8 Things ATC Wishes Pilots Would Not Do (Or Do Differently)
I have a golf buddy (let’s call him Bill) who is a retired air traffic controller. We first met when we were both participating in some future-looking air traffic simulations staged at NASA-Langley Research Center. These are regular events at Langley – they have a laboratory dedicated to testing advanced concepts in air traffic management. The simulations can put dozens of real pilots and controllers in very realistic, high-traffic scenarios and, well, to paraphrase Sheldon Cooper, “the flying may be theoretical, but the fun is real!” Although it’s not usually the intent of the tests, they create an interesting crucible in which to examine the interactions between pilots and controllers.
After a tough day of simulated flying and a formal NASA debrief, a less formal debrief often took place over beers and popcorn at the Afterburners Lounge on the base. These were opportunities to compare notes with fellow pilots and controllers about how well we handled the situations presented in the simulation. Inevitably, some real-world stories were thrown into the mix and a good-natured discussion resulted on how we can all get along better when we fly. The last time I golfed with Bill, I suggested that it might make a good article if he could help me remember some of these conversations. Here are a select few that probably hold some lessons for all pilots.
1. Say again?
A VFR pilot requested flight following, and was given a squawk code. Bill, after a few radio exchanges, became suspicious when he kept having to repeat instructions and still was not sure the pilot had understood. “Are you a student pilot?” he asked? “Yes,” came the sheepish reply.
“Some pilots will not admit they are students until they get into an unfamiliar situation, like bad weather or navigation problems. If they advise us that they are students, ATC will handle them differently by slowing the speech rate, or giving less complex instructions,” Bill says.
Rather than pick on student pilots, the real point here is to do what you can to keep controllers from repeating themselves – you can practically HEAR their shoulders sag. (Imagine a waiter having to repeat the list of salad dressings to everyone at a table.) We all want to sound like the pros, catching every clearance and answering in precisely clipped phrases. Short of flying with a co-pilot to deal with ATC, how do we do it?
It takes practice, and learning some tricks. In IFR flying, it’s more important to understand the instructions than to write them down, but if you have time, it’s not a bad idea (even if you only make a partial copy.) I like to use my panel as a notepad. Vectors go right into the heading bug; altitude clearances go into the bug on my spare HSI (heading 030 for 3000 feet, 100 for 10,000 feet, etc.) Frequency changes go right into any available standby.
Notes also come in handy if there is a significant time lapse between the instruction and when you use it, like for missed approaches, or exiting a holding pattern. And if you ever lost your radios, you’d probably be very happy to have the last clearance you received jotted down to help you execute the lost comm procedure.
2. Information, please
Before we leave the topic of frequency stewardship, my friend has another pet peeve – VFR pilots who don’t give more than their call sign on initial contact. This leads to additional questions that take time and congest a frequency.
According to Bill, “VFR aircraft requesting advisories should check on with their call sign, position, destination and altitude at a minimum. Most ATC facilities can make a quick keyboard entry as the pilot talks. The entry puts the aircraft into the host computer, which generates a discrete beacon code and facilitates inter-facility handoffs.”
3. You said you’d call
If you are an IFR aircraft whose destination is a non-towered airport, PLEASE don’t forget to close out your IFR flight plan. The controller gave you instructions how to do it before your frequency change to the CTAF was approved.
“This leads to airspace and airport blockage for at least an hour, or until the pilot remembers to call. On occasion, police departments are called to go check airport ramps for the missing aircraft,” Bill says.
4. My scope is bigger than yours
If you are receiving services from a controller but don’t readily accept routing around weather or wait until the last minute to request vectors, you are hurting, not helping. Why? Controllers are looking at a bigger picture than what is available in the aircraft cockpit. This is true, even if you have radar, NEXRAD, TCAS, ADS-B or a combination of them. Controllers’ primary responsibility is to keep aircraft separated. They can often also see the weather, but keeping you clear of it is secondary. The sooner they can factor weather deviations into their plan, the less coordination is required. “Larger, faster IFR aircraft who wait before requesting or accepting vectors around weather make more work for ATC, especially if the vector requires adjacent sector coordination. VFR aircraft, especially smaller ones, need a wider berth due to speed limitations, and that takes time to coordinate as well,” explains Bill.
5. “I have the traffic on TCAS”
When ATC points out conflicting traffic, don’t try to sell your TCAS display as equivalent to a visual sighting – the controller won’t buy it. (By the way, saying “Got ‘em on the fish-finder” is particularly cringe-worthy.) You need to confirm the traffic visually before you stop getting traffic warnings.
There are some technical reasons why the TCAS traffic representation is not as good as the radar picture the controller sees. Radar is refreshed on a regular basis, and the measurements are taken from a fixed platform. TCAS uses transponder returns that are more sporadic, and the measurement platform is flying, not fixed, so calculations based on the aircraft’s motion are factored in. Don’t get me wrong: TCAS makes us safer, which is why it is required equipment on commercial aircraft. Just keep it to yourself, peel your eyeballs and either report, “Traffic in sight,” or “Negative contact.”
A brief aside, since I am privy to the research conducted that would allow large drones (or UAS) to share the national airspace with manned aircraft. UAS pilots fly their aircraft from the ground, often nowhere near where the UAS really are. On-board radios allow them to talk with local controllers, and they receive traffic alerts like any other aircraft. UAS will use sensors (TCAS will be one of them) to detect traffic and perform avoidance maneuvers. How will UAS pilots respond to controller’s traffic alerts? “Traffic detected” is the current favorite, since “in sight” is not appropriate.
6. Navigation 101
Do you remember VOR navigation? Sure you do! Do you remember how to intercept a radial and fly a course to or from a VOR? Yes – so far so good. Now, do you know how to program your expensive, touch-screen, Bluetooth-enabled, WAAS-capable GPS navigator to do the same thing? (Pause…I’ll wait while you find the manual.)
“Today’s pilots don’t know how to enter airways or radials into their avionics anymore. If you can’t clear them point to point, they’re lost. Especially bad on weekends and holidays, with part-time fliers for airlines,” says Fred (a controller friend of Bill’s.) Well, at least it’s nice to know that GA pilots aren’t the only ones out there putting a burr in ATC’s saddle.
Even though VORs are going the way of the dodo, ATC still expects pilots to be able to fly standard procedures (like arrivals and departures) and holding patterns that are based on VOR radial navigation (or a GPS overlay of the same.) In adverse weather, you may get a holding fix on a VOR radial in a clear spot that the controller just made up. So, crack a book, and familiarize yourself with how to do more than just go point to point with your navigator.
7. The Double Click
Ouch, this one hurts because I’m guilty! I thought that, if used judiciously, the double-click was efficient, like when acknowledging a wind check from the tower on final. However, it’s not a great habit to get into, and controllers would rather know exactly who’s on the other end of those clicks. It doesn’t take much more time to say your call sign. Why risk the penalty box?
8. The Penalty Box
My friend has often claimed this exists – punitive vectoring. He never said what a pilot could do to justify such punishment – maybe any of the infractions listed above – but it might go something like this.
737 pilot: “Do you know it costs us two thousand dollars to make a 360 in this airplane?”
Controller: “Roger, give me four thousand dollars worth.”
Paul Volk is a pilot, engineer and aviation enthusiast with over 4200 hours of flying time. His experience in avionics development and avionics-related research has been at the vanguard of technologies such as ADS-B, cockpit-based decision aids and FAA NextGen capabilities that will affect the future of general aviation.
How it Started
One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.
It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.
The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.
First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).
At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.
Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.
Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.
In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.
More about Randy here: https://www.flyhpa.com/team/randy-delong/
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