Monday, April 16, 2007

You Talkin' ta Me?

I have a skill that seems to be innate. I've never practiced it, never studied with anyone, and I can't figure out how I could make a living doing it, but I'm good at identifying voices. Sitting in front of the TV, a Honda commercial comes on, I hear two words of the voice-over and I quiz my wife "Name the voice!" She listens, asks me for a clue, then gives up. "Kevin Spacey!" I announce triumphantly to no one in particular. The thing is, the voice doesn't have to belong to a famous person. If I've had an interaction with someone over the radio and hear their voice again a few days later, I most often recognize it instantly, particularly if I had some noteworthy interaction with them. Maybe this is a gift, maybe it's a curse.

Pilots and air traffic controllers are two strange and separate groups who have to deal with one another, whether they like it or not. I say separate because what pilots do and what air traffic controllers do, while intertwined, is radically different. It's like pilots and controllers live in two completely different worlds that intersect because of radio communication, radar, and regulations. About the only personal contact we have might be from recognizing one another's voice, flight number, or tail number.

If you need more evidence, consider that pilots have the Aeronautical Information Manual and controllers have something called Order 7110.65R. If more pilots read Order 7110.65R from time to time, maybe there'd be less confusion, but frankly I don't know many non-instructor pilots who regularly take the time to review the Aeronautical Information Manual.

It's no wonder that student pilots have such a hard time figuring out what to say on the radio since they don't have much in the way of context. I believe that most student pilots are continually wondering "Who is this person on the other end of the radio, what are they doing, what do they want from me, and why do they seem so frustrated and angry?" One of the most important parts of a flight instructor's job is to show pilots (students or certificated pilots) effective and efficient ways to communicate with ATC.

Though I've never witnessed in person an ATC instructor working with a new controller, I've heard it over the radio:
ATC: Barnburner 123, fly heading 140, descend and maintain 3000, and maximum forward speed.

Me: Heading 140, leaving 4000, descending 3000, best speed, Barnburner 123.

ATC: Barnburner 123, fly heading 120, join the GPS 9 Right approach course and report established.

Me: Barnburner 123 is established, you still need best forward speed?

ATC: Barnburner 123, go as fast as you can!

ATC (a different and irritated voice): Barnburner 123, disregard the last, resume normal speed, cleared GPS 9 Right approach.

I recall a new controller who sounded so bashful and intimidated while she was being trained. We empathized with her and were kind, polite, and encouraging to her as she learned the ropes, first on ground, then clearance delivery, then on tower. But lately she's feeling competent and in control and is often downright rude. Shame about that, really ...

Flying with a multiengine instructor candidate recently, he navigated to a local practice area. Rather than cutting us loose, the approach controller hung onto us and continued to provide traffic advisories. I think there's an understanding among most controllers that multi-engine training aircraft have limited visibility and given that we're often involved in complex training scenarios, they realize that we could use some help avoiding other traffic. As we did our various maneuvers, steep turns, slow flight, Vmc demonstrations, we began to drift toward another sector and the controller handed us off.

The next controller was trying to be helpful, but I got the feeling he was a newbie. He began to call out traffic for us:
ATC: Duchess 123, traffic two to three o'clock, three miles, same altitude.

Me: Negative contact, we're in a turn, request cardinal direction to the traffic.

ATC: Duchess 123, fly heading 290.

Me: Heading 290, Duchess 123.

ATC: Duchess 123, additional traffic, nine moving to ten o'clock, 3900, unverified.

Me: Negative contact, we're maneuvering, can you give us a cardinal direction to the traffic?

ATC: Duchess 123, fly heading 300.

Me: Heading 300, Duchess 123

ATC: Duchess 123, what are you doing out there, you appear to be changing altitude and heading?

Me: We're maneuvering, Duchess 123.

ATC: Duchess 123, traffic now at your ten o'clock, two miles, same altitude.

Me: Duchess 123, negative contact, request frequency change.

ATC: Duchess 123, squawk VFR, frequency change approved, use caution for numerous targets in your area.

Me: Squawk VFR, Duchess 123

So we headed to a different practice area, asked for traffic advisories, and worked with a controller who understood that a maneuvering aircraft needs to be told the cardinal direction to the traffic, like south, northeast, or west.

If there's one thing I've learned from instructing and flying freight, it's that many controllers have a thinly-veiled contempt for flight instructors, student pilots, and instructional flights. When I was a freight dog, I talked to the same controllers most every morning and every evening. We got to recognize each other's voices, radio mannerisms, and they knew my routing. Often there was a friendly recognition and I think much of that came from the realization that we were going to be talking to each other on a regular basis, so it would be good if we got along in a professional sort of way. And additional benefit was that I most always came on frequency at the same time of day with the same routing.

