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Home » John E. McLain

Pilot Controller cooperation: Learn to talk the talk and walk the walk for better service

By John E. McLain (February 2001)

By the time you read this article, the Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) control tower will have held its Operation Rain Check on Feb. 3-4, 2001. Operation Rain Check, an FAA safety program held throughout the country, is designed to bring GA pilots and controllers together to share experiences, insights and questions.

I have personally seen the time and effort that the personnel of the Raleigh Tower have put into this program. I’m sure that other ATC facilities put in the same level of dedication into their programs.

Most importantly, Operation Rain Check highlights the importance of pilot/controller cooperation, something with which many GA pilots may not be very familiar.

There seems to be a significant number of pilots out there who refuse to use the ATC system. The main excuses for this seems to be fear of the system or the inconvenience pilots presume is standard with ATC handling.

I think I can assure all of you out there that attendance at an Operation Rain Check will quickly put to rest many of the fears associated with operating at controlled airports. It will also demonstrate to you that the controller’s first concern is safety but is closely followed by a desire to serve the aviation public with the absolute minimum of inconvenience and delays. So if you are one of those pilots who avoids airports with a control tower or other ATC facilities, I have a few suggestions for you to get over this problem.

First and foremost, visit an ATC facility. You will have an opportunity to talk informally with some of the controllers and learn that they are human beings just like you, trying very hard to make flying an enjoyable and safe activity for all. You will also see how they do their job and their challenges they encounter.

Next, take advantage of Operation Rain Checks in your area. The Aviation Safety Program Manager at your local Flight Standards District Office will be more than happy to help you locate such a program.

Next, get together with an experienced flight instructor who also has experience in operating at high-density airports. Spend some ground time with him or her on what will be expected of you by the controllers and what you can expect from them. Then, plan a trip with your instructor to the busiest airport you can comfortably fly to. Do all of this, and I think you will find the flight enjoyable rather than fearsome and inconvenient.

Finally, remember that no pilot becomes completely comfortable with tower operations without experience. You will have to plan future trips to make use of ATC facilities instead of avoiding them. A few well-planned trips to towered airports will soon convince you of the safety and convenience of such operations. Also, if you are like me and have problems finding airports when you get in the vicinity, ATC can be a big help.

Now, what can you, the pilot, do to improve pilot/controller cooperation and make the system work better for you? The first thing is to know and understand some of the procedures under which controllers operate. For instance, at most airports with a radar facility, on departure you first contact clearance delivery, then ground control and then the tower. Of these, who is responsible for assuring that the pilot has received the ATIS? It is the ground controller. Even though you may tell clearance delivery that you have it, that information has to be relayed to the ground controller. Sometimes when things get busy this may not get done, in which case the ground controller has to ask the pilot if he or she has the ATIS. Realizing this, it is my procedure on initial contact to ground control to tell them I have the ATIS, i.e. “Information Bravo”.

While we are talking about clearance delivery and ground control, let’s discuss initial contacts with ATC facilities. The key to all communications is to include only essential data, be brief, listen, and know whether you are pop-up traffic.

The concept of pop-up traffic will come up later in this article so I will give it the abbreviation of POT. When an aircraft is operating under instrument flight rules, the controller is given advanced warning of its existence. Thus a call to clearance delivery can be simple: “Raleigh Clearance, Cessna 1234 IFR to Cleveland.” At that point the controller queries his computer and there you are. He immediately reads the clearance to you. If you are not ready to copy the clearance, you have failed in your obligation. When you send a message you must be prepared to listen and comply. Let me give you an example of a pilot requesting an IFR clearance, which I hear too often:

PILOT: Raleigh Clearance, this is Cessna 1234.

CONTROLLER: Cessna 1234, go ahead.

PILOT: Cessna 1234 is ready to copy his IFR clearance. (Note: Why call if you are not ready to copy the clearance?)

CONTROLLER: What is you destination?

PILOT: Cleveland.

CONTROLLER: Cessna 1234, cleared to …

As a good pilot, you should know that if you have filed an IFR flight plan the controller has the information available to him. You should then on initial contact keep it brief and explicit, such as this:

PILOT: Raleigh Clearance, Cessna 1234 IFR to Cleveland,

CONTROLLER: Cessna 1234, cleared to …

The first example took too much time and five transmissions. Example No. 2 was short, brief and took only two transmissions. It also made life easier for the controller. This is an example of how a pilot can make life easier for the controller if the pilot knows what is going on.

The basic rule here is simple. If you are IFR, the controller already knows about you and you should keep your initial transmission short and sweet.

One the other hand, if you are VFR you are POT, and your first transmission should simply be to get the controller’s attention. Here is an example of what not to do in a VFR situation.

Raleigh Clearance, this is Cessna 1234 at the Piedmont Ramp. I am VFR to Cleveland and would like to get a clearance to depart the area at 4,500 feet.

The controller may have at that time been doing something else, such as coordinating with another controller and is totally unprepared to get your complete message. Also, Clearance Delivery is not the least bit interested in your position on the airport his or her response will be something like:

CONTROLLER: Cessna just called VFR, repeat your message.

The proper way to do this if you are POT is this:

PILOT: Raleigh Clearance, Cessna 1234 VFR.

CONTROLLER: Cessna 1234, go ahead.

PILOT: Cessna 1234 is VFR to Cleveland requesting 4,500 feet.

The controller is now prepared to copy your request, make appropriate entries into the computer and get a transponder code. Life just got easier for him.

The next call is to the ground controller. He is interested in your position on the airport and that you are ready to taxi and have the ATIS. That’s about it. I often hear pilots say they are ready to taxi to a particular runway. That is a little presumptuous since the tower, not you, determines what runway to use. The contact with ground should be very simple. “Cessna 1234 at the Exxon ramp, taxi with information bravo.” A word of advice, here: The Ground Controller may look down at the Exxon Ramp and see 30 airplanes lined up in a row. Which one are you? If at all possible, taxi to a position on the ramp where the controller will be able to quickly spot you.

Now you have completed your run-up and are ready to go. What do you tell the tower? It’s simple: Cessna 1234, ready to go runway 5 left. Again, don’t be presumptuous; don’t say “number one at 5 left.” You may think you are number one but the controller may think differently. It is his decision, not yours. Also, when you call to say you’re ready, be ready. Nothing can upset a controller more than to clear an airplane for takeoff and have it hold in position while the checklist is completed. About the only thing I can think of when you taxi into position for takeoff that should be done is to check the heading indicator against the runway heading. Other than that the checklist should be complete before you call for takeoff clearance.

Well, I hope you have a little more understanding on how to leave the ramp and get into position for takeoff with more precise communications and less talk.

Next month we will cover departures, arrivals, and increased situational awareness in the pilot/controller cooperation scenario.