Flight Check 87

A very interesting ride-along with an FAA flight inspection team.

Air Line Pilot, January 2003, p.18
By Capt. Wally Roberts (TWA, Ret.)

Flight inspection pilots have to be expert in the use of special equipment to accurately track and measure ground-based navaids, such as ILS, VOR, and military TACAN.

Over the years of my working on technical instrument procedures for ALPA, one FAA function that has always stood out as being vital to our interests as airline pilots is that of the flight inspection of instrument approach, departure, and enroute procedures. On Sept. 17, 2002, I had the opportunity to ride jumpseat with an FAA international flight inspection crew on, and over, the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

I observed a professional and technically competent operation for which I previously had only some inkling of the complexity. Not only are these flight inspection pilots trained to professional standards and proficiencies as good as those of any ALPA carrier, these pilots have to be expert in the use of special equipment to accurately track and measure ground-based navaids, such as ILS, VOR, and military TACAN. Observing and trying to absorb some of the flight inspection nuances was like trying to drink out of a fire hose. I saw enough, though, to appreciate that these pilots have to train to proficiency on the various flight inspection procedures and techniques, which appeared to be more complex than the training and qualification on the aircraft itself. The cockpit resource management concept must be expanded beyond the conduct of a safe flight to encompass the mission of flight inspection, which involves low-altitude maneuvers and flybys that most airline pilots can do only on our days off in a light airplane.

The aircraft used on this flight inspection was a Bombardier Challenger 601-3R (see Figure 1), with registration number N87 (the FAA gets the good tail numbers). The airplane is equipped with Collins ProLine4 EFIS and dual Universal UNS-1B+ FMS with triple IRS, dual GPS, LORAN, and scanning DME sensors. And this is the equipment just to get to anyplace in the world. In addition to it, the airplane is packed with flight inspection gear, which includes two additional FMS-like CRTs on the flight deck pedestal and a whole lot of stuff in the cabin for the flight inspection technician to monitor and supervise during a flight check run (Figures 2 and 3).

After a tragic CFIT accident involving an FAA Beechcraft KingAir turboprop during a flight inspection, the FAA adopted an NTSB recommendation to operate all flight inspection operations under FAR Part 135. This includes a dispatch department in Oklahoma City and airline-like progressive maintenance and personnel standards and qualifications. In fact, before we could depart Lihue Airport, the flight crew had to obtain a dispatch release from OKC. (They usually use a land-line phone, but have satcom capability for communications when they are in remote parts of the world.)

This particular aircraft is operated under the call sign "Flight Check 87." Flight Check 87ís crew for our Kauai flight inspection included three international flight inspection pilots and one flight inspection technician. In the left seat was Capt. Mike Meenan, who was fully left-seat qualified in the aircraft, but was receiving international flight inspection qualifications from international check airman Capt. Ken Jack, who was in the right seat. Both pilots have flown for air carriers. John Dewitt was the flight inspection technician who ran the complex cabin console and related equipment. Capt. Gary Wheaton, a long-time international check airman and flight inspection pilot, was aboard to observe the operation of the flight and to answer my many questions.

Flight inspection gives aviation a lot of bang for the buck and is of incalculable benefit to all of us who fly or ride our nationís airways.

The flight inspection mission of the day involved many tasks: commissioning two new RNAV (GPS) instrument approach procedures (IAPs) at Lihue, recommissioning the Lihue ILS, flight checking circle-to-land terrain issues with consideration given to the fact Lihue is primarily a jet airline airport (numerous sightseeing helicopter operations aside), and flight checking the Navyís TACAN facility and TACAN IAPs at Barking Sands Naval Air Station, which is on the opposite side of Kauai.

The flight check of Lihueís ILS was the first task, and it was the most complex of all the flight checks performed during the day. The ILS has to be checked for both localizer and glideslope accuracy, and for course integrity on each side of the localizer centerline. Also, a run has to be made below the glideslope to check required off-scale performance of the glideslope beam. This ILS check included a low pass at 50 feet above the entire length of the runway, which these pilots made look easy (see Figure 4, taken on short final during one of the ILS runs). The crew also has to sight and verify controlling obstacle data provided to them by the procedures design office in OKC. All of this involves not only skillful flying, but also crosschecking special flight inspection data displays. From my position on the jumpseat, it was both fun and educational. For the crew, it involved intense concentration and application of special skills well beyond getting N87 from point A to point B.

