When You Owe the Controller a Call

When I was a new pilot I got in hot water with a controller one time, and rightfully so, for forgetting to tell him I was on a three-mile final, as he’d requested I report to him. I could have made a couple of reasonable excuses, including that it was a busy flight (which it was) and that there was a lot of radio congestion (which is why, I now realize, that he wanted me to report), but the bottom line was, he asked me to report, I didn’t, and he was surprised to see me on short final. The real reason is, that I was so busy with other things, I forgot that he’d asked me to report. It was a stupid mistake.

It’s natural to forget to do something when you’re busy with a thousand other things. For me one of the biggest ones is remembering to turn off the hose when I’m watering a part of the garden that’s out of sight. After trying in vain for the longest time to “be better about remembering,” whatever the heck that means, I simply started setting a timer on my phone to remind me to turn off the water, or I should say, “to turn off the water, stupid.” The phone trick works.

The nice thing about modern radio navigation — well, there are lots of nice things — is that you don’t have to remember to call ATC very darned often. Back in the day, I’m told — I have no personal knowledge of olden times — you used to have to give ‘em a holler at mandatory reporting points multiple times on every flight whenever you were out of radar coverage. These days, the radar must be better. Besides, controllers now pretty much always tell you when they want you to call. “Cessna N12345, report 25 west of XYZ VOR.” Okay, you say, you’ll do just that.

But will you remember to do it? In my case, it’s not very darned likely. So I set a timer. Here’s how I do it. I simply calculate how far I am from the requested reporting point, I estimate how fast I’m going (ground speed, I remind myself), and I calculate fast and dirty how long it will take me to get to my requested reporting point. Let’s say it’s 30 miles down the trail and I’m doing three miles a minute. Ten minutes. I’ll set my alarm on the plane for nine minutes and give ATC a call then. I’ve never had them complain that I’m three miles early. If they were to chide me for being too quick on the draw, I’d apologize profusely. And I’d mean it, too.

The timer trick would have worked to fix my three-mile forgetfulness episode, too. But I often use a different trick these days. When I turn downwind or begin my descent, I always ask myself if I’ve been asked to report to the controller about where I am. Ninety-nine percent of the time I haven’t been. But when they have asked, I remember. It’s a built in timer and it works like a charm.


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