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Online Extra: Tip of the Month

A Lost Comm Overseas Doesn't Have to Be Foreign Experience

Losing communications with air traffic control can be a highly stressful situation, even for experienced pilots flying over familiar territory. The stress level rises when the radio falls silent over the ocean or another country.

David Stohr is president at Air Training International, Ltd., which specializes in providing such procedures training to pilots. Stohr asserts proper planning and education beforehand is key to handling such a situation. "Don't assume what you've learned in North America applies outside the United States," he says.

“If I'm not talking to anyone and I'm not in communication with anybody, the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. The information's there, pilots just need to know where to find it.”

Shawn Scott
Scott IPC

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) publishes Document 4444, a comprehensive list of standard procedures for air traffic management. Section 15.3 of the document addresses the global standards for dealing with a loss in air-to-ground communications.

In brief, those procedures require pilots to squawk transponder code 7600 from the time they realize communications have been lost; to maintain the last assigned speed and flight level for 20 minutes after failure to report position over a compulsory reporting point, or for 7 minutes in airspace under ATS surveillance in lieu of air traffic control; and, after those timeframes have lapsed, to operate under the filed flight plan.

Additional requirements are set for aircraft being vectored by ATC at the time of communications failure, or on descent to an airport. A separate document, ICAO Annex 2, further addresses lost comm procedures, as well as interception procedures to aircraft that have gone NORDO (flying without a radio).

If pilots used to operating in the United States fly overseas, but aren't familiar with the ICAO procedures, "they'll get in a pickle real quick," says Shawn Scott with Scott IPC, who also provides international procedures training. "You must keep in mind that if you can't talk to ATC, you don't know if they're trying to talk to you. If ATC thinks you have a lost comm situation, they are going to move aircraft out of your way based on the procedure."

An additional challenge for international pilots may lie in country-to-country differences in procedures. "Every country in the world has its own Aeronautical Information Publication," Stohr explains. "In the AIP, they state they either follow ICAO rules as published, or they have rules that are somewhat different."

Again, proper preparation is key. "ICAO has a geographical information portal," Stohr explains. "In that portal there is a link where a pilot may go where [international] reports are available in electronic format, for the ones available electronically."

There are two caveats, however: "There are no guarantees the procedures are in English," cautions Stohr, "and no guarantee they're free."

Pilots using Jeppesen charts may also refer to the first page of the emergency procedures section, which lists countries with specific procedures and requirements. "For example, if you're flying over Brazil, go to the Brazil page," Scott explains. "Now, it says nothing about lost comm – however, there is a statement at the top of the page saying Brazil adopts ICAO standards.

"If I'm not talking to anyone and I'm not in communication with anybody, the hair on the back of my neck is standing up," Scott says. "The information's there, pilots just need to know where to find it. If you think you have a lost comm, then look up the procedure and see if it can protect you ... If they don't have a specific procedure, follow ICAO."

For More Information

Review ICAO's list of online AIPs for countries around the world.

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