Air Traffic Control & You!

by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer – August/September 2018 issue

Sometimes the role of Air Traffic Control (ATC) seems to be confused on the part of general aviation pilots. Either we give them too many God-like attributes, or pilots are afraid to communicate because of a fear of doing something that will make the pilot appear foolish. The following information will hopefully place these concerns in perspective.

By the time a Private Pilot Certificate is achieved, one certainly knows the basics of radio communication, so that won’t be repeated here. Therefore, rather than delving into the minutiae of the regulations, let’s take a look at the practicalities of communicating with air traffic control (ATC).

The overriding purpose of communicating with these folks is so they can help us avoid other traffic while reaching our destination safely. Therefore, whether on initial call up we say “Chicago Center, Piper Arrow N12345 at 5,000,” or go through the more lengthy, “Chicago Center, Piper Arrow N12345,” and wait for their response before providing additional information, is not a key point. What is key is making sure ATC knows where we are and that we are communicating with them. Obviously, the former is preferred in terms of brevity of communication.

Typically, what actually happens when being transferred from one facility to another, particularly when flying on an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan, is we use the former, and if we receive a prompt response, that is the desired form. If we don’t receive a response within a reasonable amount time, we will try again. At some point, after repeated lack of response, we will revert to the formal initial call up so we know we have established communication before imparting information. The other issue that affects how we establish and maintain communication is how busy the frequency is. If the facility is very busy, we may simply say “Chicago Center, Piper Arrow N12345” and wait for a response. This serves the dual purpose of letting ATC know we are on frequency and minimizing the time we monopolize the frequency. The controller will then get to us as soon as possible. Bear in mind that often a controller may be working more than one frequency and you may not hear the communication on the different frequency, so the controller may be busier than you think. However, it should not take a great deal of time for the controller to reply saying, “Arrow 12345, Standby.”

Here are a few things that will help reduce the issues:

1.Think out what you are going to say in advance, include wording.

2.Keep it brief.

3.When possible, before speaking, listen to the facility with which you are going to communicate. Try to use the procedure you hear in use.

4.Annunciate clearly and speak at a normal rate.

5.If you don’t understand something, ask the controller to repeat his transmission.

Another concern that arose recently is how is right of way between airplanes established when flying under Instrument Flight Rules? While there is some thought that all traffic details are covered by FAA Order JO 7011, the fact is aircraft right of way is not covered in detail. The answer is basically very simple: Right of way is whatever the controller says it is. Again, referring to the purpose of ATC, they are responsible for the safe flow of aircraft traffic. Therefore, other than the fixed airspace rules, such as altitude/airspeed rules, and altimeter setting passing 18,000 feet, ATC pretty much sets the priorities. Therefore, requiring (actually requesting) a change in altitude, heading or routing to accommodate traffic falls within their purvey. In short, ATC sets the rules…pilots do not.

When the pilot files an IFR flight plan, it is expected the rules will be applied. For example, course vs. altitude rules should be observed. However, ATC may decide that it is best to assign an altitude contrary to the normal rules. Along with this, altitude changes are not unusual to expedite traffic flow. Now, this can be frustrating for pilots, especially when they filed for a specific altitude based on winds aloft and weather and leaned their mixture after leveling off.

Also, routing changes are normal, particularly in high traffic areas. There are some high traffic areas which are notorious for routing general aviation aircraft way out of their way.

Hopefully, controllers will try to accommodate all aircraft with the least amount of inconvenience for pilots, such as rerouting them whenever possible, rather than changing their altitude, but there are no guarantees. It depends on traffic volume, and it depends on the controller, and usually the best controllers are those that fly!

It is also important for everyone to recognize that in the final analysis, the Pilot-In-Command (PIC) carries ultimate responsibility for the safety of the flight. This means that if complying with a controller’s requests (and in this context, directives become requests), jeopardizes the safety of the flight, the PIC not only has the prerogative, but the absolute responsibility to deny the request.

For example, assume you have been cruising along at 7,000 feet in your aircraft which is not equipped with deice equipment above a cloud layer which probably contains ice, and ATC requests you descend into the layer. You would be within your rights to decline ATC’s request. Of course, it is advisable to explain why. In some cases when declining a directive, you could be asked to submit a written explanation. Remember, a letter is better than a memorial service. An incident I overheard several years ago illustrates this issue very well.

A Cessna 310 not equipped with de-ice equipment had been flying between layers. Another airplane in the lower layer started picking up ice and asked center for a higher altitude. Center then requested the 310 to descend so they could bring the other aircraft up out of the ice. The 310 pilot simply said, “No, I don’t think I am going to do that.” Center gave a heading change to the lower aircraft and then assigned it a higher altitude. End of issue.

Another issue that bothers pilots is a sarcastic and/or arrogant reaction from a controller. Frankly, I doubt that I would have the patience that these folks normally exhibit. If you spend some time listening to the communications they have to live with, it is understandable that occasionally a controller may become sarcastic or short in their response. Some pilots act like the controller is there for their exclusive use, or they lose all semblance of formality and ramble on, blocking other communications. Now, if it makes you feel any better, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) used to have a rule against issuing disciplinary action on an active radio communication network. However, let’s ignore that and consider that controllers are human. They can have a bad day just like the rest of us. So, a little sarcasm can be expected when they don’t have a good day and you interrupt their pity party. Actually, if you consider the stress these folks are under, as a general rule, they are remarkably patient. Nonetheless, excessive sarcasm and rude communication is never really called for. Usually, it is best just to ignore such outbursts. However, if you really want to respond in kind, it is usually sufficient to become officiously formal. For example, a response such as “ROGER SIR” or “WILCO SIR” spoken slightly louder than normal with clear annunciation will sometimes get the message across.

Regardless, remember ATC is there for our benefit; we pay for it through our taxes and ultimately controllers work for all of aviation, including general aviation. Overall, I feel that controllers do a good job and as long as we, and they, conduct ourselves professionally, life is good and flying is much safer.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Instrument Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). A flight instructor since 1976, Green was named “Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011 and is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.” Questions, comments and suggestions for future topics are welcomed via email at, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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