Let’s face it: If you can’t get what you want in life, why bother? That same adage holds when you interact with air traffic control (ATC). Whether you’re VFR or IFR, if you can’t get what you want from ATC, your trip will take longer, burn more fuel and generally annoy you to the point where you actually begin to believe the old adage, “If you have time to spare, go by air.” It doesn’t have to be that way. After all, you are the pilot-in-command (PIC) and that sweet voice on the other side of the radio frequency is there to help you, right?
Riiiiiight. A controller’s first responsibility is to separate aircraft from each other. The second responsibility is issue safety alerts to pilots headed for trouble. That’s where they really earn their money. Everything else they do is, obviously, tertiary. Yet pilots sometimes find themselves feeling pushed around by controllers. There’s usually no need for that kind of adversarial attitude. Remember: Even though ATC may “own” the airspace, you’re the one actually flying through it. As someone once put it, your chair is moving faster than theirs. But that fact doesn’t confer the expectation that everything you desire from ATC will be delivered on a silver platter. You may need to finesse your communication skills, however, to get across your request in a manner designed to elicit the response you want. Trust me, there is a technique.
What NOT to Do
Eugene was PIC on a dead-head leg from Sacramento, Calif., back to what is now the Charles M. Schulz—Sonoma County Airport (KSTS) in Santa Rosa, Calif., on a very busy, extremely foggy morning. He’d already successfully completed one low IFR approach into Sacramento, followed by an uneventful quick-turn IFR departure and was being vectored by Oakland Center for an ILS back to KSTS. Except his Piper Seneca was a bit slower than the sudden crush of Gulfstream GIIIs and GIVs converging on the airport for an annual meeting of the highest net-worth individuals in the world. Oakland Center knew this ritual and was ready for everything except the Seneca trying to snake its way into its perfectly choreographed conga line of business jets.
So the controller directed the Seneca through the localizer and asked it to make one 360-degree turn to the left. When it re-intercepted the localizer, Eugene fully expected an approach clearance. Instead the controller turned the airplane in the other direction. Eugene asked why. The controller replied he had faster traffic behind the Seneca and for spacing he was letting that traffic go by. Eugene brusquely reminded the controller that the national airspace system was a first-come, first-served thing. Actually, he sort of went on a diatribe. That turned out to be a mistake, because for the next 40 minutes Eugene found himself flying in circles above the thick sea fog waiting as the Oakland Center controller vectored airplane after airplane into KSTS ahead of him. Eugene finally (and politely, now, though with bared teeth) declared he was approaching a low-fuel state, and the controller cleared him for the approach.
I know this particular story so well because I was the trainee pilot doing the actual flying that day while Eugene observed and “handled” ATC. With just 25 hours in type under my belt, I was more than happy to keep flying in circles, except I was sitting next to Eugene who was a big guy and really angry. The flight was a learning experience for me, but perhaps not what Eugene had endeavored to teach that day. That’s aviation.
Many years later, a Tennessee-based controller asked me to keep my speed up on approach in my Cessna 182 or he’d have to move me off the localizer for Cirrus traffic behind me. Now, my Cessna could do 120 knots on approach, maybe 140 knots if I really pushed the power up and the nose over, but why?
“Perhaps he could fly slower? He’s a piston single, too,” I suggested. That probably elicited a chuckle or two in the tower, but it also got me what I needed, and the controller told the guy behind me to back off a bit.
When I was set loose to fly Part 135 air charters on my own, I knew that knowing the “system” in any part of the country where I was flying was critical for getting what I wanted from ATC. It also helped to work with the controller, use standard phraseology and keep my tone in check, especially during more challenging moments.
In northern California, where sea fog ruled in the summer, knowing how to ask for an IFR to VFR-on-Top or Tower-to-Tower clearance was key to expeditiously leaving an area of low IFR for the VFR conditions on the other side of the mountains. And in the wee hours of the morning, dead-heading back to the coast from a Reno, Nev., stop, drop and hop, a “cruise” clearance gave me the freedom to create my own fuel-efficient descent profile long before GPS or ADS-B. It also let me climb fast and hard to avoid altitudes where icing might be a problem (and stay high until the last moment for the same reason). A VFR-on-Top clearance allowed me to fly point-to-point direct and in the clear air above an overcast while retaining my IFR clearance for when I needed it to get down for the approach at my destination.
From California, I moved to the northeastern U.S. and began to interact regularly with the fine folks at Boston, New York and Washington Centers. Vive la différence! “Cruise” clearances and “block” altitudes—what were those, controllers asked me? Complicated routings and hard altitudes were the norm. And just when I’d figured out my clearance and gotten airborne, I almost always was given an amendment. Direct was a fantasy and visibility was only CAVU after a good clearing cold front.
But there were tricks for dealing with these constraints. Flying VFR through the Hudson River Corridor was one of them. Filing directly over the top of busy KJFK or KLGA and learning the typical altitudes (not always in line with the odd/east even/west rule) were others. Near the airport, contact approaches—following the traffic you can see in front of you to the runway—greatly expedited landings while flying in MVFR on an IFR clearance.
