ATC and pilots: When to keep your mouth shut and when to speak up

This sounds a bit pathetic, but most of the professional pilots I’ve known in my life have been smart alecks, me included … always ready with an opinion, whether anyone asked for it or not. We’re all control freaks to some degree I suppose, not an earth-shattering revelation of course, because those are the kind of people you want around when it’s time to grab the controls and say, “I’ve got it.”

Sometimes knowing when not to grab the microphone in the cockpit though, can be just as important, especially for me when it comes to ATC at least. I spent a decade of my aviation life in a control tower and behind a radar scope, which was just enough to qualify me – by my standards of course – as an expert.


Madison Wi (MSN)

Case in point to grabbing that microphone occurred at Madison, Wis., a few weeks ago with a student in the Cirrus. We were VFR in right traffic for Runway 31 and requesting multiple “option approaches,” the ones that leave it to us to decide whether we’ll make a full stop, stop and go, low approach, or whatever might be left. The long runway, 18-36, was closed for construction and some itinerant traffic was using Runway 3-21. BTW, tower assigned us Runway 31 which I did wonder about with traffic on Runway 3, but then since every controller runs their traffic patterns a little differently I thought no more about it.

After the third or fourth option approach, the tower cleared us to land on Runway 31, but never explained why. On touch down, I simply forgot and told the student “let’s go” and he added full power and reduced the flap setting. As soon as we broke ground the “cleared to land” part flashed in my mind. Maybe 100 feet in the air, the local controller in MSN tower firmly reminds me that when he says cleared to land, he means cleared to land. I really tried not to respond, but of course I did, “Sorry about that. My fault. But 18/36 is closed right?” as in, so what was the real problem other than my failure to follow orders. I honestly didn’t know. Someone in the tower keyed the mic as if they were going to say something and then decided against it. We landed about 15 minutes later and the ground controller reminded me that I had earlier been cleared to land on Runway 31 and that they really need me to follow instructions in the future. Of course you know I keyed the microphone and asked again what the issue was other than blowing the order … “Did I conflict with some other aircraft?” “No, but you were cleared to land, not for an option,” he said. Since the other pilot was becoming uncomfortable with the exchange I just said, “Roger. Thanks,” and let it go. After all, I did blow it. I just would have liked to have known a bit more, but I decided to just let it go.


Kenosha Wi. (ENW)

Jump ahead a month or so and I’m again acting as CFI in the traffic pattern at Kenosha, Wis., this time having watched the other pilot I’m flying with land out of a really nicely handled circling instrument approach. We decide to stay in the VFR traffic pattern for a bit so the controller in the tower – obviously working both tower and ground himself – taxies us to Runway 7 Left. As we taxi, I hear him chatting with a Citabria pilot he’s sending to Runway 7 Right. About now I became occupied watching my pilot prepare for another takeoff.

Some part of my brain must have heard the tower clear the Citabria for takeoff from the right runway with a left turn out, just before he cleared us from the left runway, but it remained one of those distant notes in my brain until we were about 200 feet in the air. That’s when I saw the taildragger cutting across our path from the right. I instinctively told the pilot I was flying with to head right behind the Citabria as the ENW controller mentioned him as “traffic ahead and to our right.” He was a lot more than that. If we hadn’t turned, it would have been close.

The pilot flying with me looked at me in wonderment as I just shook my head and keyed the microphone … “nice tower.” No response.

I rang the tower manager a few days later on the phone because I wanted him to know how close I thought we would have been had we not banked right after takeoff. I told him I thought the ENW tower controller just plum forgot about the taildragger off the right when he cleared us for takeoff. I got it. It happens. I just wanted to see if I’d missed something here too.

Sad to say but the tower manager at Kenosha never rang back. This is where it becomes tough for me. Should I ring the tower manager again and risk sounding like a know-it-all? I make mistakes too. What do you think? Let me know at [email protected].


  1. Hmmm, two human beings made mistakes. The tower didn’t take action against you so i would cut them some slack. Of course the old saying that if the pilot screws up he dies and if the tower screws up the pilot dies too is still true. I had an old boss who was a corporate captain who in answer to a smart remark from a controller said something to the effect of, “Tell me something, am I up here because you are down there, or is it the other way around?” Best comeback I’ve ever heard.

