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Training and Safety Tip: Every pilot's power word

It’s a simple six-letter word set in bold italics in the FAA’s Pilot/Controller Glossary—that Rosetta Stone-type appendix found in the back of most FAR/AIM manuals.

AOPA Air Safety Institute
Photo by Chris Rose.

The glossary provides a common tongue between the flight deck and air traffic control, and bold italics indicate terms most frequently used in pilot/controller communications. As a pilot in training, you should be familiar with the entire glossary, but the bold items—similar to bold items on many airplane checklists—should be committed to memory.

You’d be surprised how many pilots seem unable to use this “frequently used” word, “unable.” That’s baffling, as “unable” is the most enabling of all words. Defined in the glossary as an “inability to comply with a specific instruction, request, or clearance,” it’s a concise way of politely saying “no” ATC.

It’s important to note that “unable” doesn’t mean “impossible.” It means that you have chosen not to do whatever it is you’ve been asked to do for your own reason(s). After all, a controller doesn’t really know what you and your airplane are capable of, and sometimes unintentionally asks you to do things that are unsafe, or even just simply uncomfortable. As pilot in command it is both your right and your duty to indicate that you are outside your comfort zone, and that you are, well, unable to comply.

For example:

  • You’ve been instructed to “line up and wait” behind a departing Airbus? Trust me, your training airplane is begging you to click the mic and reply, “Unable.”
  • You landed hot and long and the tower requests you to turn onto a taxiway that will require you to burn serious rubber? Click. “Unable.”
  • ATC has provided you a LAHSO (land and hold short operations) clearance? Hey, you are a student pilot, so you should not have been given such a clearance (as directed by FAA Order JO 7110.118B effective November 2020, and also by established policy at most flight schools). You guessed it: Click. “Unable.”

The beauty of “unable” is that it ends the conversation. No further explanation or justification is required (although if time allows, at your option, you can explain and offer an alternative course of action).

So, enable yourself. Be ready to use the most powerful word in aviation.

William E. Dubois
William E. Dubois is a widely published aviation writer and columnist. He is an FAA Safety Team rep and a rare "double" Master Ground Instructor accredited by both NAFI and MICEP. An AOPA member since 1983, he holds a commercial pilot certificate and has a degree in aviation technology. He was recognized as a Distinguished Flight Instructor in the 2021 AOPA Flight Training Experience Awards.
Topics: Training and Safety, Flight Instructor, Communication
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