by Bart Epstein
Controllers are just like pilots: All are human and make mistakes. Most aregood, know the rules, do everything they can to make your flight efficientand safe, and make sensible judgments. Only a tiny fraction are highly paidchair-warmers too lazy or bored to have opened the book (FAA Order 7110.65)for a refresher on the finer points of their craft.
For pilots, what this means is that amidst what is overwhelminglyprofessional and courteous ATC service, youll hear the occasionalboneheaded clearance, instruction or suggestion with which no sensible pilotshould comply. Thats why we have readback procedures and is one of thereasons the word “unable” exists and why you should use it without fear ofretribution when necessary or appropriate.
Trust, But Verify
No better recent example can be found to illustrate the point that its yourbutt on the line than on May 10, 2004, when Piper Seminole N304PA collidedwith terrain near the Julian, Calif., Vortac (JLI) and was destroyed. Bothpilots aboard the twin were killed. The planned flight was from Phoenix,Ariz., to Carlsbad, Calif. Nighttime visual conditions prevailed, althoughthe flight was operating on an IFR flight plan.
The cleared routing for N304PA was: Gila Bend, V66, Imperial, V458, Julian,then direct to Palomar. N304PA was number four in a train of five airplanesflying the same route for training. The airplanes were separated by aboutfive to 10 minutes. The airplane directly ahead of N304PA was N434PA,another Seminole.
According to the NTSB, ATC communications and radar data show that N304PAreported level at 8000 feet msl to the San Diego North Radar (SDNR)controller at 2043:48. The SDNR controller instructed the pilot to fly a260 heading after crossing JLI and then intercept the Palomar localizer.The pilot read back the clearance. At 2045:47, the SDNR controller told thepilot of N434PA to descend to 6000 feet. The pilot of N434PA acknowledgedthe clearance. At 2047:55, the SDNR controller transmitted, “Seminole fourpapa alpha descend and maintain five thousand two hundred.” The pilot ofN304PA responded, “Down to five thousand two hundred for three zero fourpapa alpha.” According to the controller, this clearance was intended forN434PA. The controller did not recognize that the clearance had beenacknowledged by N304PA rather than N434PA. At 2052, the San Diego AFSScontacted the SDNR sector reporting that they were receiving a strong ELTsignal from near the JLI Vortac.
Why the controller missed the readback from the wrong airplane is anyonesguess. And, certainly, better situational awareness on the part of the twopilots aboard the Seminole probably would have prevented this accident. Butthe point is that once you close the cabin door and the wheels leave theground, youre mostly on your own to ensure the wheels safely touch downagain.
Anytime youre not flying straight and level well above terrain, the littlevoice in your head should be asking yourself some basic questions: Where amI going? Where am I going after that? What altitude should I be at now? Thenext leg? What am I going to do if this doesnt work out?
For example, lets say youre droning along en route to your destinationwhen you become aware the weather there has gone down the tubes. At theleast, you need to stop and get some more fuel with which to tackle theweather, so you tell ATC youd like to divert to nearby Cowpie CountyInternational. You request a “vector and lower” and the Tracon controlleryoure handed off to makes a transposition error on your altitude. He meantto set you up to join the feeder route for the VOR approach at 5300 feet,but instead tells you to “descend and maintain 3500 until established” andclears you or the approach. You read back the clearance and grab theapproach plate to get your bearings.
Will you notice that the altitude youve been given does not match thefeeder route? Will you see that the altitude to which youre descending isbelow the minimum safe altitude (MSA) circle on the plate?
A little voice in your head should be asking if youre where you should befor the approach. Thats one of the reasons why each published feeder routehas a minimum altitude and the plate itself has the MSA information.
Twice I have received clearances that made no sense. Both time I was glad myinstrument instructor drummed into me the need to physically trace my entireroute on a map before takeoff. One of the bad clearances was actually to afix over the Atlantic Ocean. I still remember sitting in my plane thatnight, wondering what I had written down wrong to think I was cleared outover the water.
After conferring with the tower, I shut down the engine, trekked up to thetower cab and sat down with the controller to trace out my clearance on achart. He was positively stunned, especially since hed given out that sameclearance more than 1000 times without any problems. Apparently, the Traconor someone down the line always amended those clearances well before theybecame a problem. And, to date, no one had to implement lost comm procedureswhile flying the bad clearance.
Know Your Rights
But how many pilots would do the same? How many are willing to analyze anATC clearance or directive on the fly then stand up on two hind legs andrefuse an unsafe or out-of-line instruction?
Part of the problem is that we tend to accept the authority of anythinguttered by a controller as the last word. After all, he wouldnt be acontroller if he didnt know what he was doing, right?
The antidote, of course, is knowledge and experience. The knowledge comesfrom knowing the FARs and AIM procedures; we can assure you most controllersand pilots dont. Experience comes from flying and using the system andapplying that knowledge.
And thats why an annual flight review or IPC without some discussion ofreal-world procedures and regs is a sham, lending truth to the notion thatwhat you dont know can hurt you.
Am I Paranoid Enough?
Some may say it is not practical to be constantly paranoid and suspicious ofeverything ATC asks or commands. And it may seem like overkill to focus onthese types of errors when so many pilots are still making much larger anddumber mistakes, like flying well below an MDA to take a peek or launchinginto icing conditions with nothing more than a lukewarm pitot tube.
Of course, flying defensively is about more than nitpicking clearances. Atthe end of the day, its your butt that matters, not the controllers.
-Bart Epstein is an Instrument-rated Commercial pilot flying from the Washington, D.C., area.