    • When I am landing, I own the runway. I ALWAYS have the option, especially before touching down. Botched landings are to be expected with students.

      • No one is saying you can’t go around if that’s required for safety. However, you are expected to comply with ATC instructions to the extent practicable. If you don’t feel like doing a full stop, then simply say “Unable” so the controller can work out a way to fit you into the flow of traffic. There may be several other airplanes ATC is trying to weave in–that’s why it’s towered field. They may be able to give the person behind you a slight delay vector or ask you to maintain best forward speed or the following traffic to slow down, etc., and work everyone in with a minimum of fuss, but your attitude that you’re the ace of the base who owns the place screws it up for everyone. If you have to go around because of a botched landing, that’s one thing; if you want to come in with the attitude that you own the place, that’s another thing entirely. The hallmarks of good airmanship are being able to operate your aircraft safely and efficiently. If you have the attitude that you’re the only one out there, you’re putting the first one in question and making the second one impossible for everyone out there.


        September 23, 2015 at 10:31 pm

        AH, Not so grasshopper, read what DG wrote (above) one hour prior to your post. Many, many pilots think there can only be ONE plane on a towered airport runway at a time and that just is not the case. Heck, I used to think that when I was a CFI so don’t feel too badly.

      • You can always go around but much of what happens in a tower is based on anticipated separation for the sake of not making anyone burn too much gas / jet a and keep the lines moving. There are contingencies for go arounds but they are not the expectation. Mistakes were made on both sides as described above. If you are at an airport with crossing runways and someone decides to take an “option” approach they weren’t cleared for, don’t be surprised if the guy on the other runway ends up with a cancelled takeoff clearance while already rolling. As long as the landing aircraft is slowed to taxi speed you can clear the aircraft on the crossing runway for takeoff. Now imagine that gets turned into this mistaken option approach…..guess what….aircraft loss of separation caused by pilot deviation. Now if it was a go around, the guy on the crossing runway would never have been cleared because let’s face it, planes don’t go around from taxi speed. Controllers are getting paid to have the plan to keep everyone safe and part of that comes on the heels of pilots doing as expected and complying with clearances. When someone misses or does not comply with a clearance the plan for all the aircraft in the area often changes. How would you like to be the pilot aborting the takeoff from rotation speed because another aircraft on a crossing runway thought the runway was all his and decided to option by accident. Professionalism on both sides goes a long way. Be curteous to your fellow aviators and controllers and remember a pissing match on freq. Is just keeping the next guy from checking on with his real emergency.

    • That is absolutely true. Although that remark should be made on the phone. Be professional.

  2. I am an ATM at a small facility on the west coast. On the full stop clearance, (and you did a touch and go), it may not have affected any other aircraft that time but could in the future. In a VFR tower, the separation that we routinely deal with is runway separation. If there had been an aircraft ahead, the runway separation may have evaporated when you did a touch and go and the tower cleared you for and expected you to land, especially if you read back the landing clearance. “Train like you’re going to fight” is a adage we used in the military to ensure that muscle memory is what we want it to be when it counts. A simple call to the tower after you landed may have cleared this up. Trying to get an explanation on the radio may not be the best idea, depending on traffic load.

    On the second issue, the ATM should’ve called you back as soon as possible. We (ATC) expect pilots to call when we ask them to, to discuss issues. The pilot should expect (and deserve) the same in return. If I did not respond right a way, I would not be offended if the pilot called me back to find out any further information on the issue. Hope this helps.

    • DG … talk to us some about this ‘VFR separation in a VFR tower.’ Obviously, that is something contained in the 7110 that I’m not sure I fully understand. I made a comment above about tower operators clearing an airplane to land and well before the first airplane is down and able to clear, he’s got another one hot on their heels coming down the chute. What’s the rules here?

