Clive Cussler Doesn’t Know Much about Helicopters

Apparently, even best-selling authors can’t be bothered to do their homework.

Atlantis Found CoverIn my never-ending quest for light reading while I sit around in Wickenburg waiting for my marriage to be terminated, I picked up a copy of Atlantis Found by Clive Cussler from the library. This book features Cussler’s protagonist, Dirk Pitt, a man so outrageously skilled and lucky that he makes James Bond look as inept as Inspector Clouseau.

Hey, I did say I wanted light reading, didn’t I? (And yes, I do realize I was bitching about a supposed Cussler book just the other day.)

But no matter how light reading is, it really bugs me when an author gets something insanely wrong. Take, for example, this passage from the book:

Purchased by Destiny Enterprises from the Messerschmitt-Bolkow Corporation, the Bo 105LS-7 helicopter was designed and built for the Federal German Army primarily for ground support and paramilitary use. The aircraft chasing the Skycar carried a crew of two, and mounted twin engines that gave it a maximum speed of two hundred and eighty miles an hour. For firepower, it relied on a ventral-mounted, swiveling twenty millimeter cannon.

My helicopter pilot brain shouted “How fast?

You see, there’s a little thing called retreating blade stall which normally limits the airspeed of a helicopter. I don’t know of any helicopter capable of going 280 miles per hour. Certainly not one with a single main rotor system.

But hell, I’m not an expert. I’m just a pilot. What do I know?

Bo 105P
German Army BO 105P photo by Joey Quan.

So I looked it up the MBB Bo 105 on Wikipedia. And I scrolled down to the Specifications Section. And I learned the following specs:

  • Never exceed speed: 270 km/h (145 knots, 167 mph)
  • Maximum speed: 242 km/h (131 knots, 150 mph)
  • Cruise speed: 204 km/h (110 knots, 127 mph)

280 miles per hour? How about 150 miles per hour? That’s more reasonable.

And, coincidentally, it’s the never exceed speed for my Robinson R44 Raven II — although, admittedly, I don’t have any ventral-mounted, swiveling twenty millimeter cannons.

Come on, guys! Do your homework! I know it’s fiction, but when you discuss the capabilities of an aircraft that actually exists, how about getting it right?

Transponders for Dummies

Get the facts straight.

One of the podcasts I listen to on my morning walk is called Stuff You Should Know. Produced by the folks responsible for the How Stuff Works website, Stuff You Should Know is a pretty thorough discussion of a specific topic by two hosts, Josh and Chuck, who base their discussion on a website article and some of their own research. It’s a great way to learn new things when you’re stuck doing something mindless — like walking, driving, flying, etc. So far, I’ve learned about revenge, diamonds, Atlantis, social security numbers, air traffic control (ATC), and bullfighting. You can find its RSS feed here.

The April 24, 2012 episode of the podcast was titled “How Air Traffic Control Works.” It was based on a How Stuff Works article of the same name by Dr. Craig Freudenrich. The article was very detailed; the podcast was based on that article and several other articles on How Stuff Works.

As a pilot, I know quite a bit about air traffic control — but not everything. The article (and podcast) was mostly concerned with ATC as it relates to airliners. After all, that’s how most people interact with aviation. But I’m involved with general aviation (as opposed to airline aviation or military aviation). And, as a helicopter pilot, I don’t interact with ATC nearly as much as, say, an instrument rated pilot flying a King Air from Phoenix to Seattle.

So I was hoping that I could learn something new. And I did.

But I also heard the podcasters misinforming listeners about transponders (among a few other things). And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s when an informational article or podcast or video — or anything else — includes errors. So I thought I’d set things straight.

What Is a Transponder?

Garmin Transponder
This is the Garmin 330 Transponder I have in my helicopter.

A transponder is a part of an aircraft’s avionics. It assists air traffic control by making it easier for ATC radar to “see” an aircraft. It basically sends out a signal that says “Here I am!” ATC radar can pick up this signal, along with any additional information encoded within it, to plot the aircraft as a “blip” on the radar display and differentiate it from other aircraft.

Transponders include a feature that enables the pilot to send a specific “squawk” code. Normally, in VFR (visual flight rules) flight, an aircraft’s transponder is set to send the code 1200 — in fact, this code is used so often that many transponder models — including mine — have a VFR button the pilot can press to quickly enter that code.

IFR (instrument flight rules) flights are assigned a discreet discrete squawk code. This code is used by ATC to identify that particular aircraft. Sometimes, when operating within tower-controlled airspace, ATC will assign a discreet discrete code to a VFR flight. Or perhaps a specific code is used by signatories to a letter of agreement between ATC and pilots — for example, 0400 is used by Sharp Alpha signatories in the Phoenix class bravo airspace.

