Just Say (Definitely) No

Just because a controller works for the government doesnt mean all clearances and directives should be followed


A friend assures me that he has developed a sure-fire method to duck out of jury duty. When the defense poses the first voir dire question, merely reply: Well, the police wouldnt have arrested him if he wasnt guilty.

If the judge doesnt threaten contempt, the defense attorney will immediately conclude that no one could possibly be that dumb. On the other hand, on the off chance that someone could, using up a challenge is cheap insurance. Next juror, please.

The irony of this absurdity is that in such life-and-death matters as jury trials, were spring-loaded to doubt the governments pronouncements. Yet as pilots, most of us react in the opposite way when confronted with ATC clearances and instructions that may sound fishy or ill advised. We go along. We comply. Were happy to help.

Why? For the simple – and understandable – reason that we assume controllers know their business and, as only sometime users of the system, we similarly assume our knowledge is flawed, so we go along with ATCs wishes, perhaps to a fault.

Yet controllers are just like pilots. Most are good, know the rules and make sensible judgments. A tiny fraction are just highly paid chair warmers too lazy or bored to have opened the book (FAA Order 7110.65) for a refresher on the fine points of the craft. Any savvy controller with experience will tell you that ATC isnt a meritocracy; as an institution, it tends to hide its weak sticks in a go-along/get-along culture.

For pilots, what this means is that amidst what is overwhelmingly professional and courteous ATC service, youll hear the occasional boneheaded clearance, instruction or suggestion that no sensible pilot should comply with.

Thats why the word unable exists in the pilot vocabulary and why you should use it without fear of retribution when necessary.

Just Trying To Help
Some examples? In the June issue, we reported on an accident that occurred in Bradford, Pa., in 1999. A freshly minted instrument pilot (184 hours total time) launched a Mooney 252 into a low overcast and immediately got into trouble, probably due to sheer inexperience. As is often the case in such incidents, the crisis unfolded over minutes, giving a frustrated and alarmed controller time to consider alternatives.

Straight from Frederick Forsythes The Shepherd, the controllers Plan B was to ask another aircraft on the ground to launch into the clouds, find the distressed aircraft and lead it to safety.

Never mind that the second aircrafts PIC probably had no idea of the Mooneys plight or the pilots utter lack of experience and that the chances of this plan succeeding were slim to none while the consequences of it going bad are too grim to contemplate.

Trained military pilots fly formation in IMC, but most will tell you its a demanding task that youd hardly go out of your way to experience. We cant imagine how a stressed out, 184-hour private pilot in IMC could manage it at all, let alone well enough to keep pace with a faster aircraft. Even more surprising is that the pilot of the second airplane would go along with what was ultimately a terrible idea.

One More Time
Yet its not the first time weve seen what well call The Shepherd Syndrome. In a little known incident in November 1992, a Gulfstream en route from Florida to Maine lost all of its electrics in IMC near Washington, D.C. The aircraft was owned and piloted by actor John Travolta, and had a Gulfstream-qualified pilot/co-pilot aboard.

Controllers at Washingtons Tracon, who were tracking the Gulfstream as a primary radar only target, knew the jet was dark and surmised that it was operating above an undercast, looking for a hole to descend into either National Airport or Dulles International. Lacking any better ideas, controllers decided to vector a USAir 737 toward the distressed Gulfstream, with the idea that the airliner would lead the bizjet safely to earth.

Despite the fact that ATC had no information on the Gulfstreams altitude and despite the fact the USAir crew understood and acknowledged that they were being vectored toward an airplane with no lights, at night, possibly to join up with it in IMC, no one raised any objections to this plan on the frequency, at least initially.

Had it succeeded – a most unlikely outcome – the pilots would have been hailed as steely-eyed heroes. Had it ended it in a pair of smoking craters littered with the bodies of paying passengers, the first question would have been: What could they possibly have been thinking?

In fact, in a post-incident review, the NTSB gently raised that very issue. While the board lauded the controllers for being resourceful, it also suggested that the FAA revise its guidelines in situations where formation flight is necessary to resolve an emergency.

The Board suggested that formation flying should be attempted only when both pilots are capable of flying formation, something ATC probably has no means to determine. Between the lines, the NTSB was saying: Dont try this stunt again unless youre damn sure the pilots can hack it.

The flypaper trap for pilots is that most are eager to help in a distress situation and if that involves putting their superior piloting skills and cool nerves on display, so much the better. But a night join-up between a bizjet with no lights or radio and an airliner? The very prospect should set off any pilots dont-go-there warning light.

Were Not Gonna
And thats exactly what happened on a fogbound night in Providence, R.I., in December 1999, a classic case of an ATC clearance that just didnt sound right being utterly rejected by an on-the-ball crew.

With fog blown in off Narragansett Bay, Providence was conducting Cat II operations to runway 5R, in visibility hovering in the -mile or less range, under indefinite ceilings. A United 757 landed and promptly got lost after turning off the runway.

