Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers

The relationship needs to work–here are tips to make it so.

Air traffic control tower
Good communications is the two-way street that links pilots and controllers, but it depends upon each side clearly articulating their needs.iStock/JasonDoiy

The forum room at AirVenture’s Pilot Proficiency Center off Boeing Plaza is nearly full as the afternoon sun begins to drive people inside for a few minutes of cool air before the airshow. Even at 83 degrees, it’s still a great day for AirVenture 2019, following the torrential rains earlier in the week that threatened to swamp campers. The Proficiency Center’s forum room is attached to the training hall where a dozen and a half pilots at a time learn the intricacies of IFR and VFR flight on 18 Redbird simulators. In the forum room, there’s training of a different sort going on.

Not surprising, many of the heads in the room are covered either in gray hair or a mop in the midst of that metamorphosis. But there are also quite a few young faces eager to hear one of the many National Air Traffic Controllers Association seminars being presented this week. The forums are the outreach program conceived by the NATCA, the bargaining agent for all 14,331 FAA-employed air traffic controllers, along with 481 controllers at the 102 NATCA-represented federal contract towers. NATCA also represents more than 5,000 other aviation-safety professionals in 14 bargaining units, as well as 56 Department of Defense-employed controllers at five military facilities—not including Andrews Air Force Base which is an FAA tower staffed by union controllers.

Indianapolis Center controller Bob Obma
Indianapolis Center controller Bob Obma led a number of NATCA forums at AirVenture.Courtesy Bob Obma

No union business is being discussed here today though. The handful of air traffic controllers on duty are poised to answer questions and explain how air traffic controllers perform their critical roles. They’re also hoping to crush some of the myths that exist between people who speak to each other but almost never meet in person. Controllers hear the voices of the pilots in their headsets and often come to know some pilots as friends. Pilots hear those often-familiar voices through their headsets too, but have only that familiar winking light on their transponder to know ATC is there, watching nearly every move.

Relationships like this can strain though when patience levels shrink during an in-flight emergency or when one party underappreciates the job of the other. But solid relationships between pilots and controllers is the foundation upon which our complex air traffic control system—the largest in the world—is built. Each side needs the other. Without pilots, controllers would be unnecessary. Without ATC, flying safely would be very much in jeopardy.

Good communications is the two-way street that links pilots and controllers, but it depends upon each side clearly articulating their needs. ATC’s safety-guaranteeing instructions are so specific that controllers demand they be repeated back word-for-word in order to prevent a collision on the ground or in the air. Simple responses like “roger” or “affirmative” only waste time, forcing controllers to repeat information that anyone flying an airplane today should already know how to explain. The NATCA organizes these forums at AirVenture to let the flying public listen to controllers explain some of the common problems they’re often faced with and how to resolve them.

This afternoon’s session, “Don’t Let That Cloud Fool You,” is being facilitated by Indianapolis Center controller Bob Obma who challenged the audience: “Raise your hand if you pay taxes.” Except for the few teenagers in the room, all the hands quickly fly up. “Then you’re already paying for the air traffic system,” he says. “Why not use it?” And so goes the back-and-forth session explaining what center controllers see on their radar and how they can help pilots in distress. Before the hour’s over, the roar of jets departing Wittman Airport’s Runway 36 begins drowning out some of his explanations as the airshow begins.

Pilots of any category would need to be brain-dead not to pick up some valuable operational nuggets from these sessions. In Obma’s session, I’m reminded that radar controllers are only allowed to descend an aircraft to a specific floor altitude to prevent collisions with ground obstacles. Controllers call these their minimum vectoring altitudes. Surprisingly, Obma says, he has no idea why the government doesn’t publish these altitudes anywhere for the rest of us to see.

