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Reed Files Around the World! Here are some observations from my trip that may be of particular interest to pilots and aviation enthusiasts. They are listed below in no particular order:

1) There were a few common differences in ATC communications terminology I noticed once outside North America:

  • "Line up and wait" was universally substituted for the then standard North American instruction "taxi into position and hold".
  • "Decimal" was used instead of "point" in frequency assignments. For example, "contact Blank Tower at one one eight decimal five" (instead of "...point five").
  • "Diagonal" was used instead of "at" for wind direction reports. For example, "winds are two five zero diagonal one three" (rather than "two five zero at one three knots").
  • The letters "QNH" were universally used instead of the words "altimeter setting." The setting was also given in millibars (the same as hectopascals) rather than in inches of mercury. For example, "QNH is one zero one four" means the altimeter setting is 1,014 Mb. I then used a Jeppesen J-Aid table to convert millibars into inches of mercury, since my altimeter wasn't already calibrated in both units. The term QNH was pronounced as the three letters directly; no phonetics were ever used.
  • "Circuit" was everywhere substituted for the term "traffic pattern." For example, "make left circuit to runway nine" (instead of ... left traffic...). The names of the various legs remained unchanged (i.e., downwind, base, etc.).
  • In Australia, surface winds were given by tower controllers to aircraft in two ways: the actual wind direction and velocity were given first, immediately followed by an announcement of the left or right crosswind component for the runway in use. Very useful!

2) ATC control over airport ground operations were everywhere much more strict than in North America. I had to obtain Tower permission before starting my engine, even if located clear of taxiways and runways and starting only for an engine test. That permission sometimes took many minutes or even an hour to obtain. If any VIP government aircraft were moving on the ground or approaching to land, I was denied startup clearance. This occurred often in my case, as not many aircraft operate in developing countries that aren't government owned. My ground clearance switch and handheld radio turned out to be real assets in these places. Most locations restricted fueling operations to specific airport locations, often a long taxi distance away from the equally restricted designated parking areas. At Nadi, in the Fiji Islands, that meant taxiing over to a jetway equipped gate location before receiving fuel, even in a Mooney! In Singapore I needed permission from Tower to hand tow an airplane out of a hangar, even though I didn't intend to start it up.

3) ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) flight plan forms are required everywhere outside of North America. They are much more detailed than US or Canadian flight plan forms, and (for the purposes of this discussion) are split into two main sections. The first involves the aircraft type, date, time, altitude, speed, route, departure point, and destination of the flight, plus a listing for TWO alternate airports. The second contains a laundry list of check-offs regarding survival equipment carried, plus a place for entering the number of people on board and the fuel carried. This second part of the form is not transmitted beyond the point where the plan is filed unless and until search and rescue services are required. The ATC agencies therefore have no idea how much fuel you are carrying (i.e., what your endurance is) or how many crew members and passengers you are carrying. For some reason these last two items are perceived worldwide as essential information for every controller, so every time I contacted a new controller (starting with the Ground controller at my departure point) I had to announce my "POB" (i.e., number of people on board) and "Endurance." Even a taxi repositioning request unrelated to any intended flight required my telling the ground controller my POB and Endurance!

4) Along most of my route there was minimal communication between adjacent controlling agencies, even within the same country. Often there was no advance warning of my arrival into the next airspace sector given to the controller who "owned" that sector. Telephone service in many developing countries is so poor that I frequently found myself relaying messages from one controller to the next, particularly in Africa. When I flew from one controller's sector into another, my first call to the next controller therefore included my full call sign, departure point, ultimate destination, present position, altitude, next waypoint, ETA over that waypoint, ETA for crossing the boundary into any subsequent controller's airspace, POB and endurance. If the previous controller had revised my clearance routing, I needed to pass that new routing along as well. Occasionally I was also asked for ETA's over my next several flight plan waypoints. Since there is very little radar coverage outside North America and Europe, this was the only way the controllers had of knowing my position and projected movements for air traffic separation purposes.

5) Outside of North American airspace, the "Transition Altitude" where the pilot switches from the most recent local altimeter setting to 29.92" (or 1013Mb, also called "QNE") is generally much lower than the 18,000' to which we are accustomed. Above the Transition Altitude flight levels are used instead of MSL altitudes. An indication of 6,000' on your altimeter above the Transition Altitude would be reported as "Flight Level zero six zero" and written "FL060." In fact, this Transition Altitude is separately determined for each airport, and is found on the Jeppesen approach plates for the airport. Sometimes they are simply noted as "to be assigned by ATC" and are given to you when you receive your departure clearance. On the trip I found Transition Altitudes as low as 2,500' MSL and as high as 13,000' MSL. The "Transition Level" is also found on the plates, and refers to the flight level at which a pilot in a descent for a specific approach would switch to the local altimeter setting and begin using MSL altitudes rather than flight levels in his reporting. These also varied widely in height.

