Human Factors

Flying in Company

Normalisation of Deviance, Weather, Human Factors, Safety, Aircraft

Friday 28 July, 2017

One of the great pleasures of flying in RAAus is the opportunity to fly with other pilots and aircraft owners. Whether it is just around the local airfield or in the local area, to a nearby location for a $100 hamburger, or a cross country trip to a remote and exotic location in Australia there is nothing like sharing the experience with like-minded friends.

During these flights aircraft may operate close to each other but not close enough to meet the criteria for formation as defined in AIP GEN 2.2 “Two or more aircraft operating in close proximity to each other and operating as a single aircraft with regard to navigation, position reporting and control.” 

As a result pilots are encouraged to think about how they are going to communicate before, during and after the flight in the event of an incident, poor or deteriorating weather or other issues. During departures and arrivals from aerodromes, standard circuit procedures and radio protocols apply and this generally won’t cause any more issues than any other operation in a circuit, other than a possible increase in traffic if flying away or arriving with a large number of aircraft.

However, once the heading is set and the aircraft are established, what considerations should pilots plan and discuss, preferably prior to setting off?

  • Communication frequencies
  • Altitudes – hemispherical levels
  • Terrain
  • Features – power lines, private airstrips, local traffic 
  • Aircraft speed differences 
  • Loss of contact in flight
  • Alternate destinations for weather issues
  • Contact information for Search and Rescue (SAR) purposes
  • Shared planning sessions


Communication frequencies

When pilots leave the vicinity of an aerodrome, CASA recommend pilots monitor the area frequency indicated on charts. This is not an appropriate frequency for a casual chat between pilots but is an important frequency as Air Traffic Control (ATC) may communicate to aircraft on this frequency. While passenger and charter flights generally operate at much higher altitudes and generally will be cruising at IFR hemispherical levels, occasionally circumstances will bring VFR and IFR aircraft into proximity, even though they are not near aerodromes.

In those circumstances, ATC will make a broadcast to “Unidentified VFR aircraft (position relative to known feature) at XX height, traffic is (aircraft call sign) at (relative position and height)”. This is another good incentive for having transponders on and squawking 1200 if they are fitted to your aircraft. This is a good reason to monitor the area frequency.

However, most aircraft are now fitted with radios capable of monitoring dual frequencies, and this is where the informal chat channel frequency 123.45 MHz is invaluable as referenced in AIP GEN 3.4 paragraph 3.1.5:

“Interpilot Air-to Air Communication. In accordance with regional agreements, 123.45 MHz is designated as the air-to-air VHF communications channel….”

Agreement between pilots as to the appropriate frequency to monitor and communicate on will greatly assist the safety of the flight.


Altitudes – Hemispherical levels

While the hemispherical levels for VFR flights noted in AIP ENR 1.7 paragraph 3.1.4 are only required when flying above 5000 feet AMSL, pilots are still encouraged to adhere to the hemispherical principles for any flights away from an aerodrome. When flying in company with other aircraft these same recommended hemispherical levels can be used to separate aircraft of different performance and cruising speeds for safety by staggering aircraft at different heights.

Pilots should nominate a specific cruising level before departure, whether for a local flight or a cross country, which will assist in ensuring safe separation en route.



If flying in company with other aircraft in the local area, a local private airstrip or a cross country, surrounding terrain, airspace constraints or “tiger country” can have the effect of funnelling aircraft into common locations, valleys or other confined areas.

Likewise, local landmarks or pre-planned waypoints can result in aircraft flying in company ending up too close together. Pilots should consider using alternative arrivals paths, routes or staggering arrivals using cruising speeds as a method to avoid this issue.


Features – power lines, private airstrips, local traffic

When flying in company to a local or unknown airstrip on a cross country, pilots may become complacent about the location of power lines, private airstrips or local traffic. This may result in pilots failing to see large high power transmission lines, power lines strung across valleys or interfering with local aerial application aircraft.

