Despite Air Traffic Control’s (ATC) best efforts, I’m still alive! Sounds like an odd thing to say, doesn’t it?
Well, if I had a dollar for every time ATC tried to coerce me into a smoking hole, I’d be rich! Don’t get me wrong, this is not going to be an ATC bashing session, but rather it’s more about reminding everyone of our responsibility to see and avoid traffic, regardless of the level of ATC control.
With that said, I thought I’d relay some personal stories to you about hair-raising encounters I’ve had while under ATC control.
Story number one is titled, "If your can read this, you’re too close!"
It starts with an instrument rating check flight one fine fall morning. I was administering the check flight and while being vectored onto the final approach course, we (me, the applicant and the airplane) had a near miss.
We were cleared for the approach and on what we call a local IFR clearance (equivalent to a normal IFR clearance but remaining local to the departure airport). We were under radar control during the entire vectoring process. ATC gave us our final heading to intercept the final approach course (left hand turn) and as my applicant was rolling wings level I could once again see out the right side of the aircraft; and just in time to grab the controls and head for the deck!
It seems that a VFR aircraft had departed an uncontrolled airport to the North of our approach course and was also headed to the same airport as us. They had not yet contacted ATC for arrival instructions.
Due to the proximity and maneuver to avoid a mid-air collision, I felt obligated to call a "near-miss." As an aside, I’ve always wondered about that phrase "near-miss." Why not just call it was a miss. You either miss or you don’t, right? Doesn’t near-miss imply that it wasn’t quite a miss?
Anyway, ATC’s response to that was she was busy and didn’t have time to deal with "that" right now. At this point I was tempted to tell ATC to call me when I got on the ground, but then I remembered how that was usually their line!
I had a meeting with the tower chief and their head "cover our butts" representative only to find out that no one in the control tower was at fault. It turns out that two aircraft in VFR conditions are ultimately responsible for their own collision avoidance regardless of the level of ATC control or the fact that I had an IFR clearance.
I knew that of course, but I still wanted someone to at least say sorry! I didn’t get any apologies that day.
Story two starts with touch-n-goes in the traffic pattern at a Class-C radar controlled airport with scheduled airline service. Usually, the mix of training and airlines works pretty smoothly, but on this particular day the tower controller set up a potential accident.
I was with a student on runway 4, and the full-stops were arriving on the crossing runway 32. We were given a LAHSO (Land And Hold Short Operations) clearance due to a Boeing 737 on arrival to that crossing runway.
Perfectly legal situation where we would land runway 4 and hold short of 32, awaiting clearance to takeoff on the remaining 3000+ feet of our runway. However, the timing was also perfect in that if both us and the B737 went around at the right times, we would meet over the middle of the airport! Guess what? The timing was right!
My student botched his arrival to the runway forcing a go-around. At the same time, the B737 drivers must have been observing our arrival and were unaware of what we were doing, so they also executed a go-around.
The closure rate to the mid-field was obvious to me and since the 737 could out climb us, I quickly told ATC we would go-around underneath. ATC was silent during this situation, saying nothing until I had successfully passed underneath and began climbing again. I suspect they were figuring out who was supposed to have been controlling that situation!
My solution to the problem was necessary since I had no place to turn due to other pattern traffic and the only clear path was straight ahead. I actually got a thank-you from the tower controller that day.
The thing to remember about this encounter is that a LAHSO clearance does not preclude a go-around so if your are the pilot doing the full-stop landing with someone else landing to hold short of you, keep and eye on them and anticipate a possible go-around and how that might impact your operation.
Likewise, the LAHSO aircraft pilot also needs to anticipate the need for a go-around and how that might impact other traffic. If it looks like a simultaneous go-around situation would be dangerous, let ATC know.
Story three has one of my instrument students and me shooting local area approaches on a nice summer afternoon. ILSs were in season, so we decided to do one. Vectoring to the final was routine and my student was doing quite well so there was little for me to do.
Under those circumstances, I usually listen more carefully to the ATC banter for entertainment. Something was going on, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
ATC kept talking to someone called Viper 23 (or something to that effect), but no one was responding; at least not that I could hear. In any event, radar control handed us off to tower just short of the final approach fix with a request to keep the speed up for faster traffic to follow.
Tower reinstated the speed request but gave us no specific idea what was following, so we sped up; a whole 5 KTS to 95 KIAS. This is a good time to point out one of my life’s philosophies: tell me exactly what you want and I’ll do it; be vague and my response will be only as good as the request.
Anyway, we’re now about 1.5 miles to the runway and tower reiterates the "no delay" during touch-n-go and miss as there is an F-4 Phantom 6 miles final to my runway. I immediately had visions of being overrun at the least, or shot down for not getting out of the way at the worst.
I politely declined the touch-n-go on behalf of my student, who still didn’t understand the situation. By midfield in the missed approach climb, the F-4 was on the ground and already passed our position.
How did ATC ever figure that was going to work? I didn’t ask because I knew they wouldn’t have an answer I’d like.
The moral to this story is 1) Fighters go fast, don’t get in front of them if at all possible. 2) Many military aircraft use UHF communications and so while you may hear ATC talking to someone, you won’t hear the response unless you also have UHF radios. More military aircraft are showing up with VHF capability these days, so that helps a little. 3) If you get a speed request like we got, inquire as to the type of aircraft following and distance. Do your own math and also consider that going faster may not be something you’re used to doing. If you’re not comfortable with the spacing or the extra speed, tell ATC and get an alternative plan in the working.
When you fly in an ATC environment, remember that they are not perfect all the time and their ability to predict encounters like I’ve described above are dependent not only on their skills as controllers, but the pilot’s skill in following their instructions.
Don’t ever assume that you are somehow relieved of your pilot in command duties just because ATC seems to be calling the shots. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times and if you don’t like what’s going on, do what’s necessary to keep safe.
This month’s Pilot Primer is written by Donald Anders Talleur, an Assistant Chief Flight Instructor at the University of Illinois, Institute of Aviation. He holds a joint appointment with the Professional Pilot Division and Human Factors Division. He has been flying since 1984 and in addition to flight instructing since 1990, has worked on numerous research contracts for the FAA, Air Force, Navy, NASA, and Army. He has authored or co-authored over 180 aviation related papers and articles and has an M.S. degree in Engineering Psychology, specializing in Aviation Human Factors.