Pilots may sometimes be intimidated by air traffic controllers and their “all-knowing” voices over the radio. But by gaining a better understanding of what goes on in the tower and in an en route center, much of the mystery is lost, and pilots and controllers can work better together. Above, controllers work the North Complex at LAX.
It seems we all have a story, some event in our lives that brought us into the aviation trade. Twenty-two years ago, that moment happened for me. At the time, it was insignificant, a normal day for a four-year-old—at least for a four-year-old whose dad is a pilot. Sitting on my dad’s lap in a Grumman Tiger, I found myself at the controls on an afternoon flight over what I think might have been Lake Linear, Ga. There seemed to be a crazy language I heard over those headsets, a camaraderie between ATC and pilots. Even though my feet could not reach the rudder pedals, I recall feeling free as a bird. From that day on, I wanted to fly.
My dream became reality when I soloed at Page Field in Fort Myers, Fla., on my 16th birthday, and just a few years later, I would get the call to become an air traffic controller. Controllers had always remained somewhat of a mystery to me—elusive creatures that lurked in dark rooms full of special equipment and donned voice-of-god responses over radios. Who were these people and where did they come from? In the conversion from GA/corporate pilot to controller, these mystifying people would become like brothers and sisters. Ask any controller, and they’ll tell you the same thing: We love what we do and wouldn’t change it for the world. What we do on a daily basis is a dream or goal that we‘ve always wanted to attain. Every day, we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to be “the voice.”
As a pilot, I always want to know what controllers are thinking and doing. As a controller, I always want to know more about pilots, airplane performance characteristics, weather and the area I control so that I can offer the best service. On a daily basis, controllers work thousands of flights, and understanding and knowledge as a pilot can help everyone in the community work more soundly together. I sampled controllers from terminal (TRACON and Tower) and en route center (ARTCC) environments to gather tips and clarify common myths about ATCs. Here’s what they had to say.
Often, controllers are working several sectors combined, on several frequencies. Take a moment to listen in before calling with a request. Many times, pilots will immediately check on and interrupt another transmission for which a controller has to go back and ask again, taking precious moments away from other busy tasks at the sector. When asking for flight following, simply check on with your N number and state that you have a request. Once a controller responds with your call sign, speak slowly and be concise: “November One Two Three Four, over Bowie, a Piper Cherokee at Five Thousand, Five Hundred, request flight following to Will Rogers.”
Pilots sometimes take off VFR and pick up an IFR clearance in the air. But be aware that a controller may not be able to give you an IFR clearance right off the ground; there may be an aircraft on approach or already given an IFR clearance that will tie up the airspace until positive separation is ensured. Sometimes, controllers can’t give you direct routing due to the minimum en route altitude (MEA), minimum vectoring altitude (MVA) or because of a military operations area (MOA), as examples. So before you leave the ground, a major consideration should be given to marginal VFR, particularly if you’re unsure that you can remain VFR.
When VFR pilots find themselves in adverse weather conditions, it’s usually because they didn’t receive a complete weather briefing from flight service. Prior to every flight outside of the pattern, check weather online in addition to calling for a briefing. In the en route environment, our weather displays are based on NEXRAD weather radar and sometimes have up to a six-minute delay between refreshes. Approach controllers have a display that’s based on the terminal radar and updates more frequently.
Ask For Help
If you need help, ask for it. When I was first learning to fly, I found myself over the Everglades at 4,500 feet in a dense layer of haze with the sun in my face. Conditions were marginal VFR, and I became unable to see the ground clearly for navigation. I asked for help and received vectors from ATC. A few minutes later, I was able to navigate again, but I had flown almost 40 degrees off my route. As a pilot, if you find yourself in a situation or feel like something isn’t going right, let it be known. Even though our egos often get the best of us, asking for help is sometimes necessary, and controllers are there to help. While many controllers have flight experience, not all do. Make sure when asking for something that you’re clear and concise.
