A Day in the Life of a PanAir Survey Pilot
Here at PanAir our operations vary from business charter flights, survey operations to vintage joy flights and fast jet rides.
PanAir pilots need to be experienced across many various aircraft types, as well as being trained in the specialized operation of the survey equipment that is operated in two of our multi engine aircraft.
The two different multi engine aircraft each aircraft houses a different type of imagery equipment. Which is used for various imagery capture across the state of NSW.
The Cessna 421 has a digital camera installed and operates at flight levels up to 18,000 feet; it is used to take pictures from high level which is then used for mapping, terrain, beach erosion management and emergency services.
This aircraft if pressurized so it can operate at altitude for up to 4.5 hours at a time before having to land to refuel.
The other aircraft is a Cessna 402 which has a LIDAR laser installed. It is used to map the topography of ground and water; it is also able to take digital images. The LIDAR
equipment is usually operated between 5,000 to 12,000 feet. This aircraft is not pressurized so if we have to operate at levels above 10,000ft the pilot and crew must have oxygen equipment during the entire flight.
We have one survey operator as crew who manages the survey equipment in the back of the aircraft. The survey operator monitors that the camera or laser is working correctly and that the imagery is recording correctly.
The pilot is tasked with operation of the aircraft within the flight tolerances required to capture the perfect survey images.
However the job of an aerial survey pilot is much more than just a taxi service for the survey operator in the back seat.
During the survey operation, the pilot has additional responsibilities. These responsibilities include the safe navigation and operational requirements of the aircraft being flown, along with maintaining the height, speed and tracking parameters of the survey which is set out by the survey operators.
The tolerance and tracking parameters are very tight with the survey operation. We have a guidance track that we must follow (it is a RED line on the survey screen which sits in front of the pilot) we must not deviate any further than 10 to 15 meters off that line in either direction. We must maintain the set speed within +/-15 knots and we must not lose or gain height within 50 feet. There is also a roll limitation of 5 degrees in the 421 system, which means no abrupt corrections.
These parameters may sound easy, but when you are flying at lower levels, turbulence and wind can play havoc with your aircraft, meaning that you are constantly fighting to keep the aircraft on the designated track within the parameters.
In most areas we survey in Australia, the weather can become very turbulent due to the extreme heat and terrain, so we then add thermals into the mix which makes survey flying even more fun!
The hours that we fly are dependent on the weather as our survey operations are all conducted in VMC – which means we fly on good weather days with little cloud.
There are many hours sitting on the ground waiting for good weather to fly, however when the weather does come good, we make hay while the sun shines! Our pilots can fly upwards of 8 hours a day when we have good weather for survey.
Survey flying is certainly very challenging for any pilot; your piloting skills need to be accurate to be able to operate the flights in unfavourable, turbulent conditions. You cannot always use the auto pilot, so hand flying the survey with such tight parameters means you need to be on top of your game.
The remote bases of many of our operations can also be somewhat challenging. There are many things to consider when flying in these areas. Fuel, weather, unscheduled maintenance, density altitude are just a few that come to mind. Good planning is essential, especially for fuel!
Survey flying is not for every pilot, but if you like a good challenge , don't mind spending hours at a time in the air and think you have the skills to be able to fly the perfect lines required then maybe this job is for you!