Lost Communication While Flying, Part 1

This article, and the next one to follow, was inspired by a member of our Insider’s community. He wrote to me to say, when flying his 1943 Luscombe, he experienced lost communications on a regular basis. Practice makes perfect! His aircraft radio was hard-wired to a battery that lost interest in flying well before landing.

I know, but you try to find a good photo that represents lost comm. I dare you!

Today, let’s talk about lost comm while flying. We aren’t going to cover lost comm procedures–what to do if you are on an IFR flight plan when the radios give up the ghost. No, this time, let’s you and I talk about what constitutes lost comm.

I can hear you saying, “Give me break! Everyone knows what lost comm is.” Agreed. But, did you know there are two types of lost comm? One is worse than the other.

Say Your Type

Here are the two types of lost comm, (and these are my made up terms):

  • Mechanical Radio Failure.
  • Situational Radio Failure.

You know what Mechanical Radio Failure is. That’s when the control head for your radio or radios goes dark. Perhaps your radio tells you it’s calling it quits with a puff of smoke; or a circuit breaker popping out; or the frequency display disappearing; or the power light taking a nap. However your radio tells you “I’m on holiday, see you later,” you know that sucker is not coming back to life without some professional medical attention.

You Won’t Know What Hit You Until It’s Too Late

If Mechanical Radio Failure is the life of the party who draws a crowd, then Situational Radio Failure is the sneaky bastard that creeps in and conks you over the head when you aren’t looking. Situational Radio Failure happens when you fly your airplane into a place where the radio frequency you were using no longer works, or the new frequency you switched to doesn’t reach anyone on the ground.

You will only know you’ve experienced Situational Radio Failure when your transmissions on the radio go unanswered. (This is a very important distinction. I’ll come back to it in a moment.)

Which type of radio failure is worse? Consider these situations:

Press Release – FAA Statement on March 27 Incident in Florida
March 29, 2011

The FAA is investigating an incident that occurred on Sunday March 27, 2011 when an air traffic controller in the Central Florida Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) requested assistance from a passenger aircraft in checking on a Cirrus SR22 aircraft that had been out of radio contact for over one hour. The Cirrus was on course for Kissimmee, FL and maintaining altitude at 11,000 feet. Air traffic controllers at Jacksonville Center (ZJX) repeatedly tried to reach the aircraft without success.

Southwest 821 (SWA821), a Boeing 737, was ten miles in trail of the Cirrus at 12,000 feet and heading for Orlando International Airport (MCO).  The controller asked the Southwest crew if they could check the cockpit of the Cirrus.  The Southwest crew agreed, was directed towards the Cirrus and reported the aircraft in sight.

The Southwest pilots reported seeing two people in the cockpit.  The Southwest flight turned away and the air traffic controller then vectored the aircraft for its arrival at Orlando International Airport.  Approximately thirty seconds later the Cirrus contacted Jacksonville Center who gave them the current frequency. Both aircraft landed safely at their destinations. Preliminary information indicates that there was a loss of required separation between the two aircraft. The FAA has suspended the air traffic controller, who is a supervisor.

Air Controller’s Silence Draws Safety Probe

Wall Street Journal (excerpt)
March 24, 2011
Andy Pasztor

Federal air-safety officials are looking into why the lone air-traffic controller on duty at Washington’s Reagan National Airport early Wednesday repeatedly failed to respond to pilots of two approaching aircraft, forcing both jetliners to land without clearance.

The veteran controller later acknowledged he may have been dozing, according to people familiar with the matter, just before and after midnight when the incoming jetliners were preparing to land.
Pilots of an American Airlines jet on final approach tried in vain to contact the tower. A few minutes later, a United Airlines jet, en route from Chicago, experienced the same problem, according to federal air-safety officials.

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Your Aren’t In It Until You’re In It

Here’s the problem with Situational Radio Failure. You don’t know you are in it until you are in it. You could fly along for minutes, or for more than an hour with Situational Radio Failure and not know it. You won’t know it until you try to get a hold of someone on the ground and no one answers.

Don’t believe you can fly for more than an hour without knowing you have Situational Radio Failure? Ask the two Northwest pilots who were fired from their jobs after overflying their destination and continuing on for an hour and fifteen minutes without talking to anyone.

We’ve just scratched the surface on lost comm. The problem rears its ugly head. What do you do first? That’s a discussion we’ll get into next time.

Your Turn: Got any stories about lost comm like my buddy who flew the Luscombe? Grab your favorite beverage, put your computer’s cursor in the comment box, and tell me a good one.

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