In contrast, my work as a flight instructor sees me flying an irregular schedule out of three or four different Bay Area airports, in a variety of different aircraft. I think many controllers don't recognize my voice and feel less compelled to be cordial or even helpful. I've heard many a controller become irritated when my student makes a request, the implication being that instructional flights are not important.

I'm not claiming that a 172 requesting a practice ILS approach should be given priority over a commercial freight or passenger flight, but I do think that controllers often fail to realize that I am a professional pilot. Flight instruction is how I make my living, how I pay my mortgage and my bills, no different from them, really. The strangest ATC interaction I've had so far came a few weeks ago and perhaps it's indicative of the type of treatment that is in store for GA pilots. After a night training flight, we came back to find that Oakland was reporting overcast clouds at 300 feet and 2 miles visibility.
Me: Norcal, Socata 123, Danville, 3500, request IFR clearance, Oakland ILS 27 Right, with Quebec.

Norcal: Socata 123, Norcal approach, squawk 5342, and verify you're requesting an IFR clearance.

Me: Affirm, Socata 123.

Norcal: Socata 123, I'm not sure I'll be able to get you in, fly heading 120, maintain VFR

Me: (somewhat astonished) fly heading 120, Socata 123.

A few minutes later, the controller inexplicably decides to put us on the approach in front of a Navajo and gives them delay vectors.

Norcal: Socata 123, fly heading 180, cleared to the Oakland Airport via radar vector for the ILS 27 Right, maintain 3300.

Me: Heading 180, cleared to Oakland via radar vectors, ILS 27 Right, maintain 3300.

Norcal: Socata 123, two miles from UPACI, fly heading 250, maintain 3000 until established, maintain maximum forward speed.

We broke out on the approach close to the decision altitude and landed in a dewy, mist. The approach controller probably had no I idea that I recognized his voice. It was the same one who didn't understand what I meant when I asked for a traffic advisory with a cardinal direction.


eric said...

I've definitely noticed that the ATC services in and around UND's major training areas obviously dislike us. Low approaches on the ILS back home, when pattern traffic is running the alternate direction, are such a common occurrence that it quite literally boggled my mind when my CFII said we couldn't do such a thing here. It took the supervisor of flight actually calling tower to get some kind of under-the-table permission. Pretty bizarre.

Dave Starr said...

This is an interesting article. A lot could be done in this area to improve communication/cooperation on both sides of the fence, but given (especially) the current political hostility toward general avaiation I am not all that hopeful.

I worked for many years as a simulator tech for the USAF. Aside from keeping the machine(s) running a primary duty was to sit outside the "box" during training missions and act as ATC for the trainees. We learned the 7110.65 fairly throughly as part of the job ... but everything was scripted and if an instructor inside the "box" with a student asked for something not on the script many of us fumbled and flumoxed around.

As you probably know the Air Force has its own ATC system which operates in parallel/cooperation (sometimes) with their FAA brethren. Our local tower and approach control were "all Air Force". I was able to set up a neat program in cooperation with our local military ATC chief that has us sim techs spending time observing in the tower and RAPCON and trainee controllers coming to the sim to take terms "flying" it and controlling it. Everyone from airman to colonel level thought it was a gangbusters idea and it essentially cost nothing. They flew on the maintenance shift when all squawks were cured and no training was scheduled.

The FAA started doing a study of taking over the facilities from the USAF, making them jointly military/FAA manned and the very first thing th study recommended? Yep, do away with the "wasteful" an d"non-standard" simulator/controller orientation program.

Oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

You may be a fan of Don Brown who until recently wrote and excellent ATC column for AvWeb:
Don is a now retired 25-year controller and non-pilot but has flown with many "little airplane" pilots and is a real loss to the ATC profession. His blog is at:
where he doesn't write often enough about pilot/controller communication.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen

Sound like the controllers are having bad times. I'm sure this affects their attitude towards all of us

I do remember that in the old days (1970's ) hestitating and unsure of themselves pilots in the DFW metroplex got short shrift. The controller's attitude was "just go away, I don't have time to hold your hand" The attitude completely changed when I came on the mike. i was not known to the controllers but I was familiar with the area and knoew what they and I wanted.

Wes said...