Richard Kennington
Richard Kennington suggests pilots tell ATC when they’re in trouble, soon enough for them to be able to help.Courtesy Richard Kennington

Going Right to The Source

As summer winds down, the FAA is a tad busy dealing with a number of issues, such as getting the agency’s new administrator, Steve Dickson, up to speed as he tries to untangle some of the knots into which the agency seems to have tied its tail. The NATCA people were eager to help us talk to controllers in the trenches, so to speak. Doug Church and Kelly Richardson of the communications office at NATCA began by reminding me there’s a wealth of pilot/controller resources available on the union’s website.

I spoke to Kelly Richardson a few days after AirVenture, and he detailed the union’s outreach programs called “Talk ATC With NATCA” at the nation’s largest airshow with almost-hourly presentations on nearly a dozen topics. A few include: How to Speak ATC, Communicating with Confidence and Clarity, Best Practices for Avoiding Common Mistakes, and Rarely Used Tools for VFR Pilots.

ATC radar
ATC radar paints only one kind of weather: precipitation.iStock/Joesboy

Richardson says: “We just hit 20 years as an exhibitor at AirVenture. The first presentation was probably 15 years ago. In 2019, we averaged between 135 to 150 people at each presentation, times 24 presentations, so that’s about 3,400 people total.” While that number pales in comparison to the 600,000-plus people who attended AirVenture, these were 3,400 people who very much wanted to know more about that semisecret relationship between pilots and controllers.

Richard Kennington—a controller at the PDX tower in Portland, Oregon—tells me his presentations are driven by a desire to bust up a big myth that still interferes with pilot/controller relationships, “that controllers are all stressed-out people just waiting for a pilot to make a mistake so they can lift their certificate.” Obma and Kennington both confirm, “nothing is further from the truth.”

Working at a Class C-airspace airport, Kennington offers a glimpse of how the tone of a pilot’s voice speaks volumes about their ability to handle a given situation. “I know it’s not good to judge people” by their voices, he says. “Well, I’m here to tell you, I’m constantly judging a pilot’s skills by how they handle the radio.” (Pilots do the same to air traffic controllers, by the way.) “If I see a 3-mile hole on final to get out a departure, but I don’t have confidence in the pilot behind the hold short lines, that airplane isn’t going anywhere.” His criteria? “On initial call, does the pilot prattle on or do they use short, concise wording? Do they use proper phraseology? Do they sound confident?” He makes the discussion practical by talking about radar flight-following services. “Those are [on a] workload-permitting basis, of course, but if it looks like a particular pilot is going to be high maintenance, I may terminate radar with them because I don’t have the time to deal with them.”

Fear not, you pilots already worried about pressing the PTT key; Kennington presents solutions. “If you’re unfamiliar with our [or any ATC] operation, just tell us. Don’t try to fake it. If you’re a student pilot, tell me, and I’ll treat you with kid gloves. I won’t give you complex instructions. I’ll work with you.” He also warns, “Don’t guess at what you think I’m expecting you to do, just ask for a clarification.” When controllers realize a pilot’s new or struggling a bit, they’ll pass this message onto the next controller with, “This guy is unfamiliar, or he’s not doing too well today, so keep an eye on him.” Kennington says: “If you just tell me the truth, I automatically become more sympathetic. Then if you make a mistake, I’m not all that upset.” It’s not a sign of weakness to utter, “Please say again.”

Kennington spoke to pilots about understanding the big picture of what’s going on around them. At Portland, “I’ll often have Southwest taxi out and tell me he’s ready for an immediate if I need it. That tells me this guy has been listening on the radio and has great situational awareness. The same applies when someone says they’re happy to take off VFR and pick up their IFR clearance in the air.”

Just as pilots start out knowing next to nothing about how an airplane flies or how to handle the radio smoothly, air traffic controllers must learn the biz as well. Pilots should know though that ATC trainees always work under the guiding eye of a fully certified instructor. There simply aren’t enough air traffic controllers to go around these days, so expect to hear controllers on the radio who might be a bit unsure of themselves. Once a trainee controller has enough experience to handle a tower frequency or radar position alone—a process that can take years—they become certified professional controllers.