6) In oceanic airspace and over much of the world outside of the major industrialized countries, there is no radar coverage and no local altimeter information available, often for thousands of miles. The altimeter is then set for QNE (i.e., 29.92" or 1013Mb) and all altitudes are assigned and reported as flight levels. Transponders are still kept operating in mode A/C to properly activate the TCAS equipment on other aircraft, but discrete codes are no longer necessary or assigned. In oceanic airspace all civilian aircraft (except those in distress) simply squawk 2000 at all times.

7) In oceanic airspace controlled by American, Canadian or European controllers where HF radio is necessary to maintain communication with aircraft over the great distances involved, the ground radio station operators are not ATC employees, but rather HF radio operators who relay information back and forth between controllers and aircraft. Their contact with controllers is by telephone. This is a real nuisance, as requests for altitude changes or weather motivated routing deviations must pass through this cumbersome relaying process and often take up to 30 minutes to process. Obviously, pilots are unable to wait that long in many instances, so unauthorized deviations MUST be commonplace (no one seems to admit it on the air, of course). In most of the rest of the world, HF transmitters are operated by oceanic airspace controllers themselves, so responses to requests are typically immediate. In at least this case, the "less sophisticated" developing countries have a far better system than the "advanced countries."

8) IFR clearances at many of the smaller foreign airports were typically given to me only after I was in position for takeoff on the active runway! The good news is that in all cases I was then cleared "as filed."

9) IFR clearances were never called that. In Australia pilots were given an "airways clearance," and everywhere else they were given their "ATC."

10) While I was not previously aware of it, upon arriving in Australia I learned that my airplane's "whiskey" compass was made for use in the Northern hemisphere. To keep the compass card level despite the increasingly downward tilt of magnetic lines of force further North from the equator, the manufacturer had attached a small weight to one side of the card to keep it in balance. When my Northern Hemisphere compass was flown well below the equator to Australia and Southern Africa, it laid well over on its side even in unaccelerated straight and level flight, resulting in errors of up to 15 degrees in heading. Mental compensation had to be made just as if the tilting had been caused by the airplane rolling into a turn back home. The flux gate connected to my HSI showed no such demonstrable errors.

11) The vast majority of pilots of all aircraft that I heard on the HF frequencies (and each of these frequencies covered all nonmilitary aircraft within thousands of miles) had American or British accents. This was even true in Polynesia, India, and sub-Saharan Africa. The US, Canada, Britain, Australia, and South Africa seem to be the great suppliers of experienced pilots for airlines and corporate aircraft of all descriptions and national registries. Yet, all the ATC controllers were locals of the countries being overflown, which meant that for many English was a second, if not third, language. Their accents were thus quite thick, and pilots were constantly asking for repeats of controller transmissions. Many times the pilots gave up after two or three repetitions still yielded nothing intelligible. This is unfortunate, and certainly could have created potentially hazardous situations. In developing countries controller positions are apparently coveted government jobs, and only locals are hired, often with what seemed to me to be very limited training. These same countries, however, seemed to recognize the need for the better trained foreign pilots to fly the airliners of their flag carriers, so you have the ridiculous situation where, for example, a captain of a Malaysian airliner can barely communicate with Malaysian controllers.

12) Prices for aviation fuel varied drastically from one location to the next. The extremes noted on this trip were US$5.58 per US gallon in the Seychelles Islands and US$.94 per gallon at my very next stop in Harare, Zimbabwe. The average price for the entire trip was about US$3.00 per gallon. Incidentally, everywhere outside the US fuel was sold by the liter, not by the gallon. 100/130 octane fuel (green) was more commonly available than 100LL (blue).

13) Almost everywhere landing fees, handling fees, parking fees, fuel charges, maintenance charges, etc. had to be paid exclusively in US dollars, and had to be paid in CASH. Credit cards were rarely accepted, and even travelers checks were often rejected. Access to fuel and even to my own airplane would be denied until I produced the cash for their inspection. I am often asked whether I was ever solicited to pay "commissions" (i.e., bribes) to airport or customs officials in any of the foreign countries, and the somewhat surprising answer is no. However, what I now suspect was going on was the extraction of US cash from me at the local government mandated exchange rates, with this money then being exchanged for local currency "under the table" by the government officials themselves at black market rates. The officials then could pay my fees to their superiors in local currencies and pocket the difference. To me this shady activity, if indeed it was occurring, cost nothing anyway, as I would have had to pay the fees at the official exchange rates anyway. For the locals, though, it provided an opportunity to skim a nice profit at their government's expense.

