It should be a fairly simple relationship. Pilots fly airplanes. Controllers watch the airplanes, either visually or using radar, and provide instructions that help those pilots reach their destination safely. However, we all know that any interaction involving lots of communication can quickly get complicated. To make matters more difficult, pilots and controllers can't see each other. They may speak with differing accents. Static and other transmissions often degrade or interrupt their attempts at communication. Yet life and death decisions are often made based on those fragile interactions.
Even though controllers and pilots work in the same aviation environment, there is one major difference between us. Controllers receive extensive training before they are allowed to push a transmit button for the first time. Day after day they work the same specific geographical area, with more training if they change positions or locations. A significant percentage of controllers are pilots or even instructors, and most controllers who are not pilots have ridden along in airline cockpits to see how the other side lives. Basically a controller majors in aviation management and communications.
Pilots are a very different story. A student pilot learns how to work with controllers "on the fly." Their first time on the radio is usually on their very first flight, with no advance preparation or practice. Their interactions with controllers are a small challenge they have to master to enable them to get on with the major business of learning how to fly an airplane. A pilot may be flying in an area he is totally unfamiliar with. Very few pilots are also controllers and many have never been in a control tower, approach control or air traffic control center. On top of that, most pilots have heard about a "snitch machine," and many believe that controllers are just waiting for any excuse to bust a pilot for a minor deviation.
Since I am not, and never have been, a controller, I turned to a book by John Stewart, Avoiding Common Pilot Errors: An Air Traffic Controller's View. This book was published in 1989, so some of the airspace terminology is out of date, but all the basic information still applies. What makes it very valuable is that it is not just a dry "how to" manual for pilots, but rather a tongue in cheek humorous look at some of the challenges controllers and pilots face in dealing with each other. Stewart even promises to come out with a companion volume on "The One or Two Errors Made by Controllers," but I have not seen it yet!
While most of us have heard pilots on the radio who were not communicating very well, the examples Stewart provides give a startling picture of the challenges faced by controllers. From wrong transponder codes (10 to 20 each day at a large airport) to major misunderstandings to pilots who don't seem to have a clue, controllers have to keep their cool and work within the rules while they keep everyone apart. One of their biggest frustrations is with pilots who try to withhold the true severity of their situation from the controller. Stewart says the challenge for the controller is to "provide the maximum assistance within our capabilities to a pilot who needs it, but we will also not allow ourselves to become part of the cause should you decide to turn your aircraft into scrap metal."
In one chilling example, Stewart describes receiving a call from a twin-engine Beech which had just taken off from a satellite airport. The pilot was in airspace served by another ATC facility, so Stewart gave the pilot the appropriate frequency and suggested he contact that facility. Half an hour later a controller at that facility called to get help locating a pilot who seemed to be lost. It turned out to be the same twin-engine Beech and it was now located only 30 miles from Stewart's antenna and "right in the middle of one of our busiest arrival sectors."
After establishing contact with the pilot and informing him of his location and predicament, Stewart asked the pilot about his intentions. The pilot responded that he "wanted vectors to an airport where he could get some lunch, and he wanted to get lower and out of the weather." This was a puzzling response as it is obviously not a controller's function to pick a location for a pilot to have lunch, and there was no significant weather in the immediate area. Stewart gave the pilot vectors to get him out of the arrival corridor, but the pilot was still asking about an airport with a restaurant. Stewart finally convinced the pilot that he was not going to choose his destination, at which point the pilot indicated he wanted to go to an airport located about 70 miles southwest that had a sigmet for potentially severe thunderstorms.
Stewart gave the pilot this information and asked if he wanted to reconsider his request. The pilot again asked Stewart what he thought he should do, as he descended below minimum safe altitude and turned towards a very tall tower. After issuing a safety advisory and suggesting a climb and a heading change, Stewart did something very unusual. "I unkeyed the mic and broadcast directly to the recorder that I was declaring an emergency for this pilot. What I was about to do was technically beyond my authority as a controller, so this declaration of emergency was my way of stating my reasons for taking this action."