I asked Kennington what gets under a controller’s skin the most. He didn’t even hesitate with his answer. “VFR airplanes that skirt the edge of our airspace and never talk to us. Their navigation equipment is so good these days, pilots can do this and be incredibly accurate about not entering our airspace. But just because it’s legal doesn’t make it smart—or safe.”

The top of Portland’s Class C is 4,000 feet, for example, and that makes it legal for a VFR airplane to overfly at 4,500 feet and never call ATC, radar service in that outer area being voluntary and all. “But sometimes those VFRs at 4,500 feet end up flying right into my departure corridor. That’s when we start using what I call “ninja” vectors to keep the departures away from the VFRs. Once they overfly, they’ll end up in my arrival corridor next, which is just as bad.” Importantly, the VFR pilot probably had no idea they were even impacting Portland’s traffic. They may even think they’re helping controllers by not wasting their time. “We’d much rather talk to these people,” Kennington says.

Kennington repeated one of the most common questions he hears from pilots. “What should I say when I first call in?” He suggests pilots “make the initial conversation as simple as possible. First, of course, listen to the frequency, and be sure you’re not about to cut off someone who is already talking.” When you’re ready, he says, “Just tell me who you are, where you are and what you want from me.” For instance, “Portland, Citabria 9MK, 15 east at 2,500 feet, inbound with ATIS Mike.”

Kennington says controllers prefer pilots to be short and concise, especially if there are already quite a few other airplanes on the frequency. “Please don’t give us your life story on initial call,” he says. Another problem he runs across much too often are pilots in trouble for one reason or another who wait too long to call for help, such as when they’re running low on fuel. “If pilots wait too long, the options we have available to help are very limited,” he says.

passenger jets flying through the sky
There are many more airplanes aloft at any given moment than most people realize.iStock/Helin Loik-Tomson

Controllers Are Sometimes Aware of Hazards That Pilots Are Not

Air traffic controllers at one of the busiest terminal radar approach control facilities in the world, Chicago O’Hare, recently shared a complex story of a flight hazard much like what Kennington explained. It highlights the occasional ambiguities of the ATC system and the threats they sometimes invite.

One ORD controller told me of a midair-collision potential that exists around the airspace along Chicago’s lakefront, just south of the old Meigs Field Airport. Glance at a Chicago VFR chart and you’ll see that “Chicago Midway Airport’s Class C airspace is sandwiched beneath the overlying Class B.” The controller says: “It has a cutout to protect approaches into MDW’s Runways 4R/13C/31C. If the winds were strong out of the south or southwest in the old days, the primary procedure [for IFR arrivals] was the ILS Runway 31C at MDW and a circle east to Runway 22L.” The approach always opened the eyes of airliner passengers when 737s and 757s began making tight turns less than 1,000 feet agl. One corporation I flew for prohibited us from using this circling approach at night.

A few years ago, with the help of Southwest Airlines, the controller says, “ATC began using RNAV approaches to Runway 22L and halted the ILS 31C circle completely. Aircraft flying either the RNAV Z or RNAV/RNP Y Runway 22L cross SAILZ intersection at 3,000 feet and begin descending to 2,400 feet about the time they reach the Lake Michigan shoreline inbound.”

“The problem,” this controller explains, “is local airspace was never updated to protect for this new Runway 22L final approach. It should have been changed but, for some unknown reason, is still being held up by people way above our pay grade.” Opening a VFR chart on ForeFlight shows it’s perfectly legal to fly VFR up and down the Chicago shoreline below 3,000 feet, an altitude that’s prominently displayed. But now, the MDW Runway 22L approaches can cross the shoreline as low as 2,400 feet potentially putting them beneath some VFR traffic.

“During AirVenture week, until this year at least,” the controller continues, “we were able to work with MDW Tower and Southwest Airlines to switch back to ILS 31C circle 22L to keep IFR aircraft away from the shoreline when winds required the use of 22L.” Everything changed in 2019 when both MDW tower controllers and Southwest pilots refused the Runway 31C circle 22L option, both citing lack of proficiency in the maneuver.