14) An airplane can successfully handle surprisingly more weight than I had been led to believe. While hardly good routine practice, ferry pilots will tell you, and I can now concur, that 20% or more overgross operation is quite possible safely. (You need an appropriate FAA sign off and Ferry Permit, plus a thorough briefing from a seasoned ferry pilot first!) Climb rate is obviously the most adversely impacted performance parameter, but after struggling up to cruise altitude, the Mooney flew only 7 - 10 knots slower than at normal gross weight. This speed penalty declined as fuel was burned over time. Adding this extra fuel weight near the aft CG limit helped a little, as the resulting reduced aerodynamic downward force on the tail in trimmed level flight partially offset the added weight. Needless to say, pitch stability suffered, though, and I had to fight phugoid oscillations for the first couple hours of each fully fuelled flight. Terrain and manmade obstacles near the departure airports became of paramount importance, as initial climb rates were an anemic 200 - 300 fpm maximum. As was first suggested to me by Barry Andrews when he and I visited the airport at Johor Bahru, Malaysia, the best way to get good information about local terrain and obstacles along a proposed departure path was to visit the local ATC Tower and get a briefing on suggested climbout routes. Outside the US where security is far less restrictive, I was routinely able to do this with minimal fuss as long as I wore my uniform and carried a pilot picture ID. Tower controllers were universally cordial and helpful, and the view from their elevated tower cabs provided a good preparation for the overgross takeoff.

15) I am often asked about my perception of the dangers of long, overwater flights. Of my 3,400 hours of logged fixed wing flight time as of the date of my trip, 250 were over oceans in small airplanes (50 in a Seneca II and now 200 in the Mooney). While I don't relish the thought of an emergency ditching, I've come to believe ocean flying may actually be safer than some of the routine IFR flying I do back home in the States. For example, if I lose my one engine at night over much of the eastern or western US, a safe off-airport landing is frankly unlikely. In low IMC it's practically impossible.

Over the ocean I absolutely know a few things:

  • There are no obstructions, and all "ground" is at sea level.
  • It's a lot harder to catch fire in an ocean ditching than in a ground emergency landing.
  • Since I'm flying a low wing, retractable gear airplane, unless I hit rough seas and/or the windshield caves in, it is very likely that I would survive the impact of a ditching without major injury.
  • Properly equipped with a thermal flotation suit and a good life raft, I would likely survive the post crash period as well.
  • Search and rescue facilities are reportedly excellent over the North Atlantic and much of the Pacific, so I shouldn't be there long if I've kept ATC current with regular position reports and carry a portable EPIRB/ELT satellite transmitter and a handheld VHF radio.

Engine failures are pretty rare in the real world anyway, unless engine maintenance has been neglected and close attention is not being paid to the fuel and oil requirements for the flight. As far as weather is concerned, there seem to be far fewer aviation weather challenges over much of the world's oceans (the cold North Atlantic and other areas at both North and South polar latitudes are notable exceptions to this) than over the continents due to the lack of thermal heating and orographic lifting, plus a reduced number of organized low pressure systems. This advantage could be quickly lost, however, if flying without a Stormscope or radar, especially at night.

16) Speaking of radar, I've noticed that even the cheapest ones work much better over oceans than over land. A major problem with the small radars installed in light aircraft is the broad vertical signal dispersion due to their tiny antennas. The resulting ground clutter makes aggressive tilt management essential to identify the real storm activity, and this is difficult when flying solo. Over the oceans, however, the radar signals hitting the water all reflect forward, never returning to the receiver. Ground clutter is therefore nonexistent, unless approaching land. I developed a practice over oceans to just set the tilt to the neutral position and leave it there. If anything shows up on the PPI when there is no land around, I know it is precipitation. I can then easily navigate around the areas of echoes, since conflicting air traffic over oceans at low altitudes is also virtually nonexistent!

17) What about fatigue during long, overwater legs? I personally found it less tiring to fly 15 hours in oceanic airspace than 3 hours in the busy East or West coast corridors of the US. The lack of air traffic over the ocean markedly reduced my need to scan for other airplanes. Over the entire length of the vast Pacific Ocean I never saw one other airplane, not even a vapor trail! Navigation was silly simple. I just flew straight lines using GPS from one Lat/Long waypoint to another. No nav radio switching, tuning, OBS setting, or identifying required. ATC was very quiet over much of the world's oceans, requiring only that I check in with them by HF every hour or so to report my position. I brought along a CD player and a portable short-wave radio and plugged them into the music input of my intercom. Controller voices rarely interrupted the flow of music and international news. I used a Bose active noise canceling headset to shut out the engine, prop, and slipstream noise. Ahhhh, peaceful. As discussed above, the weather over the mid-latitudes where I did most of my flying (between 25 degrees north and 25 degrees south) was both docile and quite predictable. Turbulence was minor to nonexistent. Given the choice, I'll choose ocean flying over flight in high density traffic areas any day!

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