Feeling Forgotten? How to Jog ATC's Memory

Using your transponder as a way to 'raise your hand.'

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Mark Phelps

There will be times in your IFR flying (or VFR with flight following) when you're expecting some love from your controller, but you wind up feeling like a neglected child. Sometimes the frequency is busy; sometimes the controller is on another frequency or the land line setting up a handoff. Either way, you want to call attention to yourself, but you don't want to waste frequency bandwidth unnecessarily. Former Instructor of the Year Doug Stewart, chairman of the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) has some sage advice on how to get the controller's attention when you may or may not have slipped through the cracks. He suggests a simple ident on your transponder. The result on the controller's screen will be attention getting enough, without requiring a verbal exchange.

Stewart suggested some situations when you might want to use this strategy:

• You're approaching the final approach fix on an approach, but the approach controller has not yet turned you over to the tower.

• You have requested a lower altitude, the controller has advised you to expect it in eight miles — but that was 11 miles back.

• You're about to fly through the localizer or the final approach course on a non-precision approach.

• You are past a point where you know from experience there is a sector change, but you've not heard your number called.

• You're practicing approaches at an airport on the edge of two ATC sectors and the frequency gets very quiet as you motor on and on and on in the opposite direction of where you need to go for the approach.

If you've been flying for a while, you can probably come up with some of your own scenarios where a polite touch of the 'Ident' button will get you back into the swing of things. In a way, it's the pilot's equivalent of that controller 'code' — "Bonanza 3473B (whoever that is) altimeter 29.86."

"Roger, approach. Correcting."

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Doug Stewart is a MCFI, DPE and 2004 National CFI of the Year. He is the Chairman of the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE). He operates DSFI, Inc, (www.dsflight.com) out of the Columbia County Airport in Hudson, NY where he provides instrument, tailwheel and sport pilot instruction._

Clarification: As several readers point out in their comments on this 'Tip of the Week,' 40-1-20 of the Aeronautical Information Manual reads: "Activate the 'IDENT' feature only upon request of the ATC controller." However, Stewart maintains there are extenuating circumstances: First, he does NOT suggest that pilots use the IDENT function indiscriminately, as some commenters project, but rather as a backup measure should the frequency be saturated and transmitting a voice call is not possible; or if the controller is not responding to voice calls. Even then, using the IDENT function requires judgment, such as when an expected turn, altitude change or other critical ATC direction is dangerously overdue, based on previous conversation with the controller -- and a voice call is not possible. Stewart also points out that the AIM is "not regulatory in nature," though willfully deviating from its recommendations without good cause could be grounds for an FAA enforcement action based on the catchall "unsafe operation." And finally, while some critics of using the IDENT in this fashion are experienced controllers, Stewart has discussed this issue with several other senior controllers who have endorsed the strategy – again, as long as it is done in a prudent manner under appropriate circumstances. – Mark Phelps, eNewsletter Editor