Call the Cockpit when I land

December 16, 2009 by Bruce Landsberg


Once in a awhile something doesn’t work with ATC and we’re asked to call the tower or the particular facility upon landing. The tables were turned on a recent flight when the pilot of a Hawker jet asked for the facility phone number. I happened to be on frequency and heard the whole thing go down.

The weather was low IFR and the jet had been vectored onto the localizer but not cleared for the approach. The controller was busy and even though the Hawker made several calls the controller was busy. By the time he got back to clearing the flight for the approach it was too late to establish a stabilized approach to capture the glideslope that was several hundred feet below.

The captain very wisely requested to be vectored quickly back to the final and asked the controller to keep it tight since fuel was becoming an issue. The nearest legal alternate was at least 100 miles away. As soon as everything was properly organized he politely but firmly asked for the facility phone number, ostensibly to discuss the miscue.

I commend the captain on several counts:

1) He didn’t try to comply with a potentially unsafe clearance

2) The weather was so low that if the approach was flown high or fast it would likely be missed

3) He didn’t try to rectify the problem on the frequency – there were flight critical discussion taking place.

4) He wanted to be sure the controller understood his side of the problem.

This is an admittedly rare occurrence but it was a textbook solution. Anyone else had this type of experience and how did it play out? VFR or IFR?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Glen Coombe

    Bruce, good information today. It might be good to know that if you have trouble with any FAA controller that all you need do is ask for “Time and Initials.” From this information you will have marked the controller and the time on the facility tape recorded conversation.

    Once on the ground you can notify the FAA of your situation and they will be able to access the tape. If this is an enroute communication with center you should mark your location for further reference too.

    This also serves as notice to a controller who may for whatever reason may be giving you less than acceptable service that you plan to take action. In my experience the request is always followed by an immediate change in attitude.

  • Don McClain

    HS125 Sound like KLUV (Home of the S.W.A.P.) on 12-16-09 @10:15. Weather was cristal clear ,all SW flights had landed. Ground control told all a/c taxing,or wanting to to STANDBY……Dead silent for 3 or more min. then gave basic instructions to the A/C waiting (with engines running) . This started some movement. I was cleared to cross 18 on N and hold short of 31L. Crossed 18 on N and started my HOLD to cross 31L. DEAD SILENT on ground again. Looking out window for any movement again for Landing or Taxing A/C “NONE” 3 min. passes NO instruction from Grond to any A/C. My CO-PILOT calls GND.and ask “WHAT,S HAPPENING”. GND snaps back “we are debriefing,we will call you back'” The airport looks like LAX with BILL getting his hair cut. Call on the phone to Tower Chief and got some BS story,Traffic,Weather, Saftey,Shift change,and etc. They are the same ones who file violation on pilot who land because they forgot to give them . Let put their spin on” WE NEED NEW EQUIPMENT FOR YOUR SAFTEY”

  • Patrick Flannigan

    I’ve never had to ask ATC for their phone number, but I’ve been left high and dry before. This sort of treatment is pretty standard at places like Gulfport due to MOAs and restricted airspace.

    But the worst occurrence was at Greensboro. It was a perfectly clear night and our last leg of the trip. From what we could hear on the radio we were the only aircraft on approach and TCAS agreed that the skies were empty. Rather than clearing us for the visual after calling the airport in sight, approach gave us a series of vectors and a step-down descent clearance – then apparently forgot about us.

    By the time we were cleared for the approach it was obvious that it wasn’t going to happen within any imaginings of a “stable” approach, so I simply asked for a 360 to lose altitude. This was denied due to traffic so we were vectored around for a more manageable approach.

  • James Knox

    Had something similar coming into El Paso (KELP). Controller vectored me to intercept the approach, but did not clear me for it – and then forgot about me. The problem is, crossing the localizer, on the other side is a mountain.

    The flight safety was never in doubt. I knew the mountain was there, and did NOT plan to fly into it, no matter what vector the controller had me on. So, crossing the localizer, I queried him if he was intentionally flying me through the localizer. He realized what had happened, and about had a coronary.