Unbeknownst to the tower/ground controller, the 757 missed its taxi route and blundered around the airport, eventually stopping in the intersection of runway 5R/16, with 5R remaining the active runway.

While the crew was pondering its confusion and concluding it was parked in the intersection of the active runway, a FedEx freighter was cleared for takeoff on the same runway. This development is terrifyingly obvious as the roar of jet exhaust is clearly audible on both the United jets CVR and ATCs recorded radio tapes.

Meanwhile, a USAir crew taxiing out for takeoff heard the confused radio traffic between the tower and, not knowing the whereabouts of the lost United 757, politely declined the tower controllers clearance to take off on runway 5R.

Not to worry, said the controller confidently, the United 757 wasnt a factor because it was on runway 5L/23R, a runway thats used as a taxiway at night or when the field is IFR. She said this despite not being able to see anything from the tower cab and having been told by the United crew that it was at the intersection of Kilo taxiway and a runway. (At Providence, Kilo intersects only runway 5R/23L.)

Again, the USAir crew declined the takeoff clearance, informing the tower that it wasnt moving an inch until the United flight was safely at the gate.

Hats off to that USAir crew. While another company crew had willingly gone along with what was clearly a bad idea to intercept a lost aircraft at night with the seats filled by paying passengers, the Providence crew gamely rejected a legitimate clearance that just didnt sound right.

Little Victories
In the world of everyday flying, most bogus ATC clearances, directives and attempts to be helpful are far more mundane and generally not life-threatening.

Take, for example, the case of an instrument pilot who recently sent a report to NASAs Aviation Safety and Reporting System about an oddball directive he was given while being vectored for a night ILS in IMC.

Evidently to fix a sequencing foul-up, the controller asked the pilot to execute a tight 360 across the localizer course. Try as we might, we can find no definition in the AIM or the controllers manual for a tight 360. But on the fly, what red-blooded pilot wouldnt invent a definition on the spot, racking into a 45-degree bank to show ATC just how tight tight can be?

But this pilot – after recovering from his 60-degree-bank unusual attitude – concluded that the controllers directive was out of line, as indeed, a research pass through the 7110.65 would confirm. Next time, he told ASRS, his response will be what it should have been in the first place: Unable or Well take a vector.

Obviously, in this circumstance, the controller improvised a procedure to fix some sort of sequencing or separation problem, without regard to whether the pilot could do it legally, safely or at all.

Not to suggest that controllers dont have the safety of pilots in mind, but because most are not pilots, they occasionally ask the impossible, the illegal or the unsafe, simply because their priorities arent always in sync with those of pilots. Controllers separate; pilots fly. The two agendas dont always coincide.

Another example: On a flight into Orlando, two pilots in a Mooney were following a 737 on final for runway 18L and, using the standard procedure to avoid wake turbulence, they were holding a glidepath above that of the 737.

When the Boeing landed long, the Mooney pilot informed the tower that he too would be landing long, past the point where the 737 touched down and well down the length of the 12,000-foot runway.

No you wont, replied the tower controller, I need you off at Juliet.A short but spirited exchange ensued in which the Mooney pilot explained the wake turbulence concern, landed long and, in an amusing role reversal, called the tower.

The tower controller wanted the short landing to clear the runway for another heavy jet three miles behind the Mooney. When the Mooney didnt clear the runway in time, the heavy had to be sent around.

For what its worth, this was not the Mooney pilots problem and, when a supervisor took the pilots phone call, the supe said as much. The controller had erroneously – and probably unknowingly – asked the Mooney pilot to duck through the Boeings wake merely for the sake of making a separation plan work out. The pilot was right to reject the directive and the fact that an airliner got sent around as a result was immaterial. The supervisor agreed.

Know Your Rights
But how many pilots would do the same? How many are willing to analyze an ATC clearance or directive on the fly then stand up on two hind legs and refuse an unsafe or out-of-line instruction?

Here were examples of two who did and two who didnt. But we doubt if half the pilots out there would react as we described in these incidents. Why? For the same reason that our friends jury shirking seems so funny.

Just as were expected to be skeptical of the governments case in a trial, we also tend to accept the authority of anything uttered by a controller as the official last word. After all, he wouldnt be a controller if he didnt know what he was doing. (The police wouldnt have arrested him…)

The antidote, of course, is knowledge and experience. The knowledge comes from knowing the FARs and AIM procedures cold, which we can assure you most controllers and pilots do not. Experience comes from flying and using the system and applying that knowledge.

And thats why a flight review or IPC that doesnt include some discussion of real-world procedures and regs is a sham, lending truth to the notion that what you dont know can hurt you or, at the very least, make you look like a moron.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Is the Enforcer Out to Get You?”

-by Paul Bertorelli

Paul Bertorelli is editor of Aviation Consumer and a CFII/ATP.


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