I thought I'd contribute my only ATC-in-training story:

About 15 miles east of Concord Regional Airport, where I fly, is a small delta-class airport (Stanley County, VUJ), that is open to the public but also houses an Air National Guard unit. In addition, the tower there is where the Air Force trains some of their ATC people. I was working with an instructor on some maneuvers, and we decided to land there for a touch-and-go. Listening to the tower frequency, it became clear that the controller was somewhat new and rather timid. The most obvious indication of this was the second, more-experienced voice that could be heard in the background giving her gentle instruction. Another airplane landed about 2 minutes before us, and she gave them "right next taxiway, taxi to parking" instructions, and when we touched down - cleared for the option - she gave us the same directions. Our 172 was already racing along quite nicely, and my instructor just called back to say "68delta is touch and go." We never heard back from her.

John said...


Glad you're stilll lurking! ;-) Thanks for the pointers to the ATC/FAA related blogs. I had just added links to them the other day. I didn't know about Don Brown's log, though I was always a fan of his Avweb articles.


I'm sure that you say is true. Anytime I encounter someone who is happy with their job, it's usually partially explained by how their manager treats them. The opposite is most certainly true, too.


Interesting observations. The approach controllers who I find give the best traffic advisories while maneuvering are the folks at Travis Approach - and many of them are trainees. I think some of the NORCAL folks could learn a thing or two from the guys and gals at Travis. You know, beginner's mind and all that ...

Ron said...

I haven't really noticed any bias against instructional flights here in Southern California.

What I have noticed is that the tolerance for poor piloting or pilots who ATC perceives as potentially problematic had dropped dramatically.

(This might very well have something to do with increasing traffic levels and decreasing ATC staffing. More and more, I see one controller working both tower frequencies at SNA, even at peak hours, which is insane. The same goes for combined Socal frequencies.)

It's pretty clear to me that controllers make a "snap" judgment about a pilot based on the initial communication. If the pilot sounds like he know what he's doing, the odds of getting good service from ATC are much higher than if you call up on a busy frequency when the controller is slammed and then have trouble reading back things, suck up too much time on the frequency, don't comply with instructions, and/or have trouble being understood by the controller.

Unfortunately, these are many of the characteristics of student pilots, and there's no way to get them past that without some level of pain. If there were, we'd be out of a job.

I have to say, this communication problem is not one-sided. Many controllers speak too fast, use non-standard phraseology, do not speak clearly, or take other shortcuts which are, in the long run, counterproductive.

Just the other day, I was flying an SR22 on an instructional flight from SNA to LGB. We were on an IFR clearance, and the controller asked if we were familiar with Emmy and Eva (a pair of oil platforms and VFR reporting points over the ocean). I said yes, and the controller instructed us to hold over them. ???

I think it would be helpful for pilots to spend some time in approach control and ARTCC facilities watching controllers work and seeing things from their end. Sadly, it's hard to get into ATC facilities now, and that's to everyone's detriment.

By the same token, there used to be a program to take controllers up for a flight so they could see what things look like from the other side of the radio, but I believe that program is also long-since gone.


Paul said...


Isn't a controller by rights allowed to tell you to go pound sand and file at the FSS for a popup?

From what I know so far and hear over the radio, I wouldn't expect to do this on the east coast into any class B. I've heard it done into class C airspace but only when they aren't busy.

Hey, I'm an IFR student. I'm not throwing stones, just trying to get it right.



John said...


I've searched Order 7110.65R and I find no mention of controller discretion for issuing a pop-up clearance. Now if Oakland had been under a flow control or ground stop program, I could understand being refused a pop-up clearance.

In all the years I've flown into Oakland, I've never had a controller tell me they might not be able to get me in. I've been told to expect a delay and to hold VFR over some area, but never threatened with no service.

Pop-ups into a Class B airport are another story. Most of these airport require a flight plan be filed in advance, even for VFR flights.

I teach instrument students to file IFR when they think they'll need it, but expect to receive a pop-up with some delay.

Dave Starr said...

Glad to be around, John. I always find your posts and insights interesting ... even if they point up the fact that aviation is still stuck with the same problems it had som nay years ago when I got my private and thought ong and hard about moving up into the small FBO/CFI ranks. There was so little money and respect for the profession than and the only thing that has changed much is since is that you have to know one heck of a lot more these days to do a decent job.

Sadly Don doesn't write often about ATC/aviaton subjects in his blog and he will o longer be writing for AvWeb ... hope thye find another controller who can inform pilots a bit as to what goes on in those darkened rooms.

eric said...

A good (if somewhat outdated) book on controller-pilot interaction and expectations is John Stewart’s Avoiding Common Pilot Errors, an Air Traffic Controller’s view. I read through it this summer and it provided a lot of insight into how controllers expect to route aircraft and why they get exasperated at us pilots once in a while. It does go into detail on some obsolete radar systems and such, and the airspace classes have since been replaced, but I feel that it's still a valuable read.