      • At a towered airport (tower open providing service), we can use reduced runway separation. In other words, we can have two airplanes on the runway at the same time. If both aircraft are small category, single engine aircraft (i.e. C-172 followed by another C-172), we only need 3000′ separation. If the first aircraft is touch and go and the trailing aircraft is full stop, touch and go, or stop and go, the lead aircraft only need be 3000′ and airborne before the following aircraft crosses the landing threshold. If the first aircraft is full stop and the trailing aircraft is anything other than full stop, the lead aircraft must be off of the runway before the trailing aircraft crosses the threshold. If both are full stop, the lead aircraft can still be on the runway as long as they are at least 3000′ down the runway before the trailing aircraft crosses the threshold. If lead aircraft is a small category twin, it is still 3000′. If the trailing aircraft is a small category twin, then the spacing increases to 4500′. If any aircraft in the mix is a small-plus category or turbo-jet, then the separation is off runway before trailing aircraft crosses the threshold. In the author’s scenario, if there had been a lead aircraft, and the controller expected his aircraft to full stop (cleared to land), then this is where the runway separation could have evaporated.

      • I’m interested to know what you consider “hot on your heels”. That can vary from pilot to pilot.

        For example: I have been chastised by a pilot on an IFR approach because a vfr aircraft was “too close”, even though the VFR aircraft had him in sight and was maintaining visual sep, I could also see both dudes with my binos.
        I have also had a pilot yell at me for not informing him of traffic that was five miles away that was no factor.
        I have also had pilots “go around” on their own because there was still an aircraft rolling out on the runway, even though the legal same runway separation was there. Or on the flip side, they land, then call the tower to complain because there was another aircraft on the runway.

        I will admit, I am one of those controllers that want you to safely hurry off the runway. I work at a busy airport and sometimes one person taxiing off at turtle speed can throw off the entire smoothly running machine. I may have one guy holding in position, with another on 2 mile final, while I wait for a pilot to exit.

        • Well, it’s tough to know since we don’t have a rear view mirror but the #2 airplane was on short final to a 5,000′ runway. He wasn’t miles out.

      • There is a provision in FAA Order 7110.65 that states a controller need not withhold a landing clearance if the controller is reasonably assured prescribed separation (i.e. 3,000 feet, 4,500 feet, clear of runway) will exist prior to the succeeding (aircraft in back) crossing landing threshold. If you have ever been cleared to land number two, the controller exercised this provision.Those of us who are blessed to have tower radar can monitor similar speed aircraft staying 1/2 NM (3,000 feet) apart for Same Runway Separation Category 1. The other fun part of this rule is the tower must determine this separation with suitable landmarks (taxiway intersections, runway distance remaining markers, etc…).

        When I have the situation where I have the Skyhawk on a three mile final and a Citation check in for landing (only one runway here) I’ll advise the Citation of the aircraft type and speed over the ground (I cannot assign a speed like the radar guys can, but I can certainly convince you to slow down if you want to land on your first try). This significantly lessens the likelihood of the “hot on their heels” approach from the succeeding aircraft.

        • Thanks. So in the situation where we were far closer to quickly make about a 150 deg turn to exit at a center taxiway we just passed vs taxiing to the far end of a runway, was I correct in telling my old pilot buddy to quickly get off the runway or should we just have taxied to the far end and maybe been eaten up by the #2 airplane? My C172 has a damage history exactly like this … before I owned it, it landed at an uncontrolled airport and a Pitts promptly ‘ate it.’ That’s what drives my thoughts.

          • It lessens the likelihood, not eliminates it. One thing that I evaluate is a concept called “Runway Occupancy Time”. This is the time it takes for you to cross landing threshold until the runway becomes usable again (by a. your aircraft has traveled a certain distance down the runway that will permit the use of SRS or b. you have turned off the runway and continued past the runway hold short markings (see “Clear of the Runway” in the P/C G)) if it will take you 20 seconds to travel 3,000 feet down the runway (provided there is a SRS category 1 succeeding you) or does it take you 30 seconds to travel 2,000 feet down, navigate a 150 degree turn-off and pass the hold-short markings…In this instance, clearly I want the first option. Hope that made sense.