    I considered it a “no harm, no foul” – just another couple of minutes while I did a big circle to come back around and re-fly the approach. But he must have apologized to me all the way down to the fence. Hey, it happens – both sides make mistakes. The trick is to work together, and to “trust, but verify” everything action.

  • Ricardo W. Nolasco

    Approaching for landing (VFR) was cleared to land at KHEF (Manassas, VA.) on RWY-16R. When on short final I noticed a Piper rolling onto the active I asked the tower what was going on.., The reply was… repeat transmission, I announced a go around and moved to the right of the runway to keep the piper on my sight.. It was a bussy day . Tower cleared me for another landing. I knew the telephone number so I called from the FBO. The tower supervisor apologized for the controller, saying that he thought that there was enough time for the Piper to take-off before I landed. I responded.. what about if the Piper decides to abort the take-off !! he apologized again saying it wouldn’t happen again.. I complemented him for the good job they do “most of the time” and we said our good-byes..

  • Bill Grava

    I am an FAA Radar Controller as well as an ATP, CFII flying both piston twin and turboprop equipment. I also have time in jet aircraft as well. Having been in the FAA for 24 years, I have seen many interesting and eye opening situations in that time. As a pilot, I am able to understand what is going on in the cockpit and provide ATC service with that cockpit level insight that non-pilot ATC folks might not possess. One item I would like to stress to the readers is that we all need to maintain our professional demeanor, both ends of the mic. Fly the aircraft that way and also communicate that way. I agree, at times it does become stressed, but stay the course . If at any time you are rushed while on an approach, turned in high or late or it just doesn’t feel right, speak up professionally and request another try. On the flip side, the controller should not put you in that scenario in the first place, and if they make a bad call, fix it, don’t fudge it. Also, feel free to ask for the phone number to discuss a situation after landing, hopefully to get the “true” picture.

    With the flood on new developmental controllers in the majority of facilities nationwide, most without aviation backgrounds, there will be a steep learning curve for the next few years while they get acclimated to the sometimes fast paced environment. Patience will at times be tested on all fronts, from the pilots to the veteran controllers instructing the developmentals as well they themselves. But, once again be professional.

    Always enjoy the ASF and it’s continuing efforts to make aviation safe and enjoyable!

  • Sherwin Harris

    Had an experience with HNL tower involving a dangerously garbled and non existant approach clearance. Returning to HNL from an island tour in a rented Grumman American Tiger I had contacted the tower for instructions. The reply was in pidgin english which I do not understand. I made the request again asking for a “yes” or “cleared for the approach” to no avail receiving back the same burst of unintelligible pidgin. I responded finally by stating that i was landing. When I arrived at the fBO I was fuming. That controllers blatent disregard of standard english and terminology had thoroughly compromised safety. The FBO handed me the phone and said the tower chief wanted to talk to the pilot who “didn’t understand radio procedures”. Needless to say, my temper flew off the scale. I told him to review the tapes and hope I didn’t pursue charges. That ended it from my perspective and the FBO’s satisfied expression ended it for him. Hopefully, the tower chief then took appropriate action.

  • Michael V.

    Simialr experience in Indiana. We were told to climb and maintin 4000 while receiving vectors to intercept the ILS localizer. We didn’t get the customary “turn to XXX and intercept the localizer” call until we were practically on top of the localizer. With the late call, and the excess altitude, we were forced to make a dive bomber style approach. If it hadn’t been for my more experienced instructor, there’s no way I would have continued that approach. We made it to decision height on the center line, but it was definitely not a “stable approach”. We were just out to get some IMC time and practice a few approaches so no real harm done.

    I have to agree with Bill. Everyone is generally doing their best, and if we are understanding and professional, we can get the job done safely.

  • Brian Staheli

    I had filed an IFR flight plan from NJ to WI and then learned that the FBO was out of fuel and had been for over a month with no NOTAM. It took a couple hours to scrounge enough to get over the hill and top off at another airport. I filed a second IFR flight plan and was asked to contact TRACON.