As another regional example, I have flown in Texas and Florida, both before and after Nexrad, where it took cooperation with ATC to manage busy KDFW and KHOU airspace sectors on bad-weather days. No one wants to fly into a thunderstorm, and a controller would never deliberately vector an aircraft into a cell, but most ATC radars have limited weather information superimposed on the screen, and more often than not controllers are forced to dim out the weather to better see traffic. That means occasionally you’ll get a vector right at a dark, forboding cloud (or worse, an embedded cell). The rules in this scenario are simple: If you can see bad weather in your direct path, ask for a deviation around it post-haste. If ATC won’t give you a deviation then the issue is typically one of spacing: Your desired deviation will put you too close to other IFR traffic, and ATC can’t/won’t do that.
Well, actually they can, but only if you declare a weather emergency and tell them you are deviating, and how. Once you pull that arrow from your quiver, ATC can make an exception to spacing rules. Poof! You avoid the big black cloud and almost certain demise. Yes, it’s a dance. You might need to call and explain yourself on the ground (odds are that you won’t, however, especially if no metal got bent or separation standards violated). In any case, once you’re back on the ground, visit NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting Service, asrs.arc.nasa.gov, and fill out a report to cover the deviation. Doing so helps the system figure itself out with your anonymous data contribution and serves as a “get out of jail free” card in case the FAA wants to take a closer look at that flight. Just do it.
The good news in the weather scenario is that as more and more aircraft have on-board NexRad as well as ADS-B or TCAS traffic reporting, and with the advent of RVSM (reduced vertical separation minima), ATC is becoming more willing to let aircraft deviate as needed for weather. That said, pilots need to understand the controller’s handbook tells them not to offer it unless you ask.
I recently flew a trip requiring me to navigate a narrow hole in a long line of thunderstorms spread along a frontal boundary. My ADS-B allowed me to look ahead and see both the weather and the traffic, which was streaming through the only breach in the wall of storms for 200 miles in either direction. I talked to ATC well ahead of getting to the frontal boundary and received clearance to deviate and join the stream of aircraft shooting the gap in the storms, every one of us deviating from our clearance. Listening to the chatter on the frequency, it was clear that ATC was relying on the pilots for Pireps, and relaying that information to non-Nexrad equipped aviators, as well.
To Err is Human
Speaking standard ATC lingo—using the Alpha-Bravo-Charlies, as I like to say—will go a long way toward helping you get what you want or need. Listen closely for your own call sign on frequency, and correct ATC if it gets garbled. Once you’ve received your desired routing in flight, check it: ATC makes mistakes—sometimes fatal—and it’s up to you to catch them.
Don’t just read back the clearance and program your GPS; actually look at the routing, the terrain and minimum altitudes. Look at the weather if you have it, and see if the clearance makes sense. Do it again as you change controllers. Every now and then something gets dropped in a shift change, sector reconfiguration or computer hiccup. If you are suddenly commanded a strange heading or an altitude that does not make sense for the terrain you are flying over, query the controller politely but immediately. Be insistent until everything is clear and both sides of the conversation know the plan. It is so much nicer to sort out a snafu before you find yourself navigating into severe weather, or toward a CFIT. (An excellent NTSB presentation on this is at www.slideshare.net/southernregionfaasteam/snf-slideshow-final.)
Speaking of readbacks, did you know controllers are not required to correct you if you read back a clearance incorrectly? The good news is that most controllers correct errors in pilot readbacks even though they are not required to do so.
How can you combat readback errors? When reading back a long clearance, try to stick to the bold face items: frequencies, squawk code, runways, altitudes and headings. As well, always read back the red box items, such as hold short, line up and wait, and runway crossing clearances. Didn’t quite catch the whole clearance? Was the controller speaking like a Texas auctioneer? “Say again, slowly, please,” should be a part of your lexicon. It’s okay. Sometimes controllers really do talk too fast.
Use The Whole Arsenal
All these ATC communications tools are a part of a pilot’s arsenal for efficient flying. You may have to remind your air traffic controller of them, however. Many controllers have been minted direct into our NextGen world and may have glossed over some of these more obscure clearances and subtle rules during their training. Don’t let that deter you, though. More than once I’ve explained to ATC the clearance I wanted and the rule dictating its use, and, by using the right tone during my explanation, I’ve been rewarded by getting to fly the way I wanted.
Knowing the rules, and especially, understanding how your regional facilities exercises them is key to successful communication in IFR and VFR situations. The rules are in the FARs and phraseology is in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), both of which can be accessed online at the FAA’s Web site, www.faa.gov.
Once you’ve practiced the language of ATC and get fluent you’ll discover that, just as in a foreign country, the locals will suddenly seem much friendlier and willing to help you because you are speaking their tongue and communicating your needs much more clearly and succinctly. You’ll also help cut down on frequency congestion, and will find yourself much, much more comfortable in both busy VFR and IFR airspace. Best of all, you’ll get to your destination more efficiently. And isn’t that the whole reason you decided to fly there in the first place?