The past few years have been the most exciting and dynamic stretch of time for me since I started flying 20 years ago. Much of it has been driven by the changes and benefits resulting from the implementation of the FAA’s NextGen plan, as the national airspace system transitions from 1950s-era ground-based radar and VHF radio technology to ADS-B surveillance and datalink communications. The two most useful benefits have been ADS-B datalink weather and a real-time traffic display in the cockpit, delivered by the network of ADS-B ground stations in the United States. These free services are available to pilots of all aircraft types (even drones) thanks to the widespread availability of inexpensive, portable ADS-B receivers and rapid developments in mobile app and panel-mount avionics technology.
There is a lot more to gain from these NextGen services than just being able to see the location of thunderstorm cells on your iPad in flight or noting the location of an airliner passing 10 miles in front of you. When used strategically, you can use this information to gain additional insight into what’s going on in the airspace around you and make better-informed decisions on each flight, giving you an edge when dealing with air traffic control.
Until recently, we had no other choice but to rely on ATC and Flight Service as the primary source of in-flight information. How is the weather developing? Call the controller or a flight service specialist to find out. Where is the traffic? Wait for ATC to inform you of a potential conflict. What is the best IFR route, and which approach can I expect? ATC will tell you when it’s convenient for them.
These challenges and unknowns have always been a part of flying IFR, but with NextGen, that’s starting to change. This new technology has eliminated many of these unknowns, providing pilots with the information needed to make informed decisions during every phase of flight, from preflight to shutdown.
Let’s start with the IFR route selection process. Gone are the days of making an educated guess on a route, only to have ATC respond with a full route clearance with intersections and airways. It now takes only a moment in ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot or FltPlan.com to enter a departure and destination airport and then see recently issued clearances to other aircraft flying the same route. The routes are even sorted by altitude so you can find the option that best matches the performance of your airplane. File one of these routes and you’re almost guaranteed a “cleared as filed” from clearance delivery.
On that same topic, the need to “call” clearance delivery is no longer a requirement at all airports. Both ForeFlight and FltPlan.com offer GA pilots convenient access to the pre-departure clearance system that the airlines have been using for years. After enrolling in this service, and when departing from one of more than 70 approved airports in the United States, your IFR clearance will be sent via email and text message 30 minutes before departure. Currently, this works at airports served by airlines in busy Class B and C airspace, where you’re also most likely to receive a complex IFR routing. The textual clearance also includes a digital transcription of the current ATIS. With these required tasks out of the way before you step foot in the airplane, you can devote 100 percent of your attention to programming the GPS and preparing for taxi instead of studying IFR charts and departure procedures, searching for obscure waypoints and other potential gotchas.
After takeoff, you can use the datalink weather component of NextGen to stay ahead of ATC when flying near convective weather. Prior to ADS-B, you had to rely on the advice of ATC, Flight Watch and Flight Service to guide you around the storms (and hold on tight if the ride got rough). Now you can easily identify thunderstorms, icing or turbulence threats hundreds of miles away and request a modified route accordingly. The controllers prefer you handle weather avoidance in this manner with a predetermined route as opposed to flying up to the weather and then making multiple heading requests.
On longer flights, the best time to start planning for the arrival and approach is when things are quiet during cruise and while several hundred miles from the destination. The problem is you might not be able to receive the ATIS at this range, so there’s no way to confirm which runway or instrument approach is in use to begin preparing for the approach. Don’t give up there. With ADS-B In, some apps, such as ForeFlight, show the recommended runway based on the current winds. Some panel-mounted ADS-B units, such as L-3’s Lynx NGT-9000, offer live metars, which will also give you an indication of the runway in use.
If there are multiple runways and the wind direction doesn’t give you the information you want, you might be able to determine the active runway with some detective work with the traffic layer in your mobile app. First, make sure you have an unrestricted or unfiltered traffic layer enabled on the moving map, then zoom in to the destination airport and turn on the extended centerlines feature. Now, keep an eye out for traffic approaching toward and descending from the airport, and you’ll be able to discern which runway is in use. I used this trick when flying into Appleton, Wisconsin, in the Citation for AirVenture this year and was able to determine they were using the ILS Runway 3 approach. All of this was observed by tracking another airplane’s final approach course on the ILS chart while I was still 250 miles southeast of the airport.
You can use the nearby traffic depiction to expedite the issuance of a visual approach clearance too when flying into a busy towered airport. When the weather is VFR, it’s not uncommon to be vectored into a sequence behind multiple aircraft. The inefficiency occurs as ATC has to build in extra spacing between each airplane to ensure adequate separation, leading to time-consuming vectors. But here’s where your NextGen tools can help. After visually locating the airport, begin developing a mental picture of the preceding aircraft and try to find its location on the traffic display on your iPad. This should make it much easier to spot it visually, at which point you can let ATC know you have both airport and traffic in sight. If they’re on top of things, the controllers can now clear you for the visual approach sooner since you’ve visually identified the airplane you’re following.
This is just the beginning of what NextGen can offer to make our flights more efficient and our interactions with ATC more meaningful. The next 10 years will be even more exciting, as internet connectivity reaches the GA cockpit and ATC communications transition to digital messages. I’m personally looking forward to retiring the phrase “say again” and forgetting how to adjust the squelch on analog radios.