          • No, not exactly BUT … “runway occupancy time” is EXACTLY what I was working toward. I’ll remember that. Good catch phrase. In our case, we only passed the center taxiway by a very short distance and the 150 deg turn to rejoin it and safely exit beyond the hold short line was FAR less than continuing the landing roll and taxiing down to the far end. Since we couldn’t see what was happening behind us other than listening to the radio chatter and making a mental picture out of it, it was my decision to make the turn to get off the runway as soon as we could and announce as soon as practical. The particular airport where this evolution occurred is one controlled by contract ex-military controllers who just don’t often “get it.” Suffice it to say, he set us up for a hurried landing and — as I now remember it — he TOLD us to expedite (because HE set the #2 airplane up too close). That’s not our problem, it’s his. And I let them know in no uncertain terms that I didn’t appreciate it in a subsequent telecom direct to the tower. The older gent flying got rattled by it all; I think that under normal circumstances, he’d have controlled his airspeed better and made the center taxiway but, as it turned out, he missed by only a small amount. 3,000′ isn’t much space. By my math, an airplane traveling 80mph will cover that 3,000′ in 25.6 seconds. So in that period of time, the lead aircraft has to do SOMETHING to keep the safe distance or it is violated. That’s trusting two GA pilots to do everything right. I don’t like that idea much.

          • I have news for ya, most FAA Contract Towers are staffed by prior military controllers (myself included). A lot of military towers employ “Military Assumes Responsibility for Separation of Aircraft” or MARSA that permits reduced runway separation (imagine 1,500 feet between aircraft). While getting most military aircraft to expedite is easily accomplished, getting the same performance and compliance from GA operators isn’t very likely.

            In the scenario you described, absolutely the controller has to eat it. Very rarely do I issue “Turn Base Now” to an aircraft who is following another aircraft (the only way a tower guy gets himself into that sort of trouble). I tell you who you’re following, where they are, what they are doing, and if I notice a significant speed disparity (50+ knots ground speed), their speed over the ground. That should give you every piece of information to be successful and I let YOU fly the airplane. Again, I have radar in my tower that really helps out a lot.

          • Well, I didn’t mean to disparage military controllers … I’m retired myself. That said, the people inhabiting the tower in question aren’t … how you say … the brightest bulbs on the block. AND … they don’t have a brightscope or other radar info available to them. On numerous occasions, they have pissed off the ‘natives’ are are rightly upset. I’ve been around a lot of years and I know their end goals and try to help. But … when I get chewed out for taking the path of fastest egress … they’re gonna hear from me.

  3. Re: the Madison incident. Every so often, I’ve encountered tower controllers who act like they are the King of the Airport, to whom all others must bow. It’s rare, but it happens. Most are helpful and concerned with safety. There’s one at KAPA who is much like your Madison controller–do it his way, or expect a tongue-lashing over the radio. While you erred, it’s an understandable error, since you’d had several “cleared for the option” approaches previously.

    Re: the Kenosha incident. Tower managers have supervisors, too. What you described is too close a situation to go un-addressed. He should call you back to learn the details and ask pertinent questions. If he doesn’t call you back, I’d suggest going up the line above him, seeking only that he be told to contact you.

    I suggest that both incidents deserve a NASA report–the Madison one because you made the mistake and need to protect yourself; the Kenosha incident because it was a dangerous situation for which a record needs to be made, in hopes it will filter down to the tower controllers so that they’ll be more careful in the future.

  4. All three previous responders have good positions, Rob. I learned from this.
    It points out that there is a disconnect between what pilots — especially new pilots — learn by way of CFI’s and the AIM and the other stuff and the 7110 … on occasion. I never heard of the 7110 until years after I started flying. In fact, in THIS case, given that the previous patterns were “option” operations, I’d say the local controller should have emphasized that he wanted you to “land” and not touch and go. I wouldn’t assign full error to you … I’d rate it as 60 to his 30. I will remember that when they say land, … land.
    It also points out that when a CFI is aboard, pilots often defer to them vs making good piloting decisions on their own. The pilot has a small amount of culpability in this transaction, too, I’d say. So that’s where the missing 10% went.
    I had a situation a few years ago with an older (and somewhat slower) pilot friend demo’ing his new Remos LSA to me in Florida. We landed only just about 150-200 feet short of a mid-field taxiway on a wide runway and I told my friend to quickly taxiback to the center taxiway vs rolling slowly in an LSA to the end. I did this because he had already “cleared” another light airplane to land which was hot on our heels and we’d exit the runway a lot quicker. The towers often do this and it bugs me. As I see it, when I’m on the runway it belongs to me. I shouldn’t have to be either hurried OR be chewed out subsequently. In this case, the tower tore us a new one. I phoned that tower and chewed THEM out for it … in a firm but professional way, of course.
    Didn’t someone once write, “To err is human … ?”
    BTW: I’m one of the Larry squared folks who enjoyed lunch at Airventure on Jetwhine … thank you.