Most transponders are equipped with automatic altitude reporting features, which is known as Mode C. Indeed, Mode C transponders are required within 30 miles of a class Bravo airport — think major airports like the kinds most airlines serve — and in a bunch of other places detailed in Part 4-1-20 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), “Transponder Operation.” (This, by the way, is an excellent resource for learning more about transponders in general.) Mode C transponders interface with an aircraft’s altimeter to get the altitude of the aircraft and send that information to ATC.

Garmin 420 GPS
My Mode S transponder interfaces with my Garmin 420 GPS to show traffic when information is available. I blogged about this here.

A Mode S transponder, which is what I have on my helicopter, is also capable of two-way communication with ATC radar. In certain radar coverage areas — primarily near Class Bravo and Class Charlie airspaces — a Mode S transponder receives traffic information from ATC. This information can then be plotted on compatible GPS equipment to create a simple traffic information system (TIS).

There are some other things about transponders that are interesting, including the fact that there are special squawk codes a pilot can use in certain emergency situations. And although the transponders were turned off on the 9/11 airliners, that didn’t make them invisible; it just made it impossible for ATC to definitively identify what they were.

What the Stuff You Should Know Guys Said

There’s no transcript available for the podcast, so I had to create one for the part that irked me. It was related to when the transponder is turned on and what the transponder is/does.

At 22:55, Josh has just described how the tower controller hands off the airplane to a departure controller.

Chuck: All right, so now we’re in the air, we are enroute. And you have to, if you’re a pilot, activate your transponder, which will basically make you the little blip on the radar. Very important thing to do.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: That’s how they can follow you as you move across the country. Or around the world.

Josh: [laughter]

Chuck: Right?

Josh: You are covering all bases on this episode.

Chuck: Well, the little blip is going to obviously represent your plane and it’s going to have your flight number, your altitude, your airspeed, and your destination.

Josh: Uh-huh.

Chuck: And, uh, so where are we now?

Josh: It’s also how they find you if you go plummeting into the ocean or the earth.

Chuck: Sure. Is that the black box?

Josh: Uh, I think that’s probably a part of the transponder.

Chuck: Okay. Yeah.

Then they continue talking about what TRACON does.

What’s Wrong

There are a few things wrong with this.

First, a pilot usually turns on the aircraft’s transponder when he (or she, of course) powers up the rest of the avionics, including the radio. On my helicopter, in fact, the transponder turns itself on automatically when I turn on the “Master Battery” switch, which provides electrical power to the helicopter before I even start it.

Part 4-1-20 of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), “Transponder Operation,” states:

3. Civil and military transponders should be turned to the “on” or normal altitude reporting position prior to moving on the airport surface to ensure the aircraft is visible to ATC surveillance systems. IN ALL CASES, WHILE IN CONTROLLED AIRSPACE EACH PILOT OPERATING AN AIRCRAFT EQUIPPED WITH AN OPERABLE ATC TRANSPONDER MAINTAINED IN ACCORDANCE WITH 14 CFR SECTION 91.413 MUST OPERATE THE TRANSPONDER, INCLUDING MODE C IF INSTALLED, ON THE APPROPRIATE CODE OR AS ASSIGNED BY ATC. IN CLASS G AIRSPACE, THE TRANSPONDER SHOULD BE OPERATING WHILE AIRBORNE UNLESS OTHERWISE REQUESTED BY ATC.

(The FAA used those caps; I didn’t. I guess they wanted to shout about it.)

So the FAA says to turn on the transponder before you move the aircraft and keep it turned on during flight. The pilot does not wait until the flight is turned over to departure control to turn it on. It’s already on. In fact, it’s one of the ways ground control can track the airliner as it taxis between the runway and the gate.

Note: I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the Phoenix TRACON and tower back March 2012. I got to see the radar screens and their blips firsthand. It’s interesting to note that there are no windows in the TRACON facility. It’s a dark room filled with computer screens. If you’ve seen the movie Pushing Tin, which was mentioned in the podcast, you’ll get the idea.

So although the podcast guys made a big deal over the fact that ground controllers are only one of two kinds of controllers that can use binoculars, the reality is that only ground controllers and tower controllers have windows to look out of. They’re the only ones close enough to the airplanes they guide to actually see them.

To say that activating the transponder “makes you the little blip on the radar” is misleading. Radar does not need a transponder to see aircraft traffic. After all, do you think fighter planes use transponders when they’re out on patrol or attack? If a transponder was required to put an aircraft on radar, there would be no need for stealth technology. Instead, radar works by bouncing radio waves off objects. It doesn’t need a transponder signal. The transponder simply makes it easier for ATC radar equipment to find targets and provides additional information to ATC.

