Jumpseat: On Guard

Airlines and monitoring 121.5


(March 2011) ON OCCASION, I AM ASKED if we airline types actually monitor guard frequency — 121.5. My stock answer is "Of course." And for the most part, I'm telling the truth. However, in some circumstances it's not practical. What are those circumstances?

I don’t want to speak for all my colleagues, but below 10,000 feet agl, which defines the sterile period for most commercial operations, I don’t make guard frequency a priority. Operating below 10,000 feet usually coincides with the terminal arrival or departure process. Chatter on another radio could be a potential distraction.

Another circumstance involves flights over South America. Monitoring guard frequency there has become only a periodic occurrence. Why? While the primary radio is utilized for ATC communication that might or might not involve radar coverage, the secondary radio is better left on 123.45 — the air-to-air frequency. The majority of airline crews maintains a listening watch on 123.45. We communicate turbulence reports, weather deviation issues and other operational problems. Pilots will always come to the rescue of other pilots, especially if an urgent problem arises.

Declaring an emergency on 121.5 in South America is not going to produce any faster response than would requesting assistance with the current controlling ATC facility. The quality and coverage of radio contact in that area of the world can sometimes leave a lot to be desired. If an emergency occurs within a poor radio coverage area, other crews experiencing better communication reception can relay the problem to ATC.

As many of you have experienced, the majority of voices heard on 121.5 are there by mistake. Somebody has pushed the wrong radio button. We’ve all done it. A member of the radio police is always present to admonish an errant pilot with “On guard!” I chuckle now, but a few years back I was scolded by the radio police while using the frequency for its exact purpose.

We were southbound toward a Caribbean destination in the western Atlantic route structure, where radar coverage does not exist except for about a 200-mile circumference around Bermuda. The weather radar was displaying an ominous cluster of red blobs directly in front of the airplane on our jet airway. Although we had contacted New York ARINC for a deviation clearance to be relayed to New York Center, it wasn’t happening at the appropriate pace. … Well, let’s just say that it was happening at the usual pace. I elected to follow procedures and turn off track, announcing our intentions and position on 121.5 and on the air-to-air frequency.

Right on cue, another pilot declared my error for daring to transmit on guard frequency. Someone apparently hadn’t read his ICAO manual. My professional integrity resisted the urge to broadcast that the individual was a nitwit.

In addition to the occasional mistaken transmission on 121.5, oftentimes in the United States, an Air Route Traffic Control Center ARTCC facility will attempt contact with a flight that may have missed a frequency handoff to the next sector. The controller will be very explicit about the purpose and explain that he or she is transmitting on guard frequency. It’s usually no big deal. The technique has a secondary purpose in that other pilots monitoring may have heard the missing flight attempting contact. The other pilots can then relay the ARTCC request.

On a personal level, I do have to admit that I derive a certain deranged entertainment value in monitoring 121.5. Unfortunately, on an intermittent basis, I hear an announcement that some poor soul has haplessly entered one of the “no-no” zones of Washington airspace. The announcement is a warning indicating that a threat of military intervention is about to occur. It’s sick, but I envision a great photo op from my vantage point in the flight levels to capture a pair of F-16s flying formation with a Cessna 172.

Of course, monitoring guard frequency is important to assisting fellow aviators. I have heard and witnessed various airline pilots come to the rescue of an airplane in distress. They have relayed information to air traffic controllers. They have announced the distressed airplane’s position. They have offered advice. Just such an event occurred during one of my flights this past October.

But the event held a strange twist of circumstances.

John, my copilot, and I were returning to JFK from Miami on a 777. At approximately 1640, while flying through Jacksonville Center’s airspace at FL 390, we heard a transmission on 121.5. A strained voice verbalized a problem that he was having with a Commander. The pilot of the Commander announced that he had no pitch control to descend. He could maintain level flight. And he was capable of turning.

John and I exchanged quizzical expressions. The pilot was soon given a frequency change to another facility. The facility turned out to be Augusta, Georgia, approach control. I just had to listen to the scenario.

John was a veteran military pilot. He had no general aviation experience. He stated, "Boss, I've got center frequency. You try to help this guy." John wiggled the headset back into his ear, allowing me to use the speakers to monitor the situation. I nodded.
Apparently, Augusta was the destination of the pilot. The controller began to ask the standard questions. How many souls on board? "One" was the answer. How much fuel is available? "Two and a half hours" was the response. And then the circumstances became more interesting. The controller, not quite grasping the maneuvering capability of the airplane, asked the only logical question. "Say your intentions?"

The pilot responded with an air of distressed incredulity that he wanted to land. The controller reacted with the only tool he had available. He began to vector the airplane toward a base leg for one of Augusta’s runways. Of course, the vector was premature in the scheme of the predicament.

The pilot of a corporate King Air that was apparently in its departure process offered his two cents’ worth. He claimed that two CFIs occupied the seats of the King Air and that they would help in any way possible. A brief discussion followed.

An inquiry was made as to the status of the Commander autopilot — a thought that I had considered. Apparently it was inoperative. The appropriate circuit breaker had been pulled. Could pitch be controlled with just the trim wheel? That was another idea I had contemplated. No, said the pilot.

Distress from the controller became almost palpable as he made attempts to vector the Commander. He asked the King Air pilots for a suggested distance of the final approach. Ten miles was stated. But did it really matter? A method to control the airplane had to come first.

When the King Air was given a frequency change, I decided it was my turn. I might not be able to formulate a specific plan, but at least I could offer suggestions. And words of encouragement couldn’t hurt either.

I waited for the appropriate silent moment on the frequency. I wanted to ask two questions that I thought would be important to the controllers or anybody else who was monitoring the event.

I keyed the mic. “Say the type aircraft, Commander.”

The reply was “Rockwell 112.”

“Say time in type, please.” Without hesitation, an immediate response of “110 hours” followed. Interesting. He wasn’t a neophyte in the airplane.

Keeping my transmissions brief, I suggested exploring the use of power and prop control to initiate a descent. In addition, I offered the idea that gear and flaps would also assist. The pilot expressed his appreciation for the suggestions but never seemed to indicate an attempt at any of the techniques. I told him to take his time. And just as his transmissions began to fade from our 777 radio, we heard the pilot make a bizarre statement.

I’m paraphrasing a bit, but here are the basics: I’m trying to get the other strap of my parachute adjusted. I might have to be vectored over an unpopulated area.

Uh … are you kidding? Who climbs into a nonacrobatic GA airplane with a parachute?

I awoke the next morning with a burning curiosity about the fate of the Commander pilot. A Google search didn’t take long to find the answer. A local TV news affiliate had footage of the wreckage. My jaw dropped when the reporter announced that the pilot had parachuted relatively unscathed from the airplane. My subsequent call to the tower supervisor elicited a statement of “It was 2½ hours from hell.” Apparently five approach attempts were made. And according to the supervisor, each approach appeared landable.

Research into the FAA database indicated that the 1976 Commander was registered to a corporation based in Atlanta. No surprise there. The scenario drew an eerie parallel to that of 38-year-old investment advisor Marcus Schrenker. Because of personal and legal trouble, Schrenker had attempted to fake his own death by parachuting from his Piper Malibu in January 2009.

I find it curious that, as of this writing, no NTSB investigation is filed for the event. I’m sure that the insurance adjuster is conducting his own investigation regardless.

Although the circumstance that I describe appears suspicious, perhaps the situation may have terminated in a successful runway landing through the inputs of concerned pilots. In any case, monitoring guard frequency is a professional responsibility.

As always, I will try to keep an ear tuned to 121.5.