Pilots and Air Traffic Controllers

The forum room at AirVenture’s Pilot Proficiency Center off Boeing Plaza is nearly full as the afternoon sun begins to drive people inside for a few minutes of cool air before the airshow. Even at 83 degrees, it’s still a great day for AirVenture 2019, following the torrential rains earlier in the week that threatened to swamp campers. The Proficiency Center’s forum room is attached to the training hall where a dozen and a half pilots at a time learn the intricacies of IFR and VFR flight on 18 Redbird simulators. In the forum room, there’s training of a different sort going on.

Not surprising, many of the heads in the room are covered either in gray hair or a mop in the midst of that metamorphosis. But there are also quite a few young faces eager to hear one of the many National Air Traffic Controllers Association seminars being presented this week. The forums are the outreach program conceived by the NATCA, the bargaining agent for all 14,331 FAA-employed air traffic controllers, along with 481 controllers at the 102 NATCA-represented federal contract towers. NATCA also represents more than 5,000 other aviation-safety professionals in 14 bargaining units, as well as 56 Department of Defense-employed controllers at five military facilities—not including Andrews Air Force Base which is an FAA tower staffed by union controllers.

No union business is being discussed here today though. The handful of air traffic controllers on duty are poised to answer questions and explain how air traffic controllers perform their critical roles. They’re also hoping to crush some of the myths that exist between people who speak to each other but almost never meet in person. Controllers hear the voices of the pilots in their headsets and often come to know some pilots as friends. Pilots hear those often-familiar voices through their headsets too, but have only that familiar winking light on their transponder to know ATC is there, watching nearly every move.

Relationships like this can strain though when patience levels shrink during an in-flight emergency or when one party underappreciates the job of the other. But solid relationships between pilots and controllers is the foundation upon which our complex air traffic control system—the largest in the world—is built. Each side needs the other. Without pilots, controllers would be unnecessary. Without ATC, flying safely would be very much in jeopardy.

Good communications is the two-way street that links pilots and controllers, but it depends upon each side clearly articulating their needs. ATC’s safety-guaranteeing instructions are so specific that controllers demand they be repeated back word-for-word in order to prevent a collision on the ground or in the air. Simple responses like “roger” or “affirmative” only waste time, forcing controllers to repeat information that anyone flying an airplane today should already know how to explain. The NATCA organizes these forums at AirVenture to let the flying public listen to controllers explain some of the common problems they’re often faced with and how to resolve them.

This afternoon’s session, “Don’t Let That Cloud Fool You,” is being facilitated by Indianapolis Center controller Bob Obma who challenged the audience: “Raise your hand if you pay taxes.” Except for the few teenagers in the room, all the hands quickly fly up. “Then you’re already paying for the air traffic system,” he says. “Why not use it?” And so goes the back-and-forth session explaining what center controllers see on their radar and how they can help pilots in distress. Before the hour’s over, the roar of jets departing Wittman Airport’s Runway 36 begins drowning out some of his explanations as the airshow begins.

Pilots of any category would need to be brain-dead not to pick up some valuable operational nuggets from these sessions. In Obma’s session, I’m reminded that radar controllers are only allowed to descend an aircraft to a specific floor altitude to prevent collisions with ground obstacles. Controllers call these their minimum vectoring altitudes. Surprisingly, Obma says, he has no idea why the government doesn’t publish these altitudes anywhere for the rest of us to see.

As summer winds down, the FAA is a tad busy dealing with a number of issues, such as getting the agency’s new administrator, Steve Dickson, up to speed as he tries to untangle some of the knots into which the agency seems to have tied its tail. The NATCA people were eager to help us talk to controllers in the trenches, so to speak. Doug Church and Kelly Richardson of the communications office at NATCA began by reminding me there’s a wealth of pilot/controller resources available on the union’s website.

I spoke to Kelly Richardson a few days after AirVenture, and he detailed the union’s outreach programs called “Talk ATC With NATCA” at the nation’s largest airshow with almost-hourly presentations on nearly a dozen topics. A few include: How to Speak ATC, Communicating with Confidence and Clarity, Best Practices for Avoiding Common Mistakes, and Rarely Used Tools for VFR Pilots.

Richardson says: “We just hit 20 years as an exhibitor at AirVenture. The first presentation was probably 15 years ago. In 2019, we averaged between 135 to 150 people at each presentation, times 24 presentations, so that’s about 3,400 people total.” While that number pales in comparison to the 600,000-plus people who attended AirVenture, these were 3,400 people who very much wanted to know more about that semisecret relationship between pilots and controllers.

