Craig said a similar situation exists regarding the weather information available to controllers. They now have Nexrad available on their display, which is much better than the old system of displaying lines to indicate moderate precipitation and H's for heavy precipitation. However, the Nexrad "seems to be far more sensitive ... and seems to cry wolf a lot. I have issued 'extreme' weather to pilots and had them reply, 'center, there's nothing out there!' " On the other hand, the center display may not show anything, and yet airplanes are requesting significant deviations for weather along that route. After issuing many "false alarms" or watching airplanes fly through what appears to be extreme weather with no problem, it is understandable that controllers may be hesitant to issue weather guidance to pilots.
Craig had some interesting comments about the incident I discussed in which the controller turned a Learjet that had just departed VFR towards higher terrain at night without any warning to the crew about the terrain. As I mentioned in my article on "Working With Controllers," controllers take into account the presumed experience and professionalism of the pilots they are dealing with. They obviously can't treat a student pilot the same way they treat an airline or corporate jet pilot, and professional pilots would be offended if controllers handled them like a student pilot.
Craig told me the controller would assume that a Learjet was flown by professionals who had carefully planned their departure as they are required to by the FARs, and that they "certainly would not be flying towards the mountains if they were not going to climb." The controller would also be aware of the incredible climb capability of a Learjet, but would not be aware that the crew was leveling off to stay VFR below the clouds unless the crew told him.
Thus controllers are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On the one hand, pilots don't want controllers trying to fly the airplane for them, and numerous safety alerts to VFR airplanes that are flying through mountainous terrain would get old very quickly. On the other hand, it is very easy for a pilot on flight following or on an IFR flight plan to be lulled into complacency that the controller is watching and will tell him if he is approaching high terrain or bad weather. Pilots flying IFR en route receive more protection because the controller knows when they descend below the assigned altitude, but VFR airplanes flying in mountainous areas and IFR airplanes on departure or approach do not have the same protection, because by definition they will be flying near the ground and below any designated safety alert altitude.
As always, it is our responsibility as pilots to carefully plan all aspects of every flight. It can be reassuring to know that a controller is keeping an eye on us, but being in radar contact does not in any way reduce our responsibility as pilot in command to stay on top of all aspects of the flight and to be prepared for whatever lies ahead. It is especially critical to take the time to plan a departure or arrival at night in an area with high terrain in the vicinity. Anyone who departs VFR planning to pick up an IFR clearance in the air is on their own until they reach the MIA.
Above all, remember that controllers can't read minds. They can only help a pilot who calls them at the first sign of trouble and clearly communicates their situation without holding anything back because they are afraid of getting in trouble. Greg Dyer, the manager of Airspace and Procedures at Denver Center, said that for every 50 pilots who get into a difficult situation and are asked to call after they get on the ground, there is usually only one pilot who actually gets a violation. In most cases, as long as there was no loss of separation and the pilot seems to have a good attitude and understands how to avoid that situation in the future, there will be no further action or at most the pilot will be asked to talk to an accident prevention counselor.
As Craig says, "If you are in doubt and you aren't getting the help you need, declare an emergency and ask the controller to get a sectional and help you get to an airport or to lower terrain. If you fail to communicate the seriousness of your situation you may only hear, 'The MIA in your area is 16,000 feet,' which won't help much when there is a cloud deck above and the road you were following at 8,000 has disappeared. Please understand that if you are below my MIA, then only you can determine if you are at a safe altitude."