    The individual who answered dressed me down in a most unprofessional manner. He stated that a GPS direct flight plan is unacceptable and the old way of doing things (funny, I flew from UT to NJ direct). The lecture continued before he started to read my clearance. He was speaking fast and had a thick Jersey accent that I am not accustomed to hearing. I asked him to slow down and he replied “N20… I am going to say this one time and one time only.” He read the clearance without slowing down and seemed to have laid on the accent a little thicker.

    I knew his behavior to be unprofessional but did not know what I could have done. I have since learned that I should have asked for his name and the tapes to be pulled. Informing people of how things are done does not require condescension and should include solutions.

  • Owen DeLong

    I fly in the San Francisco Bay Area quite a bit. I’ve taken a small ASEL into all but one Class B airport in California. In hundreds of flights, I can only recall a few times when controllers were less than helpful or professional. In general, they’ve been a great resource and I have tremendous appreciation for them.

    The one that sticks out in my mind the most is one night when I got a double-whammy from PAO Tower and, at the time, Bay (now NORCAL) approach.

    I was departing from PAO in a PA32-300 Cherokee Six with 4 passengers on board for Harris Ranch (3O8). The weather was VFR in the immediate vicinity of PAO, but, IFR throughout much of the initial part of the flight. I had called ground and received my clearance, but, while in the runup area completing my pre-takeoff checks, PAO called back and reported the tower was closing, that my IFR departure clearance was cancelled, and advised me to contact Bay in the air.

    I made what, in hindsight, might have been a bad decision… I went ahead and took off and called Bay expecting my clearance would be basically ready and I’d be on my way. Fortunately, from a legal standpoint, I got acknowledgement of my callsign and entered the SJC class C airspace almost immediately. When I requested my IFR clearance, the controller replied unable and asked me to fly a vector away from the SJC final. The weather had closed in around me and I could not do so VFR, so, what ensued was about 15 minutes of competing “unables” with the controller insisting he was unable to get me an IFR clearance, and, my being unable to do any of the things he wanted under VFR, instead being trapped circling in a sucker hole which was blowing towards the runway threshold along the SJC 12R final.

    After about 15 minutes (and 3 airliners being broken off the final and sent around), a new voice took the mic, gave me my IFR clearance to 3O8 and an immediate climb and vector out of the way. I thanked the new controller, complied with the clearance, and all was well in the world. I did file an ASRS, but, in hindsight maybe I should have called both the tower and the approach center.

    I realize when your shift is over, you want to go home, but, if you’ve got an IFR departure in the runup area, it seems to me it would be far more effective for everyone to ask them if they’re ready to go or give them an extra 2-5 minutes rather than cancelling their clearance just to shut down the tower on time.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Excellent comments. I suspect we have a broad experience range of blog readership and it’s beneficial to be reminded about Bill’s comment on “Trust but Verify.”

    I also remind myself that those of us who live in glass houses should be careful of the projectiles we might employ. For new pilots – plan a visit to a tower or TRACON if you haven’t done it. It may take some coordination and don’t visit during busy times. Our ATC folks are, for the most part, the best in the world.

  • Lee P.

    ATC is professional and accommodating 99.9% of the time, but the pilot’s butt is on the line 100% of the time the plane is in the air. A long time ago, before Class B airspace and as a VFR-only pilot then, I was making a short hop from Houston Hobby (KHOU) to Intercontinental (KIAH) to meet an arriving airline passenger. Weather was at or just below 1000′ & 3sm at HOU, but reported 1100′ & 3sm at IAH, 12 flight minutes away. I departed under SVFR, but the IAH TCA prohibited SVFR, so I was monitoring weather carefully.

    Reaching 5 miles out from HOU, I requested frequency change to Houston TRACON, who acknowledged my callup with, “00S maintain VFR and remain clear of the Houston TCA.” So I began circling a landmark at 1000′ to wait. Finally I got the call with a squawk code to fly 030 to intercept base for 27. This was around 1981 and IAH had STOL parallel runways for both primary and crosswind jet runways that were 2000′ painted sections of the parallel taxiways. Controllers could not assign them to an arriving flight, but they could approve a request from the pilot.