While it’s true that a radar blip might include an airliner’s flight number, this information is not sent by the transponder. The transponder sends the discrete squawk code assigned to the airplane from its flight plan. The ATC computer equipment looks up the code in the flight plan database and provides the information from the flight plan on the blip.

Josh is partially right when he says that the blip is how they find you if you crash. The transponder helps keep the aircraft on radar. Radar tracks where you are. But there comes a point — especially in remote or mountainous terrain — when radar coverage is limited. If you are flying too low, you can literally fly “below the radar” and not be tracked. Helicopter pilots commonly fly this low — that’s why its so difficult to get flight following in certain areas. An airliner should never be that low, but if it’s having trouble, it may disappear off radar before an actual crash. So although a transponder and the resulting radar blip can help locate a downed aircraft, it doesn’t guarantee that it’ll be found. Think about Steve Fossett. His plane likely had a transponder, yet he wasn’t found for well over a year after his crash.

Chuck and Josh are completely wrong when they suggest that the black box is part of the transponder. It’s not. They’re two completely separate devices. The transponder sends live information to ATC as an aircraft moves around on the ground and in the sky. Most aircraft have them. The black box is a virtually indestructible device that records data during an aircraft’s operation and stores it in the event of a mishap. Only aircraft providing certain air transportation services have them. For example, although I have a transponder on my helicopter, I don’t have a black box.

It’s interesting to me that the guys got this so wrong when the How Stuff Works website actually has an article called “How Black Boxes Work.” Maybe they should have read it?

Other Things

In listening again to parts of the podcast — mostly to find the passage quoted above — I heard other things that weren’t quite right. That bugs me. It calls into question the rest of the podcast — the stuff I don’t already know for sure. It also calls into question other podcasts that these guys do. How factual are they?

When I’m listening to a podcast titled “Stuff You Should Know,” I expect it to be factual, not conjectural. If these guys are guessing about something, they should make it clearer that it’s a guess. To state that a pilot activates a transponder after the aircraft is enroute and handed off to departure control is an incorrect statement of fact. To say “I think” a transponder is part of the black box helps identify it as conjecture or a guess, but is there really any place for guesses in a podcast like this?

Or am I expecting too much?

Writing Tips: Writing Accurate Descriptions

A response to a blog comment, and more.

I need to say that I really can’t thank blog commenters enough for taking the time to write. Not only do they often add useful information beyond what I know — thus adding incredible value to this blog — but they sometimes post questions or comments that get my mind going and give me fodder for new blog posts.

I received such a comment this morning and it prompted me to write a new article for my Writing Tips series.

The Importance of Accurate Descriptions

I touched upon the topic of accurate descriptions in fiction in a post I wrote last month: “Facts in Fiction.” In it, I explained why I thought it was important to get the facts about the “real” parts in fiction correct. I talked about the depth of a fictional world and how it would determine what facts and descriptions needed to be accurate.

My goal in that piece was to urge fiction writers to get the facts straight. Errors, when noticed by readers, can seriously detract from the work. For example, I believe I cited the example of a bestselling author who claimed that when a helicopter was low on fuel, it would be safer to fly lower than higher. This is downright wrong, no matter how you look at it. The author’s reasoning proved he knew nothing about the thought he was putting in a character’s head — a character that should have known better. This absolutely ruined the book for me, making me wonder what else he’d gotten wrong.

You can argue that fiction is fiction and that the writer can make up facts as he goes along. I disagree. My “Facts in Fiction” post explains why, so I won’t repeat it here.

Today’s Question

Today’s question comes from a comment on my recent blog post, “Dan Brown Doesn’t Know Much about Helicopters,” in which I painstakingly (and perhaps nitpickingly) point out a bunch of errors in Brown’s latest literary masterpiece (and yes, that is sarcasm), The Lost Symbol. The errors revolve around the inclusion of a helicopter as a repeating plot component throughout the book. Brown used his descriptive skills to make several claims about helicopters that simply were too far fetched to be believable. (But then again, isn’t that what Dan Brown’s work is all about?) I detailed them for blog readers.

One reader found the post useful. She wrote:

I just wanted to let you know I found this blog immensely helpful as I am writing a chapter in my book that involves a helicopter ride. I must say that I am striving to find new ways to describe the sound a helicopter makes. It’s rather unmistakable when you actually hear it, but to describe it to a reader is much more difficult. I recently wrote… “the deafening drill of the helicopter’s rotors made conversation impossible…” and one of my proof readers balked at the use of the word “drill.” I’d love to hear your comment on that one!

