How High?

July 14, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

SKY0372001The passing of generations is always an interesting time. We are seeing it in the ATC system as Reagan-era controllers look to slower lifestyles.  The golden years probably don’t involve expensive human-occupied vehicles hurtling at each other at hundreds of knots.

With the changing of the guard also comes a lack of experience and the wisdom of years.  I’ve seen this several times in the last few months in listening to some unusual clearances.  Non-standard phraseology or a non-sequiteur is a tip off that the person on the other side of the mic is in a learning curve.

Don’t take this as a rant against new controllers (or pilots for that matter). None of us is born with thousands of hours or an immediate grasp of all the nuances that they don’t teach at “the Academy in Oke City”. Even with the best training there is a huge amount of OJT that goes on in almost every profession. In aviation, though, checks and balances are often the difference between a lapse and a real aw shucks!

The most recent reminder came on a hot soggy afternoon as I was clawing my way up to 8,000 feet in search of cool smooth air. I’d asked for a more direct routing which the controller was coordinating. Passing 7,000 he cleared me direct and advised that we’d need to go back to 6,000 in 15 miles. It seemed reasonable to level at 7,000 or go to 6,000 now  – no point in crawling the last thousand only to have to give it right back. So I asked.

The controller repeated my direct-to clearance with nothing about altitude. Great ! — I’d introduced ambiguity into the equation and the controller had not dispelled it. Was I to continue to 8,000 (perhaps in his mind that was correct -since he’d said nothing or did he think I would just level at 7,000?).

I’ve learned over the years NEVER to be shy about such things so I pushed the issue – 7,000 or 6,000 – being hopeful I wouldn’t get sent to 8. There was a long silence and then “Descend and maintain 6,000.”  No question now.

Think you’re the ace of the base when it comes to comm? Try our free online Say It Right – we’ve had some airline captains acknowledge that they learned something – those are the ones I want to fly with!

I offer this as a reminder to all of us to really LISTEN. It’s hard in the routine of hundreds of transmissions but that’s what makes the difference between the pro and the know-it-all.   The adage that it’s better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt, most certainly does NOT apply in aviation communications.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Tim Metzinger

    Too often I hear conversations where there is “doubt” introduced, and neither side does anything about it. I’d say about 50% of the time there is a supplemental instruction issued later (usually in an annoyed tone) by ATC, with either a terse “roger” or a an explanation from the aircraft. The first myth of communication is that it actually occured, so we should all be aggressive in addressing any doubts we have when we get an instruction.

    Sometimes the new controllers don’t know the rules we fly under when VFR, or don’t understand their nuances. Recently I was flying from Leesburg, VA to an airport just south of Richmond. I flew VFR at 3000 feet to remain below the DC bravo space and requested flight following from Potomac. After the third handoff to a new sector, I got a controller (who sounded young) telling me “I need you at a VFR altitude, climb to 3500″. Since the 91.151 VFR hemispherical rule doesn’t start until 3000 above the surface (not MSL), in that particular area 3000 was both a valid IFR and VFR altitude.and 4500 would have been the first VFR hemispherical altitude. But the airwaves are not the place to do training, so I complied with the instruction rather than cancelling the ATC services. If something like that happens to you, you can contact the ATC facility and ask to speak to their Quality Assurance person. These folks are great at sorting out any misunderstandings and work with the attitude of improving service by fixing errors, not laying blame or punishment.

  • Bruce Landsberg


    Great point – This is not about punishing although we are very quick to judge in our business. You are absolutely correct about the time and place is NOT on frequency to do the educating.

  • Jerry Plante

    I agree that the lack of experience has been showing up lately. We as pilots need to understand what’s going on and try to work with the system as it shakes itself out. A fellow CFI has a good example of this. He was doing a final lesson for an instrument student before his practical. They were given a clearance to intercept a DME arc, but the heading was 180° off. How many of us have done that?

    The CFI decided to use this as a “teaching moment” and see if the student would figure out the mistake, but ATC asked “Where are you going”. The instructor explained that the heading assigned was 090 and that’s what they were doing.

    At that point, a different voice came on the radio and said that the pilot needed to speak up if something was wrong, and added the comment “We make mistakes too”. I thought that was very telling.

  • Bill Grava


    I have been a controller since 1985, current TRACON controller, as well as working high density tower operations for 13 years. I am also current pilot, ATP and CFII. I experience both sides (ATC & pilot) of our new group of controllers as they learn “on the job.” Yes, there is a changing of the guard going on. The majority of new folks have, unfortunately, have no aviation background or experience to draw from as they work their way through the air traffic positions in preparation for certification. They rely on their instructors and classroom training to teach them not only the basics, but the good,solid operatiing practices that make the system work on a daily basis. As with being a pilot, some just “have it” and some really have to work at it to get it right. When they do certify, there is a very small bag of tricks from which to pull something that may be needed on an immediate basis.

    As the saying goes, there is no substitute for experience. I recently had 2 situations I dealt with while “plugged in” that ended up with positive outcomes. One was wiith our foe, icing, and the other was a throttle malfunction. In handling these, I drew from my pilot and CFI experince to assist the pilots with the safe end to a tense few moments. After the events, I had a few of the new folks say to me that they would not have known what to do.

    I now, and always have believed that having flying or aviation experience is a an integral part of the ATC job. It would be extremely beneficial for the new controllers to get some “stick” time to gain an understanding of how things work behind the yoke. We’re all in this together.

    I would like to add that as pilots, if you ever do not understand a controllers intruction, professionally ask for clarification. Additionally, when making requests, initial call ups, etc, be brief to the point, know what you are going to say prior to pressing the push to talk. Quite often, frequency time is precious.
    Try to catch you at Oshkosh!

  • Bruce Landsberg


    We agree about the value of aviation experience. In fact, Dale Wright who is NATCA’s director of safety will be joining me in a meeting with the head of Air Traffic, Hank Krakowski, to discuss incentives for controllers to become pilots.

    Many thanks for your thoughts……

  • Bob H.

    You guys hit it out of the park with the most recent Say It Right! Well done! Just phenomenal! Better than Cats! Suh-weet! You get the idea. :)

    It should be on the cover of AOPA in January 2011: “Your New Years Resolution: Say It Right!”

  • Brian Hall


    I am one of the Reagan-era En Route air traffic controllers who will be retiring this October after 29 years.

    I have written countless letters and made requests to anyone who would listen to reinstate some sort of familiarization training program again. This was were the controllers were able to ride along on the flight deck and observe the operations from the pilots side. This should be mandatory training, done on a yearly basis. I learned invaluable lessons myself, despite the fact that I am an instrument rated pilot. Many controllers have never set foot in an aircraft except as a passenger.

    As previously stated, there is a huge learning curve in the art of ATC. Any and all training received like this should be well documented with a synopsis of what the controller learned while on the trip. This helps to reinforce the importance of the trip and the lessons learned. The chance to discuss performance issues, aircraft systems, and all other related items would once again benefit the controllers and users as well.

    II truly believe that the safety and efficiency of our current system could be vastly improved, if this training were to be reinstated immediately.


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