninja Sense" or something.

On top of diverting our attention to make sure our IFR traffic was clean, we actually had to do a good amount of coordination with Jacksonville Center to get higher with the airliners to top the guy. "Crestview low, Pensacola East, ApReq one five thousand, Delta 1282." And with our corridor we don't have a lot of room to maneuver. Quite frankly, it was dangerous. We were lucky not to get a TCAS Resolution Advisory.

Normally the T-34s that play over Whiting do so at 5500 to 7500 feet. It's unusual to see them go higher. Those altitudes aren't a problem at all and give us plenty of room to maneuver. We can step our arrivals down to 8000 or 9000, which clears both the departures climbing over them to 10,000 and the VFR traffic maneuvering below them.

But 9500? And not talking to us? Bad altitude. Like I said, what that guy was doing was legal. But here, legal and safe don't necessarily jive.

In contrast, earlier in the day, I worked another T-34 departing Whiting. He specifically requested a VFR block above Whiting up to 10,000 feet and told me exactly what he was doing (basic instrument maneuvers). He knew he was going to be in the way and he wanted to get traffic advisories.

In short: If you're a T-34 pilot and want to be directly over Whiting at higher than 8500 for extended periods of time (especially 9500!) please call approach for Flight Following. That way we can give you traffic calls, know what you're doing, and advise the airliners if you have them in sight. Otherwise, if you want to remain anonymous and at higher altitudes, please work more towards Brewton airport. It's a much quieter area and out of harm's way.


DisgruntledFlyer said...

Sounds like you could get TAs in this situation but probably not RAs.

Would it have been nice if the T34 moved? Yes. But a LOT of controllers spend a lot of time separating IFR traffic from VFR targets. In my non-expert opinion, adding restrictions to IFR aircraft to avoid a VFR target doesn't jive with the "least restrictive" philosophy that was drilled into me during classes. Give a traffic advisory and then it's business as usual unless the IFR complains.

Spinning Hat said...

I think this is more of a request to the pilots inthe area that he's cool with them up and flying, but he's trying to lessen the workload a bit to make working that traffic more manageable. If he's down at 8500, or further north playing down low, no advisories, and no appreqs need to be given to get the 'normal' traffic flow in and out. Wicked Penguin just happens to have a little bigger soapbx than a lot of controllers to get the message out. :D

Anonymous said...

Hey Penguin! It seems that T-34 was operating in "Area 2T" which extends from the surface to 10,000 feet MSL. As you mentioned, he was outside of Class C airspace and squawking the appropriate code. His UHF radio would most likely be tuned to the area common frequency and his VHF radio would be tuned to an instructor common frequency. You can check out a copy of our "Fixed Wing Operating Procedure," or FWOP, at: You might be particularly interested in pages 118-122. Hope you find this helpful!

Anonymous said...

Yea right ! The Navy has just about every square inch of P31's airspace as alert area 292 (A292 on the sectional)or MOA. T34's are everywhere doing their training. The T34's are perfectly legal doing what they do....however there is a FINE line between being legal and being SAFE! The Navy knows that P31 has traffic out there, they choose not to talk to ATC and rely on their half ass limited TCAS. Even in area 3 they rarely answer traffic calls from ATC. When one gets smacked by another A/C being legal, the FWOPS will change.

Wicked Penguin said...

@DisgruntledFlyer: I'm not trying to restrict the IFR traffic. I'm trying to get them down - or up - as best as possible, without taking them too far out of their way. However, I'm not going to aim them directly at a VFR target and just hope the airliner beats them through their altitude.

I've actually tried that. "He's VFR", he should be looking out. Doesn't work here. I've gotten several RA's or TA's or what-not trying that approach. It's not a good feeling to hear, "Delta XXXX, TCAS climb." That's paperwork for the pilots, a call to our supervisor so he can log it, and an embarrassed "Dammit" from me as I try to make sure the airliner doesn't maneuver himself into something else.

@Spinning Hat: Precisely!

@Anon1: Thanks for the info. I do have a copy of the FWOP. Unfortunately, we have no way to call up anyone on either the area common or instructor frequencies.

@Anon2: That's why I'm posting this, so everybody can see what kind of room and traffic flow operate with. Our airspace on the east side is so chopped up and mangled, leaving us with very little space.

Wasn't it a fatal midair collision between two T-34s - who were not talking to us or each other - that prompted them to put the NACWS TCAS system in the Mentors?

Wicked Penguin said...

Also - I'd like to emphasize that our problem areas are specifically Area 3 by the beach, and the higher altitude areas directly over Whiting (8500-10000). Everywhere else - Area 1, Area 2, and Area 2F - work fine.

Paul said...

It couldn't be worse. It seemed like everywhere we had an arriving or departing airliner, he was right in its face. Seriously, every time. It's like he had some kind of "Sixth Spidey Ninja Sense" or something.

Um... it's entirely possible that he was doing it on purpose. Looking out the window, sees a jetliner, moseys on over to take a look... why not? He's VFR, it's his right to do so!

Personally, I'd suggest hitting the guy on guard at some point and saying "look, you're not on the right code AND you're right in the way of a bunch of traffic- can you just move down a thousand or two thousand feet for us, please?"

Wicked Penguin said...

@Paul: I tried that, as I mentioned. No response. He was still squawking his original departure code, so I was able to track down his strip. I tried by callsign and by position ("T-34, three miles west of Whiting, at 9500 feet...")

And it's absolutely possible they were actively going after the airliners. The NASA report database had quite a few reports of Navy trainers doing just that, either intentionally or not. I was going to write a blog post about that - with about a dozen examples - but decided against it because it would ruffle quite a few feathers.