The Air Traffic Control Team


When I put out a request several months ago for responses from pilots on what they would like controllers to know, along with the responses I received from pilots I also received messages from several controllers. Dan Mason said when he saw the title of the previous article ("Working With Controllers," August 2008), he thought, "Oh boy, here goes another pilot writing about how impossible it is to work with controllers." He said he was pleased and overwhelmingly surprised to read such a well-written and practical piece on pilot-controller interaction. He thinks that controllers should be required to earn at least a private pilot license as part of their ATC training so they can better understand what goes on in the cockpit.

That could be very helpful because Dan said the mind-set of nonflying controllers is dramatically different from those controllers who have some flying experience. In fact, nonflying controllers tend to let their flying coworkers know when a pilot messes up. "When a controller happens to also be a pilot, he is lambasted daily by other controllers with such phrases as, 'Hey, look! It's another of your **#&%!* flying buddies who just popped up VFR right in the middle of my radar pattern!' My response is usually, 'Thank God he did it while you were working, because a lesser controller would have &@!% his pants.' "

As a pilot, Dan tries to educate his coworkers about the complexities of single pilot actual IMC flight. He describes talking with a coworker who had never considered the difficulties a single pilot faces when presented with a direct clearance to a new fix with which the pilot is not familiar. "The retuning of navigation radios and/or reprogramming of a GPS while maintaining controlled flight with zero visibility and continuing to communicate intelligently with a fast-talking, busy, demanding controller was a picture this particular coworker had never considered, even though he is probably in the top 10 percent when it comes to professionalism and quality customer service in our facility."

Dan also pointed out another side to the old adage about the only thing that controllers and pilots have in common is that when either makes a mistake, the pilot dies. Dan agreed, "this is of course rooted in truth. The unfortunate reality of that adage is that there are severe, life-changing and career-ending consequences for controllers when minor errors that most pilots will never notice are committed. Controllers live under an extremely stringent set of rules, regulations, guidelines, laws, requirements and expectations."

Jim McMannamy expanded on how this affects controller performance. "If working with a pilot is going to put a significant risk to providing for his family, a controller is going to provide the least amount of service possible to that pilot. Pilots who constantly miss radio calls, fly near questionable weather, and generally sound unsure of themselves make a controller nervous. Every time there is an accident, every controller transmission is dissected, radar data is analyzed, and a controller's judgment is picked apart. If you put us in a position where we think that could happen, you might not get radar service for that last 10 miles, or your judgment may be questioned, on frequency, by a controller. I might sound like a jerk when I ask you for the third time if you have the ATIS, but supporting my wife and son means more to me than not hurting your feelings or embarrassing you. If you follow through with all of your duties as a pilot, you'll always be welcome in my airspace."

Other feedback confirmed that some pilots are not holding up their part of the deal:

As I conduct check rides and flight reviews, I continue to find that the majority of pilots who have less than pleasant ATC experiences all too often can't communicate on the radio. They talk, but don't say things useful to the controller. No clarity and brevity training or preparation. Nothing turns a controller off quicker (yes, service will suffer) than a mush-mouth call during a heavy traffic period. -- Captain Bill Rogers, Standards and Evaluation Officer, Arizona Wing, Civil Air Patrol, and a fomer military controller

Some of my colleagues and I were recently discussing how more and more pilots seemingly file IFR flight plans into severe weather and then just start asking for deviations the minute they become airborne. Sure, we want to help avoid weather when we can, but it can be a coordination nightmare and a threat to the safety of other aircraft. We recently even had one pilot who wanted to deviate 100 miles in the opposite direction before turning on course. When we had to deny that due to active military airspace, he got belligerent and demanded another route. What happened to the days when pilots would wait out bad weather or at least plan their own flight around it? -- Thomas Anderson, Supervisory Air Traffic Control Specialist (ATP/CFII-MEI)

Jim finished by saying that, "Ultimately pilots and controllers are on the same team. As you know, that isn't the prevailing opinion in either the controlling or the flying community. I would love to be instrumental in changing that unfortunate reality. I have great passion for both my career and for flying. I want to see both communities work together as seamlessly as possible."

I really think Jim got to the crux of the matter. Almost like a married couple, pilots and controllers are working for the same objective, yet there is often a lot of tension in the relationship. John Rosenberg sent me the classic joke of a pilot asking a controller, "I was just wondering, am I up here working for you down there or are you down there working for me up here?" Of course the controller, as a government civil servant, is there to "serve" the needs of pilots. But it is not at all that simple, because the controller has to balance and serve the needs of all pilots and keep the entire national aerospace system working as smoothly as possible. I am getting the sense that in a way, a controller's airspace is like their private home. Controllers take pride in how they organize and manage their airspace. In various air traffic control agreements it is even said that a controller "owns" certain airspace and other controllers have to ask permission before they do anything that would affect that airspace.

While the controller is there to serve us, to the controller we are an unknown quantity approaching his carefully crafted and organized airspace where he has everything working smoothly at maximum efficiency. Just one pilot who is not prepared, behind the airplane, confused or counting on the controller to make up for his lack of planning or professionalism can cause the whole thing to come apart in an instant, leading to a desperate scramble by the controller to try to get things back under control while avoiding a career limiting mistake by himself or a life ending event for the pilot.

Our responsibility as the pilot part of the air traffic control team is clear. We need to:

• Learn about the air traffic control system and how it works.

• Carefully plan each flight, realistically allowing for the current and forecast weather conditions.

• Communicate clearly, providing information useful to the controller without getting wordy.

• Stay ahead of the airplane and have alternatives ready in bad conditions.

• Inform the controller whenever we need help.

• Be appreciative of the difficult position a controller is in.

• Be patient and keep a sense of humor when things don't go the way we want them to.

It will be easy to assess how successful you are at your task. While there are a few controllers with an attitude problem, a surly controller who makes it clear he can't wait to get you out of his airspace and off his frequency is usually a clear indication of a failing grade for the pilot. If you uphold your responsibilities as a member of the air traffic control team, you will experience that wonderful feeling that each controller is happy to have you in his airspace.