Someone To Watch Over You

Observations from air traffic controllers on what GA pilots do right, and wrong, in the ATC system.


Ancient lore is filled with stories of secret societies of Watchers. Whether the subject was werewolves, vampires or keepers of holy grails, Watchers followed

Air Traffic Controller

Colin Hunter


their activities, tracked their movements and, when necessary, interceded to protect society or the subjects themselves from each other.

In some ways modern aviation has a society of Watchers as well, but in this case proud and expert professionalism replaces cloaked secrecy, pilots are very aware of and actively interact with the Watchers, and there is a mutual goal of safety and efficiency that binds aviators and Watchers together. Aviations Watchers are, of course, air traffic controllers.

From their perches in the towers, approach controls and center work stations, they track us and guide us and provide valuable help when requested-and sometimes even when its not. Far from a separate society, controllers are an active part of the aviation safety team. From their unique vantage points, controllers have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesnt in aircraft movement. They know what pilots do right and what they might do better to fit into the system and get safely from departure to destination.

I polled air traffic controllers to discover what we can be doing better to improve safety, fit into the flow of traffic, get the best possible information while en route, and perhaps expedite our handling and requests. Hear, then, the advice of aviations Watchers.

Radio Games

Radio communication, naturally, was most frequently discussed because radio is the link between aircraft and ATC. Many controller comments focused on radio technique, with a common ATC complaint being about the pilot who transmits on a new frequency without listening first, “stepping on” other transmissions. “Its like being interrupted during a conversation,” observed one veteran controller.

A corollary is the impatient pilot who makes a radio call, doesnt get a reply right away, and retransmits almost immediately, hoping to get an answer.

Its extremely common that air traffic controllers are working more than one frequency at a time and, although they may have heard the pilots first call and intend to respond, they are also listening to another pilot in a conversation you cant hear.

Even when a controller is working only a small geographic area there may be military traffic on UHF frequencies that require ATC attention. And although sometimes pilots think its an excuse for missing a radio call, controllers really are frequently “on the land line” to other controllers, coordinating other airplane movements (or yours) or trying to satisfy special requests.

Be polite, but be professional. Use standard phraseology (“I hate pilots who use cute variations on callsigns, like Sugar instead of Sierra,” said one controller). Use your full call sign unless ATC shortens it for you (there may be a similar callsign on the frequency or another the controller is working).

Besides frequency congestion, there is another hazard of poor communication technique. One controller admitted what many pilots suspect, that “pilots who sound like amateurs will be moved out of the way” of more professional-sounding aviators.

Put another way, for expeditious handling and fulfillment of requests, you need to work the radio like a pro.

Getting the Weather

Another area where several controllers say pilots might do better involves obtaining weather information. On startup, listen to the ATIS or AWOS/ASOS (where available) before calling the ground controller for taxi. Use the alphabet identifier (“ATIS Charlie”), not a colloquial “I have the weather” or “I have the numbers.” Check just before you call ground; you may have outdated information if you think a cell phone check as you drove to the airport or before you preflighted the airplane will suffice.

In fact, reporting you have an outdated version of ATIS will only mess things up because the controller will either have to read you the update on frequency, or he/she will direct you to listen to the updated information and then call back.

Arriving at an airport with ATIS or AWOS/ASOS, listen before you are handed off to the last controller (approach or center) that will handle you before you talk to tower. One controller steamed: “Theres way too much asking whether a pilot has the ATIS.” Look at the frequency for the controlling authority for approaches at your arrival airport. You should have heard the weather, and report so, when you first make contact with controllers on that frequency. If youre flying VFR into a tower-controlled airport and will not contact controllers before the Class D airspace, listen to weather before you need to call the tower. “November 329 Papa Tango, seven east, landing with Charlie” is a concise and effective way to make first contact.

If youre flying an instrument approach into a non-towered airport and more than one approach is authorized for that airport, youll be asked which approach you request. Its your choice; ATC will not assign a specific approach for you. “329 Papa Tango has AWOS for Newton, request ILS 17” saves a game of 20 Questions on frequency.


Want to tick off a controller? Read back clearances in some random order. A 32-year ATC veteran, experienced pilot and aircraft owner put it this way: A “pet peeve [of his] is when pilots read back a clearance or instruction in a completely different order than what was issued. Its like theyre trying to confuse the controller. In reality, [the pilot] is being disorganized and probably flies that way as well.”

Another workload increaser: airborne reroutes. Sure, weather or other factors often makes changes en route desirable or necessary, and controllers generally are happy to accommodate them. But when a pilot departs on an IFR flight plan and waits until immediately after becoming airborne to ask for a different altitude or route, it creates unnecessary work for controllers and therefore may delay your request (if its granted at all).

“You wonder why,” says the veteran controller/pilot, “they couldnt tell clearance delivery to amend their clearance/route while [the airplane] was still on the ground.”

