Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Demystifying ATC

How to work better with “the voice” in your headset

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).


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