Many electricity companies provide maps of power lines in specific areas, pilots can check with the company in the area they intend to fly in.


Aircraft speed differences

When flying in company, ideally the aircraft will have similar cruise airspeeds, however in reality aircraft may vary in cruise speeds by up to 30-40 knots. If this is the case, it is recommended to have the faster aircraft depart first to avoid them overtaking slower aircraft. For legs off 200 nm or less, this will generally only result in a minor delay for the slower aircraft to arrive, time enough for the faster pilots to arrange the lift into town or buy their fuel. 


Loss of contact in flight

Even though aircraft may depart at a similar time, occasionally while flying in company it is surprisingly difficult to see the other aircraft. By pre-planning respective heights and flight paths, in addition to pre-arranging a contact frequency, pilots can communicate to each other and use ground feature references or GPS distances to waypoints to confirm respective locations to other aircraft.

The worst possible scenario is two aircraft, one a high wing and the other low wing, losing sight of each other and operating in each other’s blind spots. Pre-planning and use of varying levels will assist to remove a potential mid-air conflict and greatly reduce pilot stress levels as a result.


Alternate destinations for weather issues

It is an AIP requirement for pilots to study all available information relevant to proposed flights including weather as per AIP ENR 1.10 paragraph 1.1:

“Before beginning a flight, a pilot in command must study all available information appropriate to the intended operation and in the case of flights away from the vicinity of an aerodrome….

a. current weather reports and forecasts for the route to be flown and the aerodromes to be used; …

e. all Head Office and FIR NOTAM applicable to the en route phase of flight, and location-specific NOTAM for aerodromes”.

Pilots may decide or believe weather will not be a factor in local flights and as a result may not obtain required weather or NOTAMs prior to the flight. If travelling in company with other aircraft, this can result in serious issues if weather becomes a serious issue. 

Loss of contact with other aircraft has been dealt with above. However, an additional method of managing this potential risk is to pre-plan alternate aerodromes.

When travelling in company with other aircraft, many hands make light work when it comes to pre-planning flights, obtaining and interpreting weather and ensuring alternative aerodromes are planned. For long flights, pilots should to meet up prior to the day of departure, compare notes and planning information and make sure all pilots are on the same page when it comes to planning alternates. For local flights, a discussion prior to flying and an agreed plan will make this decision-making process much easier.


Contact information for Search and Rescue (SAR) purposes

When aircraft are flying in company, management of overdue aircraft can be an overlooked pre-planning and information sharing requirement, due to the illusion of a false sense of security provided by “safety in numbers”.

A sensible precaution is to nominate one responsible person who may remain at a home base location. This person should hold proposed flight paths and aerodromes planned, relevant aircraft types, call signs and colours, passenger names, equipment aboard (PLB/ELT/ELB, transponder, lifejackets, etc.), pilot contact information (mobile and email) and the appropriate contact numbers for AMSA 1800 815 257 or ATSB 1800 011 034. 

Pilots can use this designated person to text or phone to cancel SARs or request information in the event of a loss of contact with other pilots. 

Additionally, there are a number of useful devices such as Spot Tracker, etc. which offer the ability to track aircraft and send a responsible person a message regarding safe arrivals, overdue arrivals or other pre-programmed messages. There are a number of apps and websites which offer similar services.

AMSA also offer the opportunity via their website for pilots to advise them of proposed locations and dates of trips relevant to a nominated PLB and aircraft call sign. 


Shared planning sessions

Finally, part of the appeal of completing short or cross country trips with other pilots is the fun of pre-planning where to go, what to see and who to contact. 

Meeting with other pilots and their passengers to discuss sights, attractions and points of interest, sharing experiences and tips can be as much fun as completing the trips itself. Make these sessions fun and useful by arranging them in advance.

Fly safely and enjoy flying with other pilots by pre-planning to avoid surprises.