If you file a route of flight, be able to fly the route as filed. Example: if you do not have an IFR-certified (and database-current) GPS, Loran or RNAV system, do not file “direct” unless the rules of navaid-based routing permits (generally, within 25 nm of off-airways navaids). Sure, with your VFR GPS you can request ATC vectors (“Departure, 329 Papa Tango requests a vector from Wichita direct Las Vegas, that looks like about 253 degrees….”) and controllers actually like to know you have VFR GPS to help out if requested (put “VFR GPS Equipped” in your flight plans remarks section).

But if you file a direct or other routing, be sure you have the equipment on board to fly that route legally under IFR. Remember, you need to be able to fly “as filed” in case of a total communications failure.


Some controllers want to clear up a few misconceptions pilots seem to have. Most frequently cited is ATCs weather capability. Said one controller: “Our current STARS [weather depiction] equipment does a better job of displaying weather than the old ARTS; however, it appears pilots think we can see impending weather movement, which we cant do with either system.”

In other words, ATC sees a snapshot of current weather intensity and location, but controllers have no indication of what the weather may be like, or where its going to be even a few minutes in the future. Responsibility for active weather avoidance remains in the cockpit.

“It also appears,” continued that controller, “pilots believe our equipment warns us far in advance of impending [traffic] conflicts when in fact our equipment warns us of impending conflicts only seconds [ahead of time].”

What about emergencies? This author is guilty of thinking using the “E-word” triggers special controller authority to react to your in-flight situation. Ive learned, however, theres nothing a controller is permitted to do for an emergency aircraft he/she cant do without that declaration.

“Regulations direct the controller,” one controller reports, “to provide safe and expeditious handling of aircraft in distress. [But] there is no additional [controller] authority given or expected.” Declaring an emergency makes it crystal clear to controllers that you need priority handling, a priority you may not receive if you do not overtly make that declaration.

Its the individual controllers training and skill at clearing others out of your way and helping you respond to the emergency that kicks in, not some new set of rules that apply only to “emergency aircraft.”

The Lowdown

Several controllers lamented that pilots dont seem to know when they can descend, or how low they are allowed to go. When VFR pilots receive advisories, controllers remind us, they can descend as low as regulations allow unless given an altitude restriction by ATC in controlled airspace.

On VFR flight following, you do not have to ask ATC for a lower altitude. You often need to advise ATC you are changing altitude, but its not a request. Thats different from IFR pilots, who are expected to fly at filed or cleared altitudes, and descend to published altitudes when cleared onto arrival and approach procedures without being told.

Controllers are clearing other airplanes through the airspace on the assumption youll descend when the procedure indicates. When cleared for a visual approach, pilots have permission to descend all the way to landing-but are responsible for their own terrain and traffic clearance also.

My Pilots Better Than Your Pilot

Out of curiosity, I asked if there was any particular class of IFR pilot that routinely performs better or worse than others, and if so, whether the controller had any theory as to why.

The answer, across the board, was surprising. Far from being the most professional of the bunch (from the standpoint of interacting with controllers and adhering to clearances), airline pilots draw significant controller criticism for mistakes and on-frequency performance.

Compared to airline crews, one controller observed, “Part 91 and especially [FedEx/UPS/DHL, etc.] pilots seem to want to help work within the [ATC] system rather than make the system work around them.” This was an interesting observation about airline operations, with possible ramifications not only for safety but for the “user fee” debate as well.

Other controllers gave Part 135 pilots, especially the “check-haulers,” high marks for proficiency and operation as part of the bigger picture. Part 91 pilots actually do quite well “if you consider the workload they are under compared to the other categories of pilots” who are “in a two-crew environment [and] therefore share the workload.”

Other subcategories of pilot/operator elicit other concerns. “In my opinion,” reports one senior controller, “Ive run across more [Part] 135 pilots and in particular the pilots with [large fractional ownership programs] that perform more poorly than others. [My] facility has more pilot deviations from this category than others. Not to be too judgmental,” the controller continued, “but weve seen some wild and scary things come out of the new RJ [Regional Jet] crews.”

The controller didnt speculate, but one commonality between many RJ and fractional ownership programs is they attract a large number of relatively low-time pilots right out of aviation schools and fast-track ab initio academies, and employ them in turbine aircraft.

They may not have the seasoning to fully complement a higher-time captain in the jet, yet sometimes they are promoted into the left seat of turbine equipment and regional airliners as soon as they have the minimum 1500 hours needed to earn their ATP. Then theyre teamed with another fast-tracker in the right seat.

Obviously we shouldnt stereotype all pilots based on the type of operation. The takeaway, though, is, with proper training and experience, a Part 91 pilot can work the system as safely and effectively as an experienced airline pilot. All pilots must realize the impact their actions can have on expeditious ATC handling and on safely completing a flight.

Parting Words

Lastly, a very senior controller/pilot emailed his advice for all pilots, VFR or IFR: “Listen up.” That goes for controllers as well. When asked if theres anything hed like to tell pilots about being a controller he replied, “Its fun! Were no different than anyone else, so dont be intimidated.” As parting advice, the controller wrote: “Ive learned over my 32-plus years of controlling that pilots of all categories make mistakes just like controllers do, and that it takes teamwork from pilots and controllers to make the system work safely.”

What better closing words from a Watcher?

Tom Turner is a CFII-MEI who frequently writes and lectures on aviation safety.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here