    I picked my way northward through the haze and reported runway 27 in sight from 3 miles out. TRACON handed me to Local, who had me turn inbound on final and cleared me to land. As I had been at low cruise speed, I began to slow to approach speed and set the plane up for landing, and taking care not to inadvertently enter the low ceiling, I descended to 500′ for better clearance from clouds. I slowed to 75 kts. and worked to stablize the approach and intercept the visual glidepath.

    When about 350′ AGL and about 1-1/4 miles from the threshold, Tower called to say, “00S, #2 to land, cleared to land.” I immediately responded that I did not have sight of traffic ahead on final, but Tower casually replied, “Oh, traffic is a 727 almost a mile behind you moving more than twice your speed. He’ll be #1 to land.” I was letting that sink in and trying to believe that is what I had actually heard when I saw a pair of wheels going by the left side of the airplane, and then the rear view of an airliner settling in front of me from the top of my windscreen, maybe 100′ ahead of me. Too close! Way too close!

    Fearing wake turbulence, I told the tower, “00S would like another runway — Right now! — request 27S (STOL).” Tower approved and cleared me to land on 27S. My mind was racing with thoughts of how to handle a likely encounter with the twin tornadoes on each side of me, and I decided to steepen the descent as I sidestepped to align with the STOL centerline, although the threshold was now more than a mile farther away. I reasoned that if I flew in ground effect less than a wingspan off the ground, I should be able to stay under the vortices from the 727, so I flew the last mile or so about 8′ over the taxiway. If things started getting bumpy, I could land on pavement instantly. I passed the STOL threshold and pulled the throttle to idle, settling in for a smooth touchdown, and expected a frequency change to Ground Control.

    The tower controller was livid! He said, “00S, that is not an approved approach and you will call the administrator upon parking.” I replied, “Sir, what time is it?” and he responded. I added, “I would love to speak with the admininstrator about a 727 that you brought over my head on short final after I was cleared to land.” There was a short pause, and then a different voice came on and said, “00S, disregard previous transmission.” With more than 1500 hours flight time and an instrument rating today, I shudder to think what might have happened and realize the correct decision was to stay at HOU until weather improved. However, when a controller cut a corner and created a very dangerous situation for me and every passenger on that airliner to avoid sending them around, I kept my cool and let ATC know that I would not be bullied into letting them turn my emergency avoidance maneuver into a violation when escaping the predicament they had put me into. They knew I had them, too, as I never heard anything more from FAA about this.

    Know your rights! Keep calm. And even when ATC messes up, first fly the airplane.

  • Jere Gardner

    I’m retired from Houston Tracon. IAH never had a STOL runway on 27. There was a STOL runway next to 14L (now 15L) which was actually a taxiway. I know this pilot has a right to fly into IAH, but I question the wisdom of flying a 75kt aircraft into a major metropolitan airport, in marginal VFR conditions, without an IFR rating. Many times pilots put controllers in compromising situations because of their poor planning. Later, the family sues the FAA because things didn’t turn out so well.

    Nowadays, the FAA is so worried about liabilities that it can become a danger in itself. As a previous pilot complained of the tower closing prior to his departure, the situation turned ugly in a flash only because the tower didn’t stay beyond the posted hours. I now work at a contract tower that is adament about closing exactly on the minute due to possible liabilities of providing service beyond the go home time.

    To further complicate matters, there are now huge amounts of trainees at the bigger facilitiles due to the large numbers of post PATCO controllers retiring. Additionally, the veteran controllers are working six day weeks and training nearly every session with folks who are right off the street. Believe me, it can be a very intensive environment. Fatigue is setting in.

    I’m not making excuses and I would be the first to recommend that you call the tower/tracon/center if you have an issue that needs to be addressed. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to provide feedback for the supervisor/chief to correct the situation.

    While most controllers do a superb job, we will make mistakes. And just like pilots, some of us are good, and some of us are not so good. Be alert, be aware. The best pilots will always “trust but verify”.

