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Electronic Warfare Effects Flight Safety

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Electronic Warfare Effects Flight Safety - Beware in Ontario and Quebec in June!


While preparing for a trip from Ottawa recently, COPA (Canadian Operators and Pilots Association) staff member Adam Hunt noticed the following NOTAM in the Flight Information Region section of the NOTAMs:





Given the proximity of the jamming to some of the busiest flying areas in Canada and the potential for the directional jamming to go beyond the intended direction, COPA President Kevin Psutka contacted key individuals at the Department of National Defence (DND), Transport Canada and NAV CANADA and also made our sister organization, AOPA US, aware of our concerns.


In a strongly worded message to the agencies, COPA emphasized that there is a flight safety trap being created by this exercise, most notably that they intend to proceed with the exercise even if the weather is IFR, when potentially someone will use GPS as the primary means of navigation. We pointed out the FIR NOTAMs are more obscure and sometimes difficult to decipher. It is very likely that, despite the length of time that the NOTAM will have been in effect by the time the jamming exercise takes place, there will be a significant number of pilots in Canada using GPS during the period that the jamming will occur who will not be aware that jamming is occurring.


From the location information in the NOTAM, it is not clear where the jamming will be coming from, so DND was contacted for more information. It will in fact come from Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, north-west of Ottawa. Besides the obvious question regarding the need to actually jam versus simulate jamming, COPA questioned why the goals of the exercise cannot be achieved by performing it in a remote area of the country. The response from DND was that it is most convenient and cost-effective to conduct the exercise, which is an evaluation of several competing hand-held GPSs for an upcoming purchase of 10,000 units.


COPA stated in the strongest possible terms that we are opposed to the deliberate jamming of the GPS signal over such a large area and in a location that will affect some of the busiest airspace in North America. Even though the affected area is supposed to be an arc to the north and east (a sparsely settled area), our understanding of GPS signal propagation, including the weak power of the satellite signal, leads us to believe that there is a significant potential for interference beyond the arc stated in the NOTAM. The reasons for the exercise cannot possibly justify placing a large number of lives in jeopardy. We illustrated the extent of the impact with some statistics.


About a year ago we surveyed our membership regarding their use of GPS. We found that 68% had either a panel-mounted or handheld GPS and that 30% of those who did not have a GPS were planning to do so in the next year. This survey was examined against the Transport Canada pilot statistics in key areas and it was determined that the statistics from our survey are representative of the pilot population as a whole. So, a conservative estimate of the percentage of Canadian pilots using GPS now is 75%. The NOTAM states that jamming will occur as far as 250nm. With our concerns that the jamming signal could go beyond its intended arc to the north and east, this encompasses western Quebec as far as Quebec City and Montreal, portions of the States of Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania and most of southern Ontario including London, Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, North Bay and Sudbury.


The vast majority of pilots and aircraft in Ontario and Quebec are located in the effected area. According to Transport Canada statistics, of the 65,000 licences and permits in force in Canada, 38,000 are in Quebec and Ontario. Given our survey results, there are 28,500 people in the affected area in Canada who use GPS and could miss the NOTAM and mistakenly follow a jammed GPS signal. We could not estimate the number of pilots affected south of the border, but given the concentration of pilots in the north east of the US, it is easily tens times this number.


The civil aircraft register web site was not available at the time that this message was developed but we know from our past studies that the number of aircraft closely parallels the distribution of pilots. So, of the 29,000 aircraft in Canada, there are approximately 12,700 aircraft equipped with a handheld or panel-mounted GPS in the affected area in Canada alone.


Of course, the majority of the pilots mentioned above are not instrument rated and we appreciate that GPS is supposed to be an aid rather than a primary means of navigation for VFR flight. However, if there is any way that deliberate jamming can be prevented or at least minimized, the safety of these users will not be degraded. The more critical issue is the many GPS instrument approaches in the affected area. We did not page through the approach publications but there must be at least 100 GPS overlay or stand-alone approaches in Ontario and Quebec plus many more than that south of the border. When approach aids are deliberately taken off the air for maintenance, this is virtually always done only during periods of VFR conditions and the NOTAMs state this provision. We saw no indication of this provision in the above NOTAM and it was confirmed by DND that they will proceed regardless of weather. This is a critical safety of flight issue. While we appreciate that pilots are supposed to check NOTAMs before every flight, it is not acceptable to deliberately produce a link in an accident chain. Safeguards such as not performing the exercise during IFR conditions would help prevent the chain from forming.


The critical question that should be considered by DND, Transport Canada and NAV CANADA is why this exercise must be performed in the most heavily populated area of Canada during a time of the year when aviation activity is approaching its peak? We appreciate National security requirements but it simply must be possible to achieve their goals in a more remote area of Canada. DND disagrees, and stated that very careful consideration was given to the safety issues. In fact, Industry Canada, who manages the frequency spectrum, delayed the exercise while it sought further data from DND.


COPA strongly urged the three agencies to meet as soon as possible with a goal to stopping the exercise in the interest of flight safety. We offered to cooperate with them in selecting a more suitable location and also helping to get the word out to our members. We attempted to delay, particularly because it is now too late now for us to reach our members in our newspaper if the planned exercise proceeds because our June newspaper just went to press. This leaves our web site and a newsflash to COPA Flights as the only vehicle, plus of course hoping that pilots diligently check all NOTAMs before they fly.


As of the date of this article, discussions with the three agencies did not convince them to change their plans. So, please be aware of the jamming that will occur on 9, 10, 11, 14 and 15 June from 1400Z to 1900Z. Do not conduct GPS approaches at the three airports and we strongly recommend alternate means of navigation within 250nm of the Killaloe VOR (YXI) on those days.


The issue of GPS signal jamming has been added to the agenda of the next Air Navigation Services National Advisory Council meeting so that solutions can be found for a safer way to perform these types of exercises and notify affected people.

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