“Uh … Cherokee Five Two Five Lima Charlie, confirm level at 5,000?”
You glance at your altimeter. It reads 4,600 feet. The pointer on the vertical speed indicator is steady on 500 feet per minute down. The sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach is not caused by the rapid movement of back pressure you have just applied to the yoke. You were sure that the last clearance was to maintain 3,000 feet. Your favorite expletive passes your lips. You try to recall where in your flight bag you had last seen that tattered NASA form.
Now what? Do you go on the offensive, blaming the controller for your mistake? Or do you park the airplane in front of the nearest FSDO office, cross your wrists and wait for the FAA to handcuff you for the criminal you have become? If you’ve been flying airplanes long enough, the odds of having at least one “Oops” are inevitable. We are humans operating complicated machinery in a complicated environment. If you fly professionally, an honest mistake is a given.
How do airline pilots handle their mistakes with the FAA? Before beginning the discussion, it may be useful to have a basic understanding of ATC’s responsibilities. We often forget that a controller’s primary objective is to keep aluminum from making contact with other aluminum. The controller has specific rules of engagement to keep this from happening. Airplanes must be separated by certain distances and altitudes for certain airspace and operations. This isn’t news for anybody. The controller’s rulebook has minimum requirements for separation between airplanes. If the required distance is not maintained then there is a “loss of separation.” Loss of separation can occur through deviations in altitude, speed or heading. When a loss of separation occurs, the data block of the airplanes involved may flash on the controller’s radar screen. A “conflict alert” may annunciate. If a bona fide loss of separation occurs, the controller is required by law to file a report. The report is long and tedious. For that reason alone, controllers are on your side. They know that humans make mistakes. If there is no loss of separation, they are more than happy to send you on your way. (You might expect a mild thrashing for some circumstances.)
If you are operating in a Center environment, as opposed to Approach Control, you may have to contend with an automated system if a loss of separation occurs. It has been affectionately referred to as the “Snitch” program. A computer will automatically report your deviant ways. An altitude deviation of more than 300 feet and a potential conflict with another airplane will automatically generate a report. The controller will be queried by a supervisor as to the circumstances involving the loss of separation. If a report is filed, that’s as far as the controller is involved. The report is sent to the local FAA Flight Standards Office for processing. At that point, a variety of parameters determine whether you are contacted.
During the course of my career, I have made an “Oops” or two along the way. When do I know if I’m in hot water? I listen to the tone of the controller’s voice. Is it hostile? Is there a deafening silence after my reply? Or does the controller indicate in so many words that there was not a problem? An apology goes a long way in mending fences with ATC. If there is still silence I ask the crucial question, “Was there a loss of separation?” If the answer is “No,” I wipe my brow, then ask if the controller would like a phone call when I get on the ground. If the controller gives me a number to call, I try to keep my thoughts positive. Even if there was no loss of separation, the controller may just want an explanation. The phone call may be for informational purposes only. Of course, a scolding is also a possibility.
Not too long ago, an errant helicopter was operating in JFK airspace while we were progressing through the final stages of the infamous lead-in light, VOR approach to Runway 13L in the 767. The helicopter mistakenly zigged when he should have zagged. In one of those brief moments of not believing that the other guy is doing exactly the worst possible thing, I began an evasive maneuver on short final. The happy ending was that we continued the approach without further incident. Once on the parallel taxiway and clear of the runway, I asked the local controller if I should make a phone call concerning the helicopter. The tone of his response indicated he was not pleased. The controller implied that unless I wanted to initiate my own report, he would make sure that the pilot of the helicopter was well aware of his deviation. I’m willing to bet that there was a loss of separation.
What if I was the one that caused a loss of separation? Some airlines still have their pilots file NASA reports. My airline was the first to work with the FAA in developing a new reporting program. Other airlines are adopting the same system. It is called the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP). (Yes, we need more acronyms…) The program is designed to substitute for the NASA reports. It has some differences, but the philosophy is the same. The premise of either program is to fix problems in the aviation environment that effect safety by having the reporter admit a mistake without having to incriminate himself or herself. Both programs make the reporter anonymous. ASAP is a method for the airlines to police themselves by identifying problem areas. The theory is that an airline pilot will more readily report a mistake, potentially identifying an ongoing safety concern for everybody, if it doesn’t jeopardize his or her career.
The ASAP program is administered by the airline’s pilot managers with participation from the pilot’s union. With my airline, the report is entered into the computer. An event review team investigates the report. The team may call the ATC facility involved. If no problems exist, the pilot is told no corrective action was taken, usually via a computer message. If there is a problem the pilot is notified directly. For serious issues, a letter of correction may be placed in the pilot’s file. The correction may involve having to take some sort of remedial training in the simulator. The training is directly related to the error that was made. The letter of correction stays in the pilot’s file for only a given amount of time, perhaps a year or two. This action is in lieu of the alternative. The alternative without an ASAP report being filed could involve certificate action. We have had pilots who found themselves at an FAA hearing, facing the possibility of license suspension. Had they filed an ASAP report, the worst consequence would have been a letter of correction. If I ever have doubts as to my loss of separation status, I file an ASAP report. It can never hurt. Most of the time the response to these reports indicates no action was required.
The ASAP reports also apply to non-ATC circumstances. Paperwork issues are common subjects for ASAP reports. There are also occasions where we have found ourselves in non-compliance with our FAA-approved company manual. This is our rulebook. It is specific to our airline, encompassing the FAA regulations as they relate to all aspects of our operation. (It is also a cure for insomnia.)
In summary, I listen to the message and tone of the controller if I feel a violation is a possibility. I ask the important loss of separation question if I am unsure. I don’t argue. I don’t make up excuses. I apologize. I correct the deviation if possible. There is nothing stopping me from making a voluntary phone call for goodwill purposes. If there was a definite loss of separation, I file an ASAP report. I try not to beat myself up over the incident. Sometimes it only takes a little common sense to know if that was a violation I just heard.
Les Abend is currently a captain for American Airlines.