Collision Avoidance in the Reno Area
Tutorial--Collision Avoidance in the Reno Area
The FAA intends to use the best practices worked out between the Pacific Soaring Council (PASCO) and the Reno (now NORCAL) Approach Control facility as the model for glider operations in high-traffic-density airspace across the United States. As such, the collision avoidance techniques and procedures you learn and practice here will serve you well regardless of where else you intend to fly sailplanes.
Soar the Sierra is in full compliance with these collision avoidance guidelines, and in fact we are currently the liaison between PASCO and ATC. (To put this into perspective, the Oakland Center Letter of Agreement creating and maintaining the five Wave Windows in the Reno area is between ATC and PASCO. This was the result of years of effort on the part of CFIG Rolf Peterson, to whom we all owe a great debt.)
The collision avoidance issue goes far beyond that of the safety of any individual glider pilot. Reno airspace includes a heady mix of sailplane and air carrier traffic, and a high-profile collision between an airliner and a sailplane could potentially result in the drastic abridgement of our right to fly in the National Airspace System, anywhere in the United States. We therefore strongly urge all visiting pilots to learn the local procedures, to practice them diligently, and to discuss any questions with knowledgeable local instructors before--rather than after--flying in our area.
Here is a summary of the recommended practices:
Find out from any local instructor what the most common IFR arrival and departure paths and altitudes are--but remember that any type of traffic can be anywhere at any time!
Install a transponder and encoder in your glider, and make sure both are working, especially when above 7,000 feet msl and within 50 nm of KRNO. (Soar the Sierra and all other local soaring operators have installed transponders in all their sailplanes.) Unless assigned a squawk code, use the current national glider code of 1202. The best way to check that this equipment is working properly is to ask the approach controller for a transponder check.
The true significance of the transponder/encoder sysyem is not that it allows the controller to "see" you (though this is a valuable thing in its own right) but that it allows the TCAS systems in airliners and in many corporate aircraft to automatically provide the crews of those aircraft with guidance to avoid you. TCAS works regardless of whether ATC controllers even know you're there, and it is able to detect changes in your climb or descent rate much more rapidly than the controllers' equipment will do. Because sailplanes climb and descend rather unpredictably, as compared to powered aircraft, this is a truly significant advantage. (This is the reason well over 90% of locally-based AND visiting gliders have transponders and encoders installed even though this equipment is not required at all under the current regulations.)
Regardless of whether you have a working transponder or not, monitor the appropriate ATC frequency whenever above 7,000 feet and within 50 nm of KRNO. North of Reno, the frequency is 126.3, south of Reno, 119.2 MHz. These frequencies are prominently displayed on the current sectional charts you must carry in your cockpit regardless of any other electronic navigation equipment you may have.
Climbing through 8,000 feet, contact NORCAL approach on this frequency and identify yourself as a glider. Also give your position (more on this in a moment), altitude and intentions, and if you have a transponder it is helpful to let him or her know that you are squawking. This will allow the controller to verify the accuracy of your encoded altitude, thus freeing him or her to vector traffic around you if necessary. (Very cool... It's so much easier and safer to have the airliners avoid YOU, rather than trying to outrun an aircraft doing 350 kts TAS!)
For position reporting, use as landmarks either the flagged VFR reporting points on the sectional chart, your approximate distance and bearing from a major airport, or your approximate distance and bearing from the nearest VOR (probably Mustang VOR.) If you happen to be almost over a charted intersection such as PYRAM, you could use that as well. Any of these choices would be clear and concise--and unambiguous to the controller.
Do NOT report glide computer distances from a turnpoint, or decimal tenths of a mile at any time! Doing so would only waste valuable radio time--the controller's most important resource.
Do use standard phraseology as detailed in the Airman's Information Manual. Remember, we hope to present ourselves to the rest of the aviation community in the very best light possible; one important component of doing that is to sound properly professional on the radio. Moreover, standard ATC phraseology has been developed over the years specifically to be clear, concise and unambiguous--all of which directly benefit YOU. So, learn it and use it!
Speaking of learning, the approach controllers are still learning about what is practical for a glider pilot to do, and what isn't--and at all times you retain your responsibility and authority as Pilot in Command of your aircraft. So, there may be times when the controller may unwittingly ask you to do something that would place you in danger or that would jeopardize the safe continuation of your flight; consider advising the controller that you are "Unable" to carry out his suggestion. This would be an appropriate response when assigned a heading to keep you clear of a "business" jet (most bizjet flights are to/from vacation spots, so the opposing traffic has no real schedule constraints and almost always has much more freedom to maneuver than you have) or if the proposed heading would take you away from a safe landing area.
Conversely, it is extremely difficult to visually predict the closest point of approach of an airliner climbing or descending at perhaps 2,500 ft/min and flying a curved path; by the time you realize that this traffic is going to be too close for comfort your ability to outrun an aircraft moving at perhaps 350 knots TAS will be severely limited. This would be the sort of situation that could easily be prevented by asking the controller, as early as possible, for "vectors around traffic."
Under no circumstances should you argue with the controller: not only would this be pointless, it also wastes time on the frequency--the controller's most important resource. Your responses pretty much boil down to complying with your clearance, asking for a vector around traffic, or "Unable" if that is the best solution for all concerned. The controller has a job to do, and you have yours. Please--do it well.
One final thought: after a good deal of effort on the part of the Reno soaring community, NOAA inserted notes on the SFO sectional about "glider activity up to FL180." (Elsewhere in the United States, it is fairly unusual for VFR general aviation traffic to operate above 10,000 feet.) It's a nice start, but do you really think airline pilots carry and use sectional charts in their cockpits? They don't!