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CFI Tips

That was close!

Helping ATC to help you

More goes on behind the scenes of air traffic control than you may be aware of. It pays to think of the big picture and use ATC as an aid.

As a CFI, there are certain things you just don't ever want to hear an air traffic controller say, particularly when you have a student in the cockpit with you. Words such as, "When you get on the ground, you're going to need to call the tower." Here are three more words that you might want to add to that don't-want-to-hear list: "That was close!"

That phrase gets used in ATC facilities more often than you might think. I'm a controller at a busy Southern California approach control, and over the years, I've heard some of my coolest, calmest co-workers come unglued because a VFR aircraft popped up on their radar in the worst possible place.

I'm not talking about an aircraft accidentally entering Class B or C airspace. To be more specific, there are certain areas where a pilot can be perfectly legal to fly, without being in communication with ATC, and still find himself staring at the nose of a big Boeing.

Quite often I hear flight instructors telling their students to exercise caution when flying near busy airports, such as in Class C airspace. The problem is that the discussion generally ends right there. Here is an example of what I'm talking about, and some helpful hints that you might be able to use to save your students from embarrassment, or worse.

A group of pilots came by my approach control facility for a visit. They had the usual air traffic control questions that I'm used to getting. However, one question stood out. The pilot said that he departs his home airport to the north and monitors the approach control frequency. He went on to say, "You controllers sure do seem to make an awful lot of traffic calls."

Being familiar with the airspace and certain local air traffic "hot spots," I just couldn't pass up this opportunity. After a few questions of my own, I found out that this pilot's airport is about two miles south of a pretty busy final approach course that serves air carriers. He said that he was aware of this and he made sure that he stayed underneath the final approach course (this was the part where I started to pull my hair out). I explained to him that he was most certainly legal to operate in that area, but that the reason he heard us making so many traffic calls was because of him! We have to restrict all of the arrivals inbound on that approach to avoid his aircraft. I asked him why he didn't just call us for VFR traffic advisories, and he said, "I didn't want to be any trouble." I explained to him that it would be much easier for us-and ultimately safer for him-if he would let us give him flight following.

Flying under a final approach course, especially around a busy airport, is a bad idea. You don't need to be instrument rated to recognize the potential danger of this situation. During your preflight planning, take a look around your projected route of flight. Does your route take you near any airports? Look in the Airport/Facility Directory or in AOPA's Airport Directory to see if there are any instrument approaches listed for that airport. The A/FD will tell you which runway is served by that ILS, which gives you the direction from which you can expect to see inbound aircraft, wind permitting.

AOPA's Airport Directory Online (, on the other hand, offers the actual IFR approach charts for all instrument approaches to that airport, making it much easier to visualize the busy zones. This is also a good technique to use when you are flying in the pattern at an airport that has a lot of IFR practice approaches. It may keep you from being surprised by an opposite-direction aircraft conducting an approach.

If you find that your route of flight is going to take you near one of those final approach courses, it might be prudent to alter your course slightly or change your altitude. Changing your altitude by just 1,000 feet can make a big difference.

Talk to your students. Encourage them to ask questions about local traffic patterns and airports that conduct a lot of IFR operations and practice approaches. Find out where those "hot spots" are in your area.

Finally, don't think that you are "being any trouble" by asking for flight following. Controllers would much rather talk to you and make traffic calls than have to vector every other airplane around you. You will be doing both yourself and us a big favor.

An air traffic controller since 1989, Paul Langston is an instrument-rated commercial pilot. He is an adjunct professor at Palomar College in San Marco, California.

By Paul Langston

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