I started to respond in a comment, but the length of the comment soon bloomed into blog post length. So here’s the response.

First, I definitely agree about the word “drill.” Now here are some points to consider:

  • Have you actually heard a helicopter close up? Or at the distances you’re trying to write about? First piece of advice is to go someplace where you’re likely to hear helicopters and listen to them. Then describe what you hear.
  • Does the word “deafening” really apply? I think Dan Brown used that one, too. Deafening is a strong word. Unless the listeners were standing/sitting right outside the helicopter or inside with a door open/off, I don’t think deafening would be accurate. Helicopters are not as loud as people think — unless you’re right up next to them.
  • Lots of folks think it’s the rotors making all that noise. Close up, it’s the engine you mostly hear. Piston engine helicopters sound like airplanes; turbine engine helicopters sound like jet planes. Are you trying to describe the sound of the helicopter’s engine or spinning blades?
  • The tail rotor on many helicopters actually makes more noise than the main rotors. Why? The tail rotor blade tips are sometimes traveling near the speed of sound. Maybe it’s the sound of the tail rotor you want to describe.
  • How fast are the blades spinning? Is the helicopter just winding up? Is it at idle RPM (usually around 70%)? Is it fully spun up to 100% but still sitting on the ground? Preparing to lift off? In flight? There are differences — significant or subtle — in the sound depending on the blade speed and what the helicopter is actually doing.
  • How many blades does the helicopter have? You’re more likely to hear a rhythmic “wop-wop” sound coming out of a large helicopter with a two-bladed system — like an old Huey — than a smaller helicopter with four or five blades — like a Hughes 500C or D.

As you can see, it’s not as easy as asking someone if you can use the phrase “deafening drill” to describe a helicopter’s sound. There are too many variables. And at least three components are making that noise: engine, main rotor, and tail rotor. You need to hear the sound to describe it.

Do Your Homework

As I writer, I’m more bothered by the introduction of stereotypical descriptions — even if they’re not actually cliches — than inaccurate descriptions. Yes, it’s easy to ask a pilot whether a description you’ve written about flying rings true. But it’s lazy (for lack of a better word) to use a stereotype or cliche to describe a sound when you have the ability to hear it for yourself. And its irresponsible, as a writer, to expect a pilot or proofreader to come up with a better descriptive word for you. That’s your job.

If you want to write about the sound of a helicopter, for example, get your butt down to an airport or police helicopter base or medevac base. If you’re writing about a helicopter ride, as this commenter is, go for a helicopter ride.

Talk to the folks at the helicopter base about flying. Be straight with them — tell them you’re a writer and are doing research. (That is what you’re doing, isn’t it?) Let them read a passage or two from your manuscript if you think they can check it for authenticity. Then wait around until a helicopter operates in the area and listen. Get the permission (and possibly an escort) to stand or sit where you need to be to hear the sound as you need to hear it. Record it if you think it’ll help. Make sure you get the right sound for the right phase of flight. After experiencing this, you should be able to accurately describe it.

Do not rely on what you see/hear on television or in the movies. Many sounds are usually added after the fact. I’ve seen clips where the sound of an aircraft didn’t match the type of aircraft being shown. Movies also show helicopters departing almost straight up or landing almost straight down — a pilot will only do this if he must. (Read “The Deadman’s Curve” to learn why.)

Authenticity is Worth the Effort

There’s an added benefit to doing your homework: authenticity now and in the future.

For example, a visit to a helicopter base or ride in a helicopter will give you all kinds of additional details about the helicopter or flight operation. Do people really need to duck when getting out of/into a running helicopter? How is downwash different between an idling helicopter and a helicopter that’s just lifting off or arriving? How strong is the downwash from a hovering helicopter? What does it feel like? How does it smell? What does a turbine helicopter’s engine sound like when first starting up? (Think of your gas barbeque grill and you won’t be far off.) What are the pavement markings like on the helipad or helispot? What’s the pilot wearing? What’s he holding?

These little details will not only add authenticity to what you’re writing now, but they’ll give you plenty of useful material for the next time you need to write about helicopters.

It’s Not Just Helicopters

I’ve used the example of helicopters throughout this post because that’s one of the things I know from experience — and that’s what the question that prompted this post was all about.

But the advice in this post applies to anything that’s outside your realm of knowledge.

You know the age-old advice about writing: Write what you know. Well, you know what you experience. The more research you do — the more things you experience firsthand — the more you know. And the more you can write about accurately and authentically when you need to.