Richard Kennington—a controller at the PDX tower in Portland, Oregon—tells me his presentations are driven by a desire to bust up a big myth that still interferes with pilot/controller relationships, “that controllers are all stressed-out people just waiting for a pilot to make a mistake so they can lift their certificate.” Obma and Kennington both confirm, “nothing is further from the truth.”

Working at a Class C-airspace airport, Kennington offers a glimpse of how the tone of a pilot’s voice speaks volumes about their ability to handle a given situation. “I know it’s not good to judge people” by their voices, he says. “Well, I’m here to tell you, I’m constantly judging a pilot’s skills by how they handle the radio.” (Pilots do the same to air traffic controllers, by the way.) “If I see a 3-mile hole on final to get out a departure, but I don’t have confidence in the pilot behind the hold short lines, that airplane isn’t going anywhere.” His criteria? “On initial call, does the pilot prattle on or do they use short, concise wording? Do they use proper phraseology? Do they sound confident?” He makes the discussion practical by talking about radar flight-following services. “Those are [on a] workload-permitting basis, of course, but if it looks like a particular pilot is going to be high maintenance, I may terminate radar with them because I don’t have the time to deal with them.”

Fear not, you pilots already worried about pressing the PTT key; Kennington presents solutions. “If you’re unfamiliar with our [or any ATC] operation, just tell us. Don’t try to fake it. If you’re a student pilot, tell me, and I’ll treat you with kid gloves. I won’t give you complex instructions. I’ll work with you.” He also warns, “Don’t guess at what you think I’m expecting you to do, just ask for a clarification.” When controllers realize a pilot’s new or struggling a bit, they’ll pass this message onto the next controller with, “This guy is unfamiliar, or he’s not doing too well today, so keep an eye on him.” Kennington says: “If you just tell me the truth, I automatically become more sympathetic. Then if you make a mistake, I’m not all that upset.” It’s not a sign of weakness to utter, “Please say again.”

Kennington spoke to pilots about understanding the big picture of what’s going on around them. At Portland, “I’ll often have Southwest taxi out and tell me he’s ready for an immediate if I need it. That tells me this guy has been listening on the radio and has great situational awareness. The same applies when someone says they’re happy to take off VFR and pick up their IFR clearance in the air.”

Just as pilots start out knowing next to nothing about how an airplane flies or how to handle the radio smoothly, air traffic controllers must learn the biz as well. Pilots should know though that ATC trainees always work under the guiding eye of a fully certified instructor. There simply aren’t enough air traffic controllers to go around these days, so expect to hear controllers on the radio who might be a bit unsure of themselves. Once a trainee controller has enough experience to handle a tower frequency or radar position alone—a process that can take years—they become certified professional controllers.

I asked Kennington what gets under a controller’s skin the most. He didn’t even hesitate with his answer. “VFR airplanes that skirt the edge of our airspace and never talk to us. Their navigation equipment is so good these days, pilots can do this and be incredibly accurate about not entering our airspace. But just because it’s legal doesn’t make it smart—or safe.”

The top of Portland’s Class C is 4,000 feet, for example, and that makes it legal for a VFR airplane to overfly at 4,500 feet and never call ATC, radar service in that outer area being voluntary and all. “But sometimes those VFRs at 4,500 feet end up flying right into my departure corridor. That’s when we start using what I call “ninja” vectors to keep the departures away from the VFRs. Once they overfly, they’ll end up in my arrival corridor next, which is just as bad.” Importantly, the VFR pilot probably had no idea they were even impacting Portland’s traffic. They may even think they’re helping controllers by not wasting their time. “We’d much rather talk to these people,” Kennington says.

Kennington repeated one of the most common questions he hears from pilots. “What should I say when I first call in?” He suggests pilots “make the initial conversation as simple as possible. First, of course, listen to the frequency, and be sure you’re not about to cut off someone who is already talking.” When you’re ready, he says, “Just tell me who you are, where you are and what you want from me.” For instance, “Portland, Citabria 9MK, 15 east at 2,500 feet, inbound with ATIS Mike.”

Kennington says controllers prefer pilots to be short and concise, especially if there are already quite a few other airplanes on the frequency. “Please don’t give us your life story on initial call,” he says. Another problem he runs across much too often are pilots in trouble for one reason or another who wait too long to call for help, such as when they’re running low on fuel. “If pilots wait too long, the options we have available to help are very limited,” he says.