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The Briefing Room - Learning from Experience


By Stanislaw Drozdowski

Stanislaw Drozdowski is an ATM Expert at EUROCONTROL HQ in Brussels, working in

the area of ground and airborne safety nets. Previously, he worked as a system engineer
with Northrop Grumman and as an Air Traffic Controller in Poland and New Zealand.


Pilots and controllers are provided with
a set of automated tools (safety-nets) The development and implementation
to alert them to imminent loss of sep- of airborne collision avoidance systems
aration. These are Short Term Conflict was very much driven by aviation acci-
Alert (STCA) in ground ATC systems dents. The first conceptual research
and Traffic Alert and Collision was initiated in 1956 after a mid-air col-
Avoidance System (TCAS)1. lision over the Grand Canyon. The 1978 TCAS limitation in horizontal tracking,
Implementation details of STCA vary collision between a Boeing 727 and a the TCAS III system will remain in the
widely between ATC systems. They Cessna 182 over San Diego led the FAA area of theoretical development for
include different algorithms, warning to start the development of airborne many years to come.
times and type of alerts. STCA does not collision avoidance systems.
provide controllers with advice on how Eight years later, another mid-air colli- TRAFFIC ADVISORIES AND
to resolve a conflict - this decision is sion occurred over California - a DC-9 RESOLUTION ADVISORIES
always made by the controller. collided with a Piper. Following this
TCAS, in contrast, operates according to accident, the phased-in mandate of Two types of alert can be issued by
uniform, world-wide ICAO standards. TCAS began in the USA. This was fol- TCAS II - TA (Traffic Advisory) and RA
TCAS produces vertical collision avoid- lowed by a world-wide mandate. (Resolution Advisory). TAs are intended
ance advice in the form of Resolution In Europe, from 1 January 2005, all civil to assist the pilot in the visual acquisi-
Advisories (RAs) which pilots are fixed-wing turbine-engined aircraft tion of the conflicting aircraft and pre-
required to follow. TCAS is widely con- with a maximum take-off mass over pare the pilot for a potential RA.
sidered to be the last resort safety net 5,700 kg, or capable of carrying more If a risk of collision is established, an RA
against mid-air collisions. than 19 passengers, must be equipped will be generated. Broadly speaking,
with TCAS II version 7.0. Additionally, RAs tell the pilot the range of vertical
TCAS and STCA operate in a similar many state and business aviation air- speed at which the aircraft should be
time scale and, therefore, are some- craft are also equipped. flown during the RA. The visual indica-
times in competition; avoiding actions tion of these rates is shown on the
required from pilots by TCAS and con- The initial implementation of TCAS flight instruments. It is accompanied by
trollers may differ. This can cause con- (known as TCAS I) only gave informa- an audible message indicating the
fusion at a time when prompt action tion about surrounding traffic and did intention of the RA.
and a clear distribution of responsibil- not provide any collision avoidance Some RAs simply tell the pilot to initi-
ity between pilots and controllers is advisories. The capability to produce ate a climb or descent (Climb, climb
most needed. collision avoidance advisories was or Descend, descend). However, the
The aim of this article is to recap the added to the next version of TCAS majority only require a reduction or
basics of TCAS operation and to raise (known as TCAS II). TCAS III, the future- continuation of the aircrafts current
controller awareness, so the potential generation system which will produce vertical speed (respectively,Adjust ver-
interactions between TCAS and STCA horizontal avoidance advice, has also tical speed, adjust or Monitor vertical
can be better understood. been foreseen. However, due to the speed).

TCAS II version 7.0 is the only commercially available implementation of the ICAO standard for ACAS (Airborne Collision Avoidance System). For the purpose of
this article, the terms TCAS and ACAS should be considered as synonymous.

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The Briefing Room - Learning from Experience