The Friday morning just before the end of this year’s AirVenture, MDW was using RNAV 22L. “Many aircraft were flying along the shoreline beneath the Class B, between 1,700 feet and 2,900 feet, but not talking to ATC, which is perfectly legal,” the controller says. “The Tracon controller-in-charge tried to get MDW to switch to ILS 31C after several reports of traffic collision avoidance system resolution-advisory events and plenty of other aircraft that appeared just too close for controller’s comfort.” One Southwest Airlines pilot experienced an RA that same day on approach to MDW but, luckily, spotted the VFR airplane in time to avoid it. The Tracon’s approach request was denied because the winds were southwest at 10 knots and higher. That meant landing straight in to Runway 31C at MDW was not an option. “But the ORD CIC still believed using the RNAV 22L approach was unsafe, so MDW switched to the ILS Runway 13C,” the controller says. That created another big problem in airspace that’s already incredibly complex.

The controller goes on: “O’Hare was landing Runways 27L, 27R and 28C and departing Runways 28R and 22L. In order for MDW to use the ILS 13C, ORD had to stop using its Runway 22L for departures because the MDW inbound and the ORD outbound paths are too close together.” There is an RNAV/RNP approach to Runway 13C that can alleviate the proximity problem, but the only aircraft qualified to use it are Southwest Boeings. Virtually no other aircraft using MDW are RNP capable and qualified.

So on an otherwise perfect VFR day, with O’Hare landing 114 airplanes an hour, MDW’s Runway 22L approach issues forced ORD to slow to a two-runway operation (27R/28C) for landing and two departure Runways 27L/28R. Chicago controllers think their previous solutions, focused on preventing a midair collision, have been unsuccessful while the remaining solutions severely impact traffic flow through both airports. So what’s the answer?

Chicago controllers have been told the answer to this hazardous situation is under review but now stuck somewhere between the FAA and the city of Chicago. One ORD controller told me, “This airspace must be fixed before we end up welding two airplanes together.” For the most part, area and transient pilots remain completely unaware of this hazardous situation, unless they attend a local pilot/controller meeting. Scheduling a tour of your local tower or Tracon might uncover airspace issues like this in your area, but it will certainly open any pilot’s eyes to what’s really happening on the other end of the radio.

ATC radar scope
On a radar scope, your aircraft might be just one of a half-dozen a controller might be talking to.Courtesy Bill Nelson

Raytheon/Lockheed Collaboration Will Improve ATC Radar and Help Build the Wireless Internet

Moore’s Law postulates that computing power grows exponentially over increasingly brief periods of time and explains why we seem to notice technology changing at ever-blinding speeds. Just as people start getting used to the newest version of a device, an upgraded one appears. ATC radar, of course, is no exception. The terms “FAA” and “blinding speed,” however, have never been used in the same sentence. Raytheon Company and Lockheed Martin Corporation hope to change that.

In April 2019, the two companies said they’re jointly pursuing the Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar contract to consolidate and modernize America’s aging surveillance and air traffic control radars. SENSR is a multi-agency program that includes the FAA, Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. SENSR will replace current air traffic control and surveillance radars with fewer, more advanced multimission systems and release part of the wireless spectrum for commercial use.

Raytheon said: “Implementing SENSR is vital to the growth, safety and efficiency of commercial industries, air traffic control, homeland security and national security. The consolidation effort will free up a tremendous amount of bandwidth that can be used to move America rapidly toward a 5G capability.”

When SENSR is deployed, the FAA will see new, more effective ATC radar, while DHS could gain better insights to help conduct unmanned aircraft system and airspace-security operations around suspect airborne and maritime activity. The DOD will be able to more effectively conduct homeland defense, civil support and security cooperation to secure the United States and its interests, according to a Raytheon spokesman. A comprehensive update on the SENSR program is expected before the end of 2019.