The Pilot / ATC Partnership

by Marc Epner
Published in Midwest Flyer – December 2018/January 2019 issue

While aviation safety is ultimately the responsibility of the Pilot-In-Command (PIC), most would agree that it is the result of effectively working with available resources to produce the desired result – a safe flight. Those resources include everything from aircraft systems and people in the plane, to those on the ground…a jigsaw puzzle of sorts. It is up to the pilot to have the knowledge and skills to put it all together.

One piece of that puzzle is the human-to-human partnerships that are frequently part of our flights. This includes pilot and copilot, student and instructor, pilot and passenger, and maybe most important, pilot and controller. Note the use of the word, “partnership,” as opposed to “relationship.” A partnership is defined in many ways, but a common definition is a formal arrangement in which two or more parties cooperate to manage and operate a business. I prefer a more informal and generic definition which simply put, is a relationship wherein each party derives value from the other’s investment in the partnership. This doesn’t only apply to business. It holds true in any situation which brings two or more people together to achieve a single and shared desired outcome. The ingredients are the same regardless if it is about a marriage, a business, or a safe flight.

Partnerships are not easy. We’re surrounded by daily examples of failed relationships. The good news is, there are plenty of examples of partnerships that work. In the context of the pilot/controller team, it’s reasonable to ask; what are the ingredients of a successful partnership? 

Open, Honest, Direct & Early Communication

When acting as PIC, it is easy to be so focused on what’s going on inside the cockpit that outside communication can unknowingly become a distraction. That can change the dynamic of the conversation to be a series of one-way communication volleys. In other words, a series of monologues. Beware, two monologues do not make a dialogue. A back and forth of misunderstood messages, compounded by distractions, makes for an ineffective and inefficient use of time and can potentially produce disastrous results. It is critical to ensure that the intended message is understood, which may go beyond a simple read-back. We are human and we make mistakes. That goes for both pilot and controller. It is our responsibility to respectfully challenge commands that don’t make sense.

I love flying with other people, as it serves as a learning opportunity for new ways to accomplish the fundamentals of a flight. The opposite is also true as I see actions that detract from safety. This includes many instances of a pilot blindly following an ATC command that is an obvious error or doesn’t make contextual sense. It may be a command as simple as, “circle west and enter a right downwind for Rwy 36.” That’s an easy one to question, since it’s impossible to comply. The controller either meant “circle east” or “enter left downwind.” But what about a command to turn to a heading or climb to an altitude that doesn’t make sense or may even conflict with a command given to another aircraft in the area? As PIC, we must clarify to our satisfaction and not abdicate our responsibility.

It’s not just a pilot or ATC error that creates a breakdown in the partnership. A distraction in the cockpit caused by an ill passenger, an unstable approach, a system malfunction, or a whole host of other items can wreak havoc on a stable flight. In those cases, early notification can allow both pilot and controller to build a set of options to be considered and executed.

I fly out of Chicago Executive Airport and generally include a remark in my flight plan that states No Over Water. In one instance, I had forgotten and received a clearance that took me out over Lake Michigan. I told Clearance Delivery I couldn’t accept the clearance, which raised the controller’s workload and delayed me a few moments, but made for a much less stressful flight for both ATC and me. In the case of unexpected issues, like inadvertent flight into Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC), the pilot has an obligation to confess his/her situation (keeping Aviate, Navigate, Communicate in mind) and seek assistance in getting to a stable and in-control state. The power of effective dialogue cannot be overstated.

Trust

Standing as the cornerstone of any successful partnership is trust. In aviation, both “sides” of the partnership trust that the other is prepared, proficient, and situationally aware of the trip ahead. As the pilot, it starts long before the flight, ensuring we put ourselves in a position to understand, evaluate, and comply with ATC commands. If for any reason we cannot do that, then we have to make ATC aware of any constraints, and work together to ensure the safety of our flight and that the safety of those around us is not compromised.

In non-aviation circles, trust in a partnership has to be earned and is formed over a period of time. It may be slow to develop, but given the long-term goal and benefit of the partnership, it’s worth the investment. Conversely, pilot/controller partnerships are fleeting – quickly formed and quickly dissolved with each frequency change. Trust is assumed until proven otherwise.