It needs to be pointed out that TCAS range is limited to 14 NM. intruder aircraft transponder is trans-
works independently of the aircraft RAs will only be generated against air- mitting altitude. Otherwise, only a TA
navigation or flight management sys- craft that have their Mode S or Mode can be generated. Aircraft without an
tems. While assessing threats it does C operational. If both aircraft are TCAS operating transponder will not be
not take into account the ATC clear- equipped, the RAs will be coordinated detected by TCAS. Moreover, TCAS RAs
ance, pilots intentions or autopilot through the Mode S link (i.e. TCAS will will be suppressed when stall or
inputs. RAs seek to achieve collision ensure that the RAs on each aircraft are ground proximity warnings are gener-
avoidance by establishing safe vertical issued in the opposite sense). Also, ated in the cockpit and descent RAs are
separation (300 - 700 feet), rather than TCAS is designed to deal with multi-air- not issued close to the ground.
restoring a prescribed separation. craft encounters.
Every second, the effectiveness of an TCAS has much better knowledge of
RA is evaluated and, if necessary, the RA surrounding traffic than any ground Pilots are required to immediately
may be strengthened, weakened, or radar system. Every second, it interro- comply with all RAs, even if the RAs are
reversed. For example, an initial RA may gates the Mode C and Mode S contrary to ATC clearances or instruc-
require a descent, but once a safe ver- transponders of nearby aircraft. Based tions.
tical separation has been established, on the replies received, TCAS will calcu-
the RA may weaken (i.e. require the late the time needed to reach the If a pilot receives an RA, he/she is
pilot to reduce the vertical speed that Closest Point of Approach (CPA) obliged to follow it, unless doing so
has been established to comply with between the two aircraft. For Mode S would endanger the aircraft.
the initial RA). This serves to minimize equipped aircraft, altitudes are Complying with the RA, however, will in
the possibility of a large diversion from processed by TCAS in 25-foot incre- many instances cause an aircraft to
the flight path. Conversely, if a safe ver- ments. deviate from its ATC clearance. In this
tical separation is not established as case, the controller is no longer respon-
the result of the initial RA, the RA will In contrast, Air Traffic Controllers see sible for separation of the aircraft
strengthen (i.e. it will require an the traffic picture on their radar screens involved in the RA. This is why the pilot
increase of vertical speed), or will updated every 5-12 seconds (so the is obliged to report the RA to ATC as
reverse its direction (from climb to traffic picture is always historic) and soon as possible.
descent or vice-versa). the altitudes are presented in 100-foot When the pilot reports an RA, con-
Typically, for Climb and Descend RAs increments. Having much more current trollers are not allowed to modify the
a rate of at least 1500 feet per minute and precise information than is avail- aircraft flight path until the pilot
is required. That may increase if the RA able to ATC, TCAS is normally better reports returning to the current air traf-
is strengthened. Other RAs may require positioned to provide effective last- fic control clearance. Traffic information
a reduction of vertical rate (to between resort collision avoidance. may be provided as appropriate.
2000 and 500 feet per minute or to TCAS operates on relatively short time Controllers, however, should take into
level-off ). A pilot should respond to the scales. The maximum generation time account that traffic information may
initial RA within 5 sec., and within 2.5 for a TA is 48 sec. before the CPA. For distract or confuse the pilot.
sec. to reversed and strengthened RAs. an RA the time is 35 sec.The time scales Currently, the pilot report is the only
are shorter at lower altitudes (where source of information available to the
The surrounding traffic is shown to the aircraft typically fly slower). controllers to notify them that an air-
pilots on a TCAS traffic display. The dis- Unexpected or rapid aircraft manoeu- craft is deviating from the ATC clear-
play purpose is to provide the crew vre may cause an RA to be generated ance. However, due to a high level of
with general traffic awareness and it with much less lead time. It is possible workload in the cockpit, pilot reports of
must not be used for self-separation as that an RA will not be preceded by a an RA are often delayed or fragmented.
TCAS horizontal tracking is limited. TA if a threat is imminent.
TCAS can track up to 30 aircraft but its An RA will be generated only if the TCAS will announce a Clear of Conflict

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The Briefing Room - Learning from Experience

