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Home » John E. McLain

Pilot Controller cooperation: Give the controller only the information he needs (Part 2)

By John E. McLain (March 2001)

Last month, I discussed some ideas on pilots cooperating with air traffic controllers to make life and work easier for everyone operating in the ATC system. I presented some operating procedures controllers use, and how pilots, by understanding these procedures, can make the system work better. We also looked at a few of the common communication errors pilots make, leading to excessive talk and frequency congestion, not to mention confusion.

For those who missed the last column, I want to review one important element covered. That is “Pop-Up-Traffic” (POT). In 99% of the cases, the controller is aware beforehand of IFR traffic and its intention. Initial contact between controller and pilot is really nothing more than a “Hello, here I am, and I have the ATIS.” It is also a good idea to include your assigned altitude and whether you are level at, climbing to, or descending to it. “Raleigh Approach, Cessna 1234 level at four thousand, with BRAVO.”

On the other hand, VFR traffic is an entirely different story. The controller is totally unaware of your existence. You are what they refer to as POT. For that reason, your first contact should be only what is necessary to get attention and have the ATIS. “Raleigh Approach, Cessna 1234 with BRAVO.” The only exception might be if you have a special request, such as a practice instrument approach or a specific runway, in which case “Raleigh Approach, Cessna 1234 with BRAVO and a request” would be appropriate. But — and this is an important but — before you make your call be prepared to write down any clearance or instruction the controller may reply with. A lot of excess and unnecessary frequency congestion occurs because pilots are not prepared for the controller’s reply.

The major exception to the VFR POT situation is when you are handed off from one controller to another. This could occur when the tower tells you to contact departure control or if you were using flight following services. In such cases, the simple IFR contact explained above would suffice. The controller is expecting you.

One final comment on initial contact with a radar controller, whether IFR or VFR. If your airplane is equipped with a mode C transponder, the controller has to verify its accuracy before it can be used in the ATC system. The controller does this by requesting your altitude. If your reply agrees with his/her readout within plus or minus 300 feet, your equipment is considered accurate for use. Excess talk can be eliminated if, on initial contact with a radar controller, pilots report altitude accurately. Thus, if you are departing Atlanta Hartsfield Airport and the tower tells you to contact departure control, your reply should be something like this: “Atlanta Departure, Cessna 1234 leaving 1400 for 4500 feet.” This allows the controller to verify not only your mode C, but also your assigned altitude.

Now, since I’ve already covered ground operations up to and including the takeoff, I’ll move on to departure and arrival procedures along with miscellaneous operations and considerations.

I’ve mostly discussed routine situations and tried to explain the how and why’s of proper communications procedures. However, situations sometimes occur where a good pilot needs to deviate from normal procedures. Keep in mind that both pilots and controllers are human beings. And, no matter how well trained, humans are subject to errors. It is this susceptibility to errors, along with traffic congestion, that most often leads to an abnormal situation. The pilot must be prepared to help in resolving them. The key to this is “situational awareness.” We have all heard that phrase but too many pilots relate it solely to positional awareness. When working the ATC system there is a lot more to it. Situational awareness incorporates positional awareness, planning, traffic awareness and judgment among others.

Quite often on flight tests I will ask the applicant, whether a private or ATP, a simple question when we are inbound to an airport: “What other aircraft are on the frequency, where are they, and what are they doing?” Ninety percent of the applicants give me a blank stare as if I am crazy to expect them to know. Well, this is a part of situational awareness that most pilots don’t consider. I personally want to know if there is another airplane in my vicinity that could pose a threat for a possible mid-air collision if somebody makes a mistake. I also like to know if I might be in the trail of a large airplane that could create wake turbulence. That is a part of situational awareness, and an important part of pilot/controller cooperation.

Let me give you an example.

You are inbound to an airport in a Cessna 172 and the controller tells you to expect runway 23L. You are 8 miles to the south. You hear an air carrier 757 on the frequency 15 miles out on final for 23L. I hope it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure the controller’s problem. Who will get there first? Since you are now aware of the problem, you could give the controller some options such as a short approach, another runway, or delaying vectors. By making yourself aware of other traffic, sometimes you can help the controller. That, too, is part of situational awareness.

You should also incorporate planning, which to me means thinking ahead, in your situational awareness. Listen to the traffic situation on the frequency, know where you are and anticipate what you can expect from the controller. If you get an instruction that does not seem appropriate, don’t hesitate to question it. If you are south of the airport on a heading of 270, and the controller tells you to turn left to a heading of 180, you should want to question it. I could give you a multitude of other examples, but I hope you get the idea.

Finally, incorporate good judgment into your situational awareness. Know where you are, anticipate the controller’s actions, listen for other aircraft on the frequency and decide whether the controller’s instructions are appropriate. If you don’t think they are, then politely question them.

Also, when talking to the tower, don’t shy away from repeating instructions to the controller. For those wondering what common type of instructions should be repeated, I’ll admit it is always a tricky question. Nothing in the regulations requires you to repeat anything other than an acknowledgment. Based on my experience, here are some suggestions:

Repeat anything you get from clearance delivery.

Repeat anything from a controller that contains the word cleared, and include in your response the word cleared. Controller: “Cleared to land 23L.” Your response: “Cleared to land 23L.”

Repeat any hold short instructions.

Repeat anything that contains a number, such as a heading or altitude.

Show common courtesy when communicating. If you want something special like a practice approach, don’t say, “I want a practice approach.” Instead, say, “If you can work it in, I would like a practice approach.” Courtesy goes a long way.

I could probably go on forever, giving examples of ways to cooperate with controllers, but it is really up to you. Here are some general rules to follow:

  • Visit a tower or approach facility and learn all you can about the rules controllers operate under.
  • Be aware of being pop up traffic (POT) and don’t say too much on initial contact.
  • Don’t try to usurp the controller’s authority and responsibility by being presumptuous.
  • Keep communications short by understanding the information a controller needs, and giving only that which he requests.
  • Maintain complete situational awareness and know where you fit into the situation.
  • Exercise courtesy in your communications.

Finally, for those of you who hesitate to fly into controlled airports, don’t. Controllers will respect you if you let them know you are not experienced in controlled airport operations. You will find them helpful, and considerate of your inexperience. Just give them a chance.