When checking on frequency, asking a question, or picking up IFR clearance—the list goes on—be brief. Sequences of events can happen very fast in a controller’s world, and a pilot with a lengthy discussion can take away precious moments from the controller who might need to work on something else. Being concise and straight to the point will make for an easier flight with less stress for both the pilot and controller. Controllers may be working several sectors or positions at once, fixing possible conflicts and taking landline calls all at the same time—being brief can help all of us do our jobs better.
Say It All
Controllers are under scrutiny all of the time for phraseology and for listening for readbacks/hearbacks. Even the most experienced pilots can make mistakes or misstate a clearance; however, controllers usually are the ones who get reprimanded for the missed call sign, readback or phraseology. According to the FARs, there isn’t always a concise formula for reading back clearances, but as a pilot/controller, I always read back exactly what was said by the controller.
One critical example is that, when switching frequencies, many pilots will just state the frequency and proceed with the switch. While a seemingly small event, it leaves controllers not knowing whether the correct aircraft took the correct switch. Again, it makes it easier for everyone involved if the pilot reads back the entire clearance with call sign, every time. This is important even for a code change. As controllers, we only have the headset, radar scope and view from the tower to go by, and we’re constantly under the gun for making sure every pilot says the right thing.
Visual Separation Is For Lazy Controllers
False! When asking pilots to maintain visual separation, controllers aren’t only trying to help pilots, but they’re using this valuable tool to get airplanes to meet restrictions to airports and crossing fixes. Controllers are under major scrutiny for issuing visual separation clearances; if a controller doesn’t get an exact readback from a pilot, then the separation isn’t legal. It’s imperative that as a pilot, you read back exactly what a controller says. This can’t be stressed enough. A good clearance and readback would be as follows:
Controller: “Cessna 1-2-3-4, traffic twelve o’clock, eight miles, southbound, a Learjet level eight thousand, report that traffic in sight.”
Pilot: “Cessna 1-2-3-4, we have the Learjet in sight.”
Controller: “Cessna 1-2-3-4, roger, maintain visual separation from that Learjet, descend and maintain four thousand, caution wake turbulence.”
Pilot: “Cessna 1-2-3-4, will maintain visual separation from that traffic, out of niner-thousand for four thousand.”
Stress Is bad
False! A controller’s job is stressful—there’s no denying that. The stress, which sometimes is even self-induced, usually comes during spurts of very busy traffic volumes. It’s somewhat similar to preparing for an IFR approach to minimums while in the soup. As a pilot, you’re busy programming radios and GPS, getting approach plates ready, setting up the autopilot or hand flying—all while communicating with ATC. It’s busy! The feeling you have when you pop out of the clouds and the runway is in sight is often the way a controller feels after a busy push on a sector: a bit relieved and ready to do it all over again.
En Route Vs. Terminal Restrictions
Controllers have to abide by many different rules and regulations. When a VFR pilot calls for flight following in the en route environment, we’re required to provide traffic advisories and radar services if the circumstance and traffic volume permit. Sometimes, due to radar limitations and how busy a sector is, we may not be able to provide flight following from the get-go. For VFR aircraft in the en route environment, there’s no separation minima, meaning that separation from IFR and VFR aircraft is the responsibility of the PIC, and there are no altitude or mileage restrictions. In the terminal environment, specifically Class B airspace, TRACON controllers are required to have 500 feet or three miles of separation between VFR and IFR, or VFR and VFR aircraft.
Terminal and en route facilities also operate differently with regards to weather and radar. Terminal facilities often work from just one or a few radar sites, while center facilities work from many different radar sites—one of the reasons center controllers need five miles and 1,000 feet of separation for IFR aircraft. The center radar provides a mosaic display, interpolating several radar sites’ data into the target on the scope. This is just one of the many differences between the facilities.
We’re Here To Help!
True! We’re always here to help, even if it doesn’t seem so when we reroute your flight due to restrictions, traffic or safety. When we ask you to descend early or change a flight path, it’s because our first and foremost priority is your safety. Controllers love to talk to pilots about the work they do, so feel free to ask us!
Evan Munro is an air traffic controller at the Fort Worth Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC).