Working With Controllers


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 This book was published in 1989, so some of the airspace terminology is out of date, but all the basic information still applies.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."

Stewart then transmitted to the pilot: "You have been in the air for over an hour, your current location is 20 miles east of the airport from which you departed, your requested destination will take you into an area of severe weather, and you have made zero progress towards that destination. I strongly suggest that you return to your departure airport, land and reconsider your options."

The pilot accepted this suggestion and after several more vectors, sighted the airport, left the frequency and hopefully landed safely. During this episode Stewart was also vectoring several other aircraft including three who were doing practice approaches.

The many stories like these that Stewart shares drove home to me what a difficult job controllers have. One moment they are talking to an airline pilot with tens of thousands of hours, and the next moment they may be talking to a student pilot who got lost on his first solo cross-country. No matter how much experience we have, it is up to us as pilots to do whatever we can do to not add unnecessarily to the workload of the controller or add confusion to the frequency.

In his book, Stewart covers a great many ways pilots can work more effectively with controllers, including:

• Learn how the system works. Memorize the Pilot/Controller Glossary in the Airman's Information Manual and use words as they were intended to be used. If you are having trouble on the radio, practice with a commercially available training course.

• Visit a control tower and a radar facility. Invite a controller to speak to your pilot group.

• Be prepared for what you are about to do. It is not fair to set out on a flight without proper preflight planning, and then expect one or more controllers to fill in the gaps left by your less than rigorous preparation for the flight.

• Have current charts or a database with current frequencies, which means checking notams.

• Use a good headset so you can clearly hear what the controller is saying.

• Pay attention to what is going on around and especially ahead of you. This includes monitoring the ATIS and approach or tower frequencies well in advance of arriving in the terminal area.

• Avoid trying to file an IFR flight plan with the controller. It takes the controller a lot more time than you would imagine when the route continues outside his airspace.

• Listen carefully to all clearances, and then do what you are cleared to do without delay.

• If you are at all confused or even think you might be in some sort of trouble, tell the controller. Be up front and honest about your situation. Realize that most controllers will not take any adverse action unless the situation is very grievous or such action is mandated. In any case, as Stewart says, "I have always felt it is better to spend an hour in the woodshed with the FAA than a somewhat longer period of time pushing up daisies."

• Use professional skepticism and question anything that doesn't seem right or you don't fully understand. Don't trust -- verify!

There are many rewards for being able to work comfortably and professionally with controllers. Stewart says that controllers are constantly assessing the professionalism of the pilots they are dealing with. If a pilot does not seem to know what he is doing, the controller will take a very conservative approach that will likely add many miles and minutes to the flight. However, if the controller feels he can trust you to expeditiously do exactly what he says, he will often take steps to expedite your trip. Thus a little extra work and professionalism on the pilots' part can cause their trip to go faster while helping the entire airspace system to work more efficiently and safely.

Feedback WantedI am planning a future article on "What Pilots Want Controllers to Know." Please send your feedback on problems you have experienced or ways controllers could help make the pilot's job easier to: Flying Editor