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Training Tip: Congested and confusedTraining Tip: Congested and confused

A business jet was flying an assigned southerly vector before arriving at a busy airport, with the air traffic control radio frequency alive with activity. Before reaching their assigned fix, the crew expected a turn toward the airport.

Composite image by AOPA staff.
Composite image by AOPA staff.

Rather routine situation, so let’s add a layer of complexity: Thunderstorms had cropped up elsewhere in the sector, and the already busy controllers were juggling pilot deviations around weather. Frequency use surpassed the congestion point, aggravated by pilots trying ever harder to get a word in edgewise.

That's still manageable for the southbound bizjet now just a few miles north of its fix. So let’s add another layer of complexity: Five miles beyond the fix lay the U.S.-Mexican border, and the contiguous air defense identification zone (ADIZ). What should the crew do, they wondered, if they don’t hear from ATC before penetrating that airspace?

It looked like that scenario was now unavoidable. “Our L.A. Center controller kept getting stepped on while making transmissions to other aircraft. Also, two to three aircraft were calling at one time to get a hold of our L.A. Center Controller,” a pilot recounted in a report to the Aviation Safety Reporting System. “My other pilot and I tried reaching our L.A. Center Controller multiple times, but our transmissions kept getting blocked by other aircraft and the L.A. Center Controller together.”

After “approximately 20 attempts” to establish contact, the crew worried they had been forgotten in the congestion and confusion. Now beyond the assigned fix, and only three miles from the border, it was decision time. (What would you do?)

Flying in visual conditions, the crew decided to turn west. Following three more attempts, they finally established contact. “The L.A. Center controller then acknowledged to us that he was capable of having aircraft cross the ADIZ due to the thunderstorms in the area,” the pilot wrote. After that, their arrival at San Diego International Airport proceeded in orderly fashion.

By itself, navigating in or around various airspace types is a manageable task, for a well-trained pilot. Managing communications requires patience when everyone’s on the air at once, but by itself, also routine.

Combine two such challenges, plus a dash of unruly weather or perhaps a system failure, and “routine” is out the window. Whether you fly a corporate jet or a single-engine trainer, such times are when your knowledge and decision-making skills will face their toughest tests.

Has a flight scenario forced you to take matters into your own hands? Share the story at

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Special Use Airspace, Aeronautical Decision Making, Student
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