After the ILS was "signed off," the two RNAV IAPs were flown. One pass is good enough for an RNAV IAP because no ground-based signals have to be checked. In this case, the flight check is for accuracy of designated waypoints and whether the FMS/LNAV database flight path is reasonable and flyable. Also, a sighting of the controlling obstacle(s) is required. For the Lihue procedures, this latter task was simplified in that the approach courses are over the ocean. The only exception was the final approach course for the Runway 35 RNAV IAP, which picks up some significant terrain close-in on the west side of required protected airspace. (This same terrain is outside the protected airspace requirements for an ILS and will likely be outside of protected airspace requirements for future RNP-qualified RNAV IAPs to this runway.)

Next, the flight inspection pilots made two circle-to-land maneuvers from the new Runway 21 RNAV final approach course to land on Runway 3 using a left traffic pattern on the north side of the field. The crew used special fixes and flight procedures to fly this pattern at exactly 2.3 miles from the approach end of Runway 3, which is the present limit of TERPs-protected airspace for Approach Category D aircraft. Unlike the IAP runs, the circle-to-land runs are very terrain- and obstacle-intensive, with all the pilots all the while keeping the aircraft within the circling maneuvering area and assessing the reasonableness of descent gradients in view of the aircraft types that frequent this airport (B-717s, B-737s, and B-757s).

Because most Part 121 flight crews do not receive training in circle-to-land requirements and techniques, Flight 87 looked to see how far beyond the Category D circling-protected airspace an airline transport could "stray," yet remain out of harmís way. The new approach for Runway 3 has about one extra mile for a "visual" traffic pattern, then radio towers enter the picture. On the other (southwest) side of Runway 3, though, the steep terrain permits no allowance for any "visual pattern" exceedance, plus the geometry of the terrain with respect to the runway results in an extremely high CFIT risk for all but those crews who operate into Lihue many times a week or month. Even circling on the north side of the airport to Runway 3 is too demanding from the Runway 35 ILS approach, so it will probably be limited to the VOR and new RNAV IAPs for Runway 21, and even then only during daytime.*

After the circle-to-land flight check, we climbed to 10,000 feet and spent a long time making large 360-degree orbits around the Navyís TACAN on the west side of the island. The weather was good, so I provided the flight crew with some sightseeing narratives as Waimea Canyon, then the spectacular Na Pali Coast came into view. After the TACAN orbits were completed, flight checks were made of the Navyís two TACAN IAPs at Barking Sands. Then, we returned to Lihue to complete the flight, while making a casual "look/see" of the track of a possible future LDA or RNP IAP to Runway 3.

We covered a lot of ground, so to speak, and spent about 4 hours at it. I have Tom Accardi, the director of the FAAís Office of Aviation System Standards (AVN), to personally thank for permitting me to ride along on this flight check. AVN is responsible for designing instrument procedures (AVN-100), flight inspecting these procedures (AVN-200), maintaining the flight inspection aircraft (AVN-300), and getting NACO charts (AVN-500 and formerly NOS) published.

By this time, you might wonder why international flight inspection pilots are required to flight check instrument procedures in Hawaii. Well, in one sense they arenít, but the FAAís domestic flight inspection birds (Learjets) canít make the oceanic crossing to Hawaii or to the South Pacific areas under FAA jurisdiction. The primary use of the Challenger aircraft, though, is to fly to far-off international destinations to flight check procedures for some of our allies, as well as some military procedures.

Flight inspection gives aviation a lot of bang for the buck and is of incalculable benefit to all of us who fly or ride our nationís airways. These flight inspection pilots and technicians are not only highly trained, proficient, and dedicated, they are the "feds" who wear the white hats.

*Authorís editorial note: What Runway 3 really needs is a reasonably high-minimums offset LDA or special RNP nonprecision RNAV procedure, which I have determined to be feasible from a topographical standpoint. One of the flight inspection pilots pointed out, though, that an LDA localizer might fail to perform due to reflected signal problems because of the steep terrain to the southwest. That would then leave a special RNP RNAV IAP as the remaining option. On Sept. 19, 2002, Capt. Simon Lawrence (US Airways), director of ALPAís Charting and Instrument Procedures Program (CHIPs), received a letter from the FAA indicating that the agency is reviewing the feasibility of an offset LDA IAP to Runway 3.