  • Ken Bruggers

    I had reason to call the tower at KADS Addison, TX back in October (?) of 2009 following an ILS Approach to Rwy 33. Conditions were about 1200 overcast but nothing problematic at all. This was my final approach following about two hours of taking advantage of kind IFR weather and running around the DFW area doing approaches into various airports. Since KADS is my home base, I already know the tower number and knew the controllers were open to discussing anything problematical.

    The event went as follows. TRACON had vectored me onto the localizer at a fix approx. 6 miles outside of the final fix for this approach. After I was established they passed me over to KADS tower, and we progressed normally. I was in contact with the tower before crossing the final fix for this aproach, which is crossed at 2000′ MSL. Upon crossing the final fix, with needles only maybe a dot off in either direction, I carefully verified that I had crossed at 2000′. All is good until about 12 secondsl later while still in IMC, when the tower calls with “……. low altitude warning! Minimum altitude for this approach is 894 feet. Addison altimiter 29.92.” Nothing else is said.

    There follows a bad 7 seconds while looking for what has gone BAD WRONG, and what needs to happen to correct it. Nothing is wrong, except for my elevated blood pressure! Upon landing I asked tower on the radio if they had my Mode C during the approach, and they said yes they had. Upon putting the airplane into the hangar, I called the tower on the phone and asked for further discussion. They confirmed that they were watching the approach all the way down including the Mode C, and saw nothing wrong at any time. (I also checked to see my Mode C track) But the computers attached to the TRACON radar will issue low altitude warnings based upon their monitoring programs. And if the computer issues a warning, then the tower MUST read the warning script REGARDLESS of what the tower controller is observing in real time. The tower suggested that I talk with FSDO about the situation, which I did. The FSDO safety officer simply suggested that these systems are for our protection, and that next time maybe it would be a good idea to go around. I am certain that in the future I will do that. But I hope to never again repeat those 7 seconds of panic. Those of us who do fly instrument approaches into non-controlled airports have learned to trust our instruments and situational awareness when not under radar coverage, and conversely we have always thought that when we have TRACON guidance we now have a comforting additional layer of safety when in IFR. This event makes me rethink that mindset. It seems to me that something like this could actually create a loss of control to a non-experienced Instrument pilot.

    So my complaint is NOT with the controllers, but rather with the regulation that requires them to issue a very unnerving warning even when they themselves know that the warning is incorrect, and that the situation is safe.

  • Jere Gardner

    Ken, you prove my previous point. The FAA is so worried about liabilities that it becomes unsafe.

    The low altitude warning is pre-programmed into the software of the radar system being used (STARS/ARTS) and it is site specific. There are certain parameters that must be followed when these approaches are programmed. It will issue aural and visual alarms to the controller. However, this program does not allow for intent. In other words, if you are descending at a rapid rate to level off at the final approach fix, the computer doesn’t know your intent, and therefore issues a low altitiude warning.

    In the past, controllers were allowed to use their discretion as to whether or not they were going to broadcast a low altitude alert to the pilot. That’s because the vast majorities of alarms are bogus. (How many times have you heard that alarm in the background of a controllers’ transmission?) Because of several accidents where the controller failed to issue an alert (a very prominent and high profile one at HOU), it then became a mandated policy.

    So now we have a kneejerk reaction and the FAA requires all alerts to be issued, even when the controller knows it’s bogus. To further complicate matters, the JO7110.65 (controller’s handbook) states that if the aircraft is inside the FAF, we are to issue the DA/DH/MDA to the pilot. This is extremely dangerous since more than likely the pilot hasn’t even gotten to that point on the approach.

    That’s why when I issued these warnings I would normally try and offer a plain language explanation of the alert. Obviously, if it was a true conflict, I would make it known to the pilot.

    I would highly suggest that you (and all pilots) make a visit to your local Center/Tracon/Tower for a tour. I would also suggest that maybe you offer an airplane ride to some of the non-pilot controllers. Knowledge and understanding on both sides is the key to safe flying.