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The following article on in-flight communication loss incidents is provided by Maastricht ACC for use in the briefing of airline

pilots. It highlights a larger issue of in-flight security threat in addition to just a case of communications problem and maintaining correct separation from other traffic. The article also contains relevant information and good practices for airmanship. This information is provided for crew information only. Where there is a conflict between this write-up and SQ SOPs, our SOPs will take precedence.
In-flight Communications Loss Incidents in EUR Airspace Since the events of September 11th 2001 in the USA, national authorities across the globe have been forced to re-assess the security aspects of their airspace. This has lead to a number of very visible measures, e.g. increased security at airports, but also to less obvious things, like how aircraft are handled when they no longer answer ATC calls. In the past, an aircraft that didnt respond to ATC calls was annoying for the controllers: no more, no less. It posed a little increase in workload for the controller, and in the worst case, it would force them to annoy other aircraft by having to turn them a bit more or change their level to avoid a separation infringement. Usually, after a while, and certainly approaching the top-of-descent, the aircraft would find the correct frequency, usually by contacting a frequency found on a chart of the area. This is no longer the case: an aircraft that does not answer ATC calls is now considered a security threat. In practice, this means that as soon as a civil air traffic controller detects that an aircraft is no longer listening or answering his calls, he needs to inform his military counterparts. This sets a notification process in motion: based on the available information (which airline, where did it originate from, where is it going, what is it overflying, is the aircraft following the flight plan.) military authorities can decide if the aircraft poses an increased risk and will scramble fighters to intercept the civil aircraft. Over northern Europe, the authority that decides this is NATO. They will order the relevant national air defence to intercept the aircraft. Civil ATC is not consulted in this process, but is usually kept informed of the intentions of air defence. Interesting to note is that these national security flights have absolute priority over all other air traffic: other aircraft may have to be re-routed, vectored or given a level change. In extreme cases, especially in a TMA environment, a large area needs to be cleared of traffic, resulting in delays etc. During the actual intercept, to avoid TCAS manoeuvres, the military aircraft will normally switch off their transponders at some point before the interception. Should the target aircraft suddenly deviate from his route or level without apparent reason, this could be misinterpreted, with potentially serious consequences. In the mean time, the civil controller will repeatedly (depending on the workload at that moment) try a number of things to try and recover the aircraft. This may include: Asking previous sectors to call the aircraft on their frequencies, in case he has inadvertently switched back.

Calling on guard frequency (121.5). Asking company aircraft to call their colleague on a company frequency. Asking company aircraft to contact their Operations to see whether the aircraft can be contacted. Contacting airline operations directly to ask them if the aircraft can be contacted (e.g. SELCAL, ACARS)

During 2004, some 160 cases were reported in the Maastricht upper airspace alone. About 5% of these were intercepted. Some of these cases have attracted media attention, and at least one case has prompted the public prosecutor of one country to consider legal action against the crew of the aircraft. The reasons for a loss of communications are usually difficult to find, as it involves a loss of awareness of the crew: they are often not aware of the fact they no longer in contact with (the correct) ATC unit. Maastricht has been able to identify a number of causes, or contributory elements: Wrong readback/selection of frequencies, especially the 6 digit 8.33 KHz frequencies. Sometimes ATC doesnt pick up the wrong readback or the pilot is so quick they dont hear the correction Distractions in the cockpit, especially with the closed-cabin-door policy, where cockpit needs to communicate with the cabin via intercom (an extra channel to select/monitor) Volume problems. Inadvertently switching back to a previous frequency. ATC forgets to transfer the aircraft to the next sector and by the time they realise, the aircraft is out of range.

Some suggestions that can avoid losing RT communications: Always report the geographical position or point that you are navigating to on the initial call. The controller has a better chance of knowing of whether youre supposed to be on his frequency. Listen to 121.5 on a spare set. This will be one of the first things ATC will try when they cant get you on the main frequency. Especially during daytime over central Europe, it is abnormal not be called by ATC for more than 15 minutes. If this happens, a quick radio check can confirm youre still talking to the correct sector/unit. Crossing a national border in Europe normally is associated with a frequency change. If it doesnt happen, give ATC a call to make sure whether you should change frequency or not.

As said before, from an ATC point of view, an aircraft in RT failure is not immediately a big safety risk, but national authorities consider them a very serious security problem. For the near future, it doesnt look like their approach will change; on the contrary, expect it to be applied even stricter. Some countries are considering fining airline companies and/or pilots for serious cases and may even try to recover the (substantial) cost of sending up fighter aircraft to intercept.