message when the aircraft diverge hor- deteriorate the spacing between the RAs, controllers are advised to provide
izontally. Following that message, pilots aircraft. traffic information to aircraft climbing
are required to return to their last clear- or descending above or below other
ance or instruction and report this Until the RA has been reported by the aircraft. That should increase crews sit-
action to ATC. pilot, the controllers cannot know uational awareness and may prompt
whether the situation is being resolved the pilot to reduce the vertical speed.
TCAS - STCA INTERACTIONS by TCAS. If controllers are not aware of Also, controllers may want to apply a
an RA, and if they are providing the air- horizontal off-set to avoid level-offs
Both TCAS and STCA operate in a sim- craft with instructions for avoiding above/below another aircraft. That is
ilar time scale. Alerts are independently action, horizontal instructions are more especially important if both aircraft are
generated by both systems and - as no appropriate as they will not adversely climbing and descending, as the com-
connection exists between them - they affect any vertical manoeuvre required bined vertical rate would increase the
are not coordinated. An STCA alert will by TCAS RAs. chance of RAs being generated.
most likely prompt the controller to
issue an avoiding instruction. UNNECESSARY ALERTS? FORTHCOMING CHANGES
Controllers must remember that,
depending on the time to the CPA, Another example of TCAS - ATC inter- There are two important forthcoming
TCAS might have already identified the actions is the so-called nuisance or changes in the TCAS area to which we
conflict and issued or be about to issue unnecessary RA. Often, pilots and con- would like to draw readers attention.
an RA. trollers report that they have encoun-
tered an RA that was not really neces- First, an amendment to ICAO regula-
Although, as mentioned above, pilots sary and the separation would have tions is pending that will require pilots
are specifically mandated to follow RAs been maintained without the RA. As to report only those RAs requiring a
and ignore ATC instructions during the TCAS does not know the ATC clearance deviation from ATC clearance. We will
RA, everyday experience shows that in or pilots intentions, an RA will be pro- inform the readers when this change
some cases pilots will choose to follow duced based on the extrapolation of comes into effect.
the controllers instructions rather than the aircrafts trajectory. These unneces-
the RA, or will hesitate, delaying a sary RAs usually occur in cases of fast The second change concerns updates
prompt reaction to the RA and jeop- climbing or descending aircraft just to TCAS logic that would produce
ardizing collision avoidance. before the cleared level is reached. To reversal RAs in cases when the intruder
minimize the likelihood of unnecessary aircraft is not following the RAs.
It is a natural reaction for controllers to RAs, a recommendation has been Additionally, it has been identified that
take action to restore the separation issued to the pilots to reduce the ver- a significant proportion of the most
when they recognize a hazardous situ- tical rates one flight level before the common RAs (i.e.Adjust vertical speed,
ation. In the majority of cases, a verti- level-off. adjust) are flown incorrectly. Several
cal instruction will restore the separa- factors that contribute to these incor-
tion quicker than a horizontal one. Many controllers see these RAs as a rect pilot reactions have been identi-
However, controllers should remember nuisance. However, it must be remem- fied. Despite efforts made, this problem
that when two aircraft are in close bered that they can be qualified as seems to be difficult to address
proximity, a TCAS RA might have unnecessary or nuisance only in through training and, therefore,
already been issued or be about to be hindsight. As we know very well, traffic changes to TCAS logic are currently
issued and any ATC vertical instruction situations can develop quickly and under investigation that will replace
may contradict the RA and unnecessar- unexpectedly. Some alerts that initially this RA with another, more intuitive
ily confuse the pilot. If, for whatever appeared unnecessary, in many cases one. When this work, expected to take
reason, the pilot decides to follow ATC saved the day. a couple years, nears completion, we
rather than the RA, that would further To minimize the likelihood of these will provide an update to our readers.

To address this problem, an automatic downlink of RAs to controller working position is under investigation.

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The Briefing Room - Learning from Experience


 Pilots are required to follow RAs. ICAO Doc. 4444 FOR AVOIDING ACTIONS...
ATC instructions/clearances must ATC vs. TCAS...
be ignored once the RA has been e) TURN LEFT (or RIGHT)
issued. Once an aircraft departs from IMMEDIATELY HEADING (three digits)
 Controllers will not know about its clearance in compliance with a res- TO AVOID (UNIDENTIFIED) TRAFFIC
RAs until notified by the pilot. olution advisory, the controller ceases (bearing by clock-reference and dis-
 An RA may or may not command to be responsible for providing separa- tance).
the pilot to deviate from the cur- tion between that aircraft and any
rent ATC clearance. other aircraft affected as a direct con- f ) TURN LEFT (or RIGHT)
 For avoiding action, horizontal sequence of the manoeuvre induced (number of degrees) DEGREES IMME-
instructions are more appropriate by the resolution advisory. The con- DIATELY TO AVOID (UNIDENTIFIED)
as they will not adversely affect any troller shall resume responsibility for TRAFFIC AT (bearing by clock- refer-
vertical manoeuvre required by providing separation for all the ence and distance).
TCAS RAs. affected aircraft when:
 Traffic information and horizontal a) the controller acknowledges a REPORTING RA...
offset may reduce the likelihood of report from the flight crew that the
unnecessary RAs. aircraft has resumed the current r) ... after modifying vertical
clearance; or speed to comply with an ACAS resolu-
b) the controller acknowledges a tion advisory... [callsign] TCAS CLIMB
ADDITIONAL SOURCES OF report from the flight crew that the (or DESCENT).
INFORMATION: aircraft is resuming the current
clearance and issues an alternative z)... when unable to comply
ACAS II Training Brochure clearance which is acknowledged with a clearance because of an ACAS by the flight crew. resolution advisory...
link/Library/ACAS_training_ver20.pdf [callsign] UNABLE, TCAS RESOLUTION When a pilot reports a ADVISORY.
EUROCONTROL ACAS bulletins manoeuvre induced by an ACAS reso- lution advisory (RA), the controller shall x) ... after returning to clear-
tandard_page/ACAS_ACAS_Safety.html not attempt to modify the aircraft ance after responding to an ACAS res-
#Bulletins flight path until the pilot reports olution advisory
returning to the terms of the current [callsign] TCAS CLIMB (or DESCENT)
FAAs Introduction to TCAS II version 7.0 air traffic control instruction or clear- COMPLETED (assigned clearance)
brochure ance but shall provide traffic informa- RESUMED. tion as appropriate.

EUROCONTROL Safety Nets page

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