Controllers may form an early and potentially erroneous assessment of a pilot’s ability based on lack of proper phraseology or confidence heard in the pilot’s voice. Similarly, a pilot may have concerns with what is heard on frequency.

For example, I was approaching my home airport and called in 12 miles west of the airport. The response I received, was to plan a straight-in to Rwy 16. As I was expecting to hear a right downwind or right base entry, I made a mental note to pay very close attention to all of his radio calls.  His voice was unfamiliar, raising my alert status even more (our airport has a lot of trainees). So, when the controller told me to turn final behind a Cessna on the opposite base leg (the aircraft was actually nose to nose with me), I turned north, telling the controller I was turning left to enter an extended right downwind. The controller responded with a “thank you!”

Both individuals must be willing to forgive and forget and reestablish the trust. We are human and mistakes are made, but it doesn’t mean the mistakes will continue. Both the pilot and the controller have earned the right to be behind the mic. That’s a great place to start.

Focus On What’s Important

I’ve been married for over 40 years and when asked about the secret to making our partnership work, I always answer, “Two tubes of toothpaste.” She squeezes the tube in the middle, and I squeeze it at the bottom (as all pilots do), and it’s not worth fighting about. Hence, we each get our own tube. While my response is tongue in cheek, the core concept of focusing on what’s important to our desired outcome rings true. It’s the same in aviation. Don’t sweat the small stuff. We all learned it from the beginning: Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate. In that order with laser like focus.

As mentioned earlier, I love flying with other pilots. I learn new things regardless of the seat I am in. It also affords me the opportunity to watch how pilots prioritize their tasks. It’s not that uncommon for me to see pilots focusing on the wrong things. Pilot Reports (PIREPS), for example, are of high value and contribute to safety, but there’s a time and a place for everything. Breaking out at minimums is not the time to give a base report.

For the most part, this topic is a non-event. Both sides of the mic get through their responsibilities with relative ease. It’s when things start to go wrong that issues arise. If a pilot realizes he has lost command and control of the airplane (knowing what the plane is doing and why it is doing it), it’s time to declare an emergency and get both partners focused on regaining that command and control. Dividing attention to secondary tasks will only exacerbate the problem. This doesn’t mean if the autopilot does something unexpected, that a mayday call is automatic. The simple solution may be nothing more than disconnecting the autopilot. But if you can’t figure out the “what and why” on your own, a focused team effort is called for. The same holds true for the controller, who may become distracted with other high priority tasks. When the task load is high for either pilot or controller, an assessment of priorities has to be determined and as appropriate, the implications communicated to the other partner.

The Bottom Line

All partnerships require 100% investment to get the desired result. In a marriage, sometimes it’s 50/50, but other times, one side may not be in a position to give their half of the bargain. So, if one can only give 25%, the other partner has to be fully committed to providing 75%. That’s easier said than done with the pilot/controller relationship. In many relationships, the roles overlap so much that it’s easy for one to pick up for the other. But in aviation, there are distinct skills, tools, and responsibilities for each half of the partnership. By applying the key concepts of Communication, Trust, and Focus, the issues can be mitigated and solutions determined and executed.

There is one more piece of the puzzle …empathy. Spending time in the other person’s shoes. I have taken multiple controllers flying (I make them do the radios) and have also spent several hours in the tower and at our local approach control facility. Doing so tightens the bonds between us and translates to one more important ingredient…. mutual respect and understanding. With that as a foundation, the sky’s the limit!!!

Blue Skies and Tailwinds!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Marc Epner lives in Chicago, Illinois and flies out of Chicago Executive Airport in Prospect Heights/Wheeling, Illinois. He is the cohost of the weekly radio program “SimpleFlight Radio” (www.simpleflight.net/radio and www.simpleflight.net/podcast). Comments about this article or SimpleFlight Radio can be emailed to him at me02@aol.com. An article about SimpleFlight Radio was published in the June/July 2018 issue of Midwest Flyer Magazine and is posted online at https://midwestflyer.com/?p=11782.

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