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Pro Pilot: Listen Up

Here’s what bothers controllers when dealing with pro pilots

For professional pilots, interaction with air traffic control (ATC) is a huge part of the job. And there are things we pilots can do better to avoid frequency clutter and lower the stress level for both the controllers and flight crew. We asked three controllers to give us their opinions on dealings with professional pilots and flight crews.

Turbine Pro PilotNot surprisingly, the common theme among all the controllers interviewed is a plea for pilots to simply listen. “Please listen to ride reports or other information being given to other aircraft,” said one controller. “There is little more annoying than giving detailed ride/icing/weather reports every few minutes [and having] a pilot who’s been on frequency for five-plus minutes be blithely unaware and ask me to restate that information. If I am working hard to provide pilots with information, even if I didn’t specifically address you by call sign, I expect you to give me the courtesy of listening.”

The most common ATC interaction is the handoff, and pilots manage to bungle this simple exchange routinely. “SoCal, Fractional One Two checking in with you out of flight level two two oh down to flight level one nine oh.” What’s the foul here? Consider the much abbreviated and Aeronautical Information Manual-approved, “SoCal, Fractional One Two flight level two two zero descending flight level one niner zero.” The fewer the words, the better when on a busy frequency. Also note that flight levels end in “zero,” not “oh.”

A big breach of handoff etiquette is checking in without first listening for several seconds. The next foul is persistent check-ins. You’re likely being ignored for a reason, probably because the frequency is congested and/or the controller is coordinating with another controller via ground communications. “Please remember that your check-in is generally my least important priority,” said one controller.

For the most part, controllers are aware that all pilots are looking for “directs,” so minimize requests for directs—especially immediately on check-in. “Please realize that the moment you check on with us, you are more than likely not in our airspace yet. Any request you have, unless it’s part of a prearranged agreement, will have to wait until you cross our boundary or we make a phone call to get control,” said one controller.

With electronic charting at most pilots’ fingertips today, ATC sector boundaries are clearly depicted, so it’s easy for pilots to determine when you enter the appropriate airspace. And if you’re wondering whom to address on check-in, that’s depicted there, too—no more vague “Center” calls.

Likewise, if you’re heading into large/crowded airports where the FAA’s Traffic Management Unit has metered the inbound flow, requests for directs may be denied. And speaking of phraseology, simply say “request” instead of the mouthful “any chance of” when requesting route changes. Many of these annoyances are coming from pilots with stripes on their shoulders.

Can you recognize yourself in this exchange?

“Frac One Two, hold at Yardley as published, EFC 2345.”

“Frac One Two, hold at Yardley as published, can we get 10-mile legs?”

I’m not sure why the request for 10-mile holding legs seems to be a Pavlovian response with pilots. I’ve heard pilots request 10-mile legs without noticing that the published pattern had 10-mile legs! In general, if a controller says hold as published there’s a reason. “On the East Coast, the airspace is congested and the patterns are built with speeds and leg lengths so as not to overlap other routes of flight, airspace, et cetera. You can ask if the controller is not busy, but understand if we say no,” said one source. In general, if there’s holding in the Northeast Corridor, a controller likely is extremely busy.

Other throw-away lines include “got ’em on TCAS.” Controllers need actual visual contact, so unless you have the target visually, just say “looking.” “Ready in sequence” is another one, especially when you’re in a long line of airplanes on the only taxiway to the runway. Controllers assume you’ll be ready when you are number one. Saying “ready in sequence” now requires the tower to respond “hold short of Runway XX.” Finally, when ATC asks for your speed, just say it. Easily more than half of pilots regurgitate, “What do you need?” after stating their speed. To some controllers this is like nails on a chalkboard. Others, however, like some pleasantries and offer to help. “I actually like ‘what do you need?’ as an open, eager, happy willingness to work with us,” said one controller. “Unless I’m terribly busy, say ‘Good day,’ tell me ‘Happy Mother’s Day,’ say ‘good job!’”

One controller said that the word “blocked” was her nails-on-a-chalkbord word. “It’s totally, completely unnecessary.” If a controller’s instructions are blocked the controller will know—since there won’t be a response—and he or she will simply try again. Having multiple pilots chime in with “blocked” serves to block the frequency even more.

When asked for your airspeed, answer in knots indicated. When asked for Mach number provide your Mach, not airspeed. “I don’t want any hedging or dancing around about your true or filed airspeed,” said one controller. In addition, filed true airspeed and flight plan remarks used to be front and center on a flight strip, but with the new automated flight plans, that information is a few menus deep on the screen and not readily available. “So we expect aircraft to be doing an appropriate speed for their aircraft type,” said one controller. “If you are operating far outside parameters, tell someone every time you check on because we may not see it.”

Pilots who fly on the busy coasts often deal with lousy routing and less-than-optimum altitudes that drive up fuel costs. Faced with this, pilots often cancel IFR. “However, if you cancel IFR you must be below Flight Level one eight zero,” said one controller. “You’d be amazed at the number of high-level GA pilots [crews] that forget this.” Keep in mind that the same reason you were on a route that prompted the cancellation is likely to keep you clear of a very busy traffic corridor.

One controller was fond of corporate/GA pilots’ behavior on the whole when compared to the air carriers. She works Washington Center and noted that hiccups can occur on return flights to the New York-area airports, such as White Plains, New York, and Teterboro, New Jersey, after holidays or weekends. She noted that the demand at White Plains was so high on the Sunday after spring break that Washington Center was holding 27 airplanes from North Carolina to New Jersey. “Please don’t plead or argue to just outrun the other guy when we turn you or slow you from Mach 0.92 to M0.85. We are just trying not to go into the hold. Once that happens, it shuts the whole East Coast down,” she explained.

Along the same lines, another controller loathes the pleading for higher altitudes, often requested so an aircraft can outrun slower traffic. “Look, I get that the boss got a Citation X to go fast, but on the coasts we just don’t have the airspace to allow for those kind of maneuvers. At some point, everyone has to get in a line and follow an assigned speed,” he explained.

When it comes to clearance clarification, everyone agrees that pilots should ask or verify if you aren’t sure you heard correctly. “We would always much rather you verify that you have the correct information than to have a very scary mistake happen,” said one controller. “If I tell you to cross a point at Flight Level two four zero and the chart says Flight Level two seven zero and you’re not sure you heard me correctly, ask!”

All of the controllers we spoke with encourage pilot visits to a center or tracon facility. “Sit at a sector, take a look at our equipment, listen to the frequencies, and just get to know each other a little. We can all learn a lot from each other that way,” said one controller.

Peter A. Bedell
Pete Bedell is a pilot for a major airline and co-owner of a Cessna 172M and Beechcraft Baron D55.

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