One of the things about aviation that never ceases to amaze is the professionalism with which most participants try to treat each other. There are always exceptions, of course, but most people involved in this industry seem to enjoy themselves and work hard to do their jobs well and help others. Until a recent flight in the Washington, D.C., area where I base, I would have put the men and women of ATC in that category.
The bubble burst for me one clear, windy Saturday in February. I base my Debonair at the Manassas, Va., airport (HEF), a towered facility nestled completely within the Washington Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Ive been flying from HEF since 1978, and Ive watched it grow into the busiest GA airport in Virginia.
Since I was headed northeast from HEF and since the Class B and ADIZ are in the way, I had filed to depart the ADIZ to the south over Brooke Vortac, where I planned to turn east and angle up to my destination in Delaware. As I taxied out, however, the ground controller informed me I needed to go out to the west, because a new letter of agreement (LOA) between the HEF tower and the Potomac Tracon, the local approach control facility, specified that all VFR departures from HEF would proceed westbound. I queried the ground controller about this since-the last time I checked, anyway-vectoring and mandatory routings were not a requirement of either HEFs Class D airspace nor the ADIZ. He emphatically stated, however, that was the deal and, no, I didnt need to go all the way west to the nearest Vortac, Casanova, but I did need to depart to the west.
On my initial climb, the local controller called my crosswind turn, then asked that I turn a left downwind west of the airport and contact Potomac for routing to Brooke. I thanked him, switched frequencies and checked in with Potomac, asking him about the routing to Brooke. What did the tower tell you? he asked. Geez. They told me to check with you about routing, I responded. After that ominous exchange, we sorted things out and I proceeded on my merry way.
After picking up my passengers, I checked in with the Dover Tracon. Soon, I was handed off to Potomac, got another squawk code and was told I could proceed directly to HEF. Just remain clear of the [Flight Restriction Zone (FRZ)], surrounding downtown Washington. No problem; my Garmin 530 displays that airspace quite nicely.
Shortly after a frequency change, all those well-laid plans went out the window. Already in a requested descent, I was asked to fly a heading about 30 degrees to the left, but almost due west. Right after getting established on that heading, I was asked to turn due south, for traffic. After settling on the new heading, I asked about the traffic, since a vector for traffic usually means theres a conflict and I should be watching. Its out there, I was told testily. Okay, fine. As I watched Garmin tell me I was outside the Class B airspace, the controller terminated radar service. Thanks for everything, sir.
Within range of HEF, I made my initial call. I gave an accurate position report, to the half nautical mile. My reception was as if I had just gotten in from Mars. After way too many repetitions of my position and direction from the airport, I was finally cleared straight-in to my preferred runway. At 1000 feet agl, three miles out, decelerating, about to drop the gear and call for landing clearance, it all fell apart. The local controller urgently called traffic off my left and above me. I spotted it, way high and fast, as it went overhead and turned away from the runway, heading in the opposite direction. The controller adamantly told me to plan to land behind the traffic and to do S-turns for spacing. Right-a series of S-turns for spacing from an aircraft three miles behind me.
Instead, I did a 360-degree turn, looking for the traffic. Then I did another. Most of the way around the second one, I spotted the traffic, pretty much co-altitude with me, and heading for the runway. Of course, I got berated for complying with the controllers intent but not with her specific direction. Fine.
I dropped everything I had, decelerated to 70 knots (I was heavy, with mostly full tanks and three souls aboard) and went into hover mode. Sure enough, the traffic didnt make the first turnoff. Go around, I was told. An uneventful pattern and landing followed. So ended another fun day in the Washington ADIZ.
While none of this ADIZ-related nonsense is new to me, this one day highlighted all that is wrong with Washington-area airspace, with the ADIZ specifically and with ATC generally.
First, theres no good reason for every VFR departure from HEF to head west, except controller workload and convenience. The route from HEF to Casanova is some of the busiest airspace in the area, riddled with IFR and VFR traffic, and is a mid-air waiting to happen. Spreading out that traffic, especially if its not going west, is the safer course, even if it requires a little coordination between controllers sitting in the same room. To say nothing of the safety and efficiency implications of sending VFR traffic in a direction completely opposite to their intended route.
Second, the LOA between HEF tower and Potomac Tracon has mission creep written all over it. Theres no regulatory basis for any kind of mandatory departure routings. If this LOA remains in effect, it will have de facto created a new class of airspace.
Third and most importantly, its evident there is little coordination between sectors within the Potomac Tracons airspace or between Potomac and facilities like HEFs tower. Which is ironic, because the facility is relatively new, having been created by combining Dulles, Baltimore and Richmond Tracons with the Andrews AFB radar room to handle arriving and departing traffic more safely and efficiently, according to the Tracons Web site. If this keeps up, especially during the approaching spring and summer flying seasons, someones going to swap paint. Or worse.
Putting aside all of the airspace issues, coordination issues and resource issues, its time to face facts: ATC has gotten lazy. The ATC system is being slowly converted into one serving the men and women behind the mics and radar screens, not the people flying the aircraft. There are a lot of reasons controllers seem to be getting away with this nonsense-a strong and active union, high traffic levels, and what Ill charitably call the FAAs benign neglect of any airplane not burning kerosene or displaying an airline logo.
Is there a solution for the decline in ATC service and third-world treatment of piston aircraft? Maybe. First, be on and stay on your game. Nothing gives us piston drivers a worse reputation than some numbskull who doesnt have the flick, monopolizes the frequency and makes things harder for a controller. Second, when you get good ATC treatment, recognize it: Thank the controller on the frequency. If its really good handling, call the facility once you get on the ground and thank them again. Jot down the frequency you were using and the time. You can find the numbers in the A/FD and in other locations. Third, dont be bashful in calling the same facility and asking to speak with the quality assurance specialist when you have a question about handling or treatment.
Finally, and most importantly, know and understand the rules of the various classes of airspace, your responsibilities, the controllers responsibility and each others role. At the end of the day, everybody is looking out for themselves in these situations. Without some knowledge of whats going on and whats expected, youll always get dealt a bad hand. Your flying wont be nearly as enjoyable, nor as safe.