  5. I was working CFI near ERI and had a similar call out of CLE which came across as confusing. I keyed to call back for an explanation and was chastised for questioning their authority. The situation was confusing – maybe too confusing to the tower in the first place. Let it go. But I do wish we had a system for reporting these incidents, as they could show a pattern we might need to address.

  6. Follow orders and keep quiet. In 45 yrs. as a corporate pilot 90% of problems encountered were due to too much mouth on the frequencies. Most often when flight training slow aircraft were mixed into higher speed traffic.

  7. To be honest, I’ve never seen this problem. Just the opposite, in fact, courtesy, and questions whether I need anything special. Of course, this might be because I Lt them know, up front “I ain’t no professional.”. Humor, as long as it doesn’t interfere with operations, will often times, ease a tense situation.

  8. With the MSN incident, don’t say anything. Just let it go, and maybe a call to the tower to see if there was a problem. A NASA report would be appropriate. It was obviously your error, even though not intentional. Not 30% of the tower and 70% yours. As far as the ENW incident goes, probably again, just best to say nothing. The tower chief should have called you back, and maybe a call to his supervisor in the company might help. On the flip side, you don’t want to get a reputation with the tower. That’s something you won’t want to deal with.

  9. Years ago I learned what a tower controller can do if he wants to let a pilot know who is boss. I was “cleared to land on 32L while on left down wind and the tower sits right beside the approach just left of center line. Almost all traffic goes past and around the tower during a “normal” pattern. As I approached the tower on down wind the engine couffed a couple times (maybe Ice) I decided to make a short approach inside the tower. I chopped power hit full flaps and rolled it tight to make the short approach and for a little fun it looked like I was going to roll the wheels on the tower windows.( not really but it might have looked like it to Him) It was a steep tight short approach and the touchdown was short also. As I rolled out the controller asked gruffly what was my problem? Not being stupid I said I would call him on the land line after I shut down. I rang the tower and identified myself and he again asked me what my problem was (again very annoyed) I said no problem that I just had a ruff engine and decided to make a short approach and not go out around the tower incase the engine quit. He said that I should have notified him first so he could approve a short approach and that I had made an unsafe landing. I reminded him that I had already been “Cleared to Land 32L) and the runway belonged to me. That I was always taught to fly the airplane first and communicate later. That under the circumstances my decision and action was the safest thing to do.
    A couple of weeks later I got a certified letter from the FAA stating that they were taking 609 action on my commercial certificate with emphasis on traffic patterns. I called the FAA facility and talked to the supervisor and they were adamant that the supervising tower controller had filed a complaint claiming that I had made an “unsafe landing”
    I looked up everything I could find on regulations on traffic patterns I could find none. There are plenty of recommendations, opinions, wives tales, experts, etc. But regulations not so much.
    So I was coming in to land a week later on 32L Cleared to land on 32L. From left downwind again.
    This time I asked for a short approach inside the tower traffic permitting. I was cleared as requested. I made the same exact approach as tight and as close to the tower as possible and as I was rolling out the tower controller asked me if I would possibly do that approach and landing again as they were filming videos for the coming open house…I said Ill be right there. I did the same approach again just as tight and close as before. I came to the open house and watched the FAA tower video and low and behold there I was the star of the video on the lead in to their Faa propaganda speeches. I asked for a copy and was told to come back the next day and they would make me a copy. I went back the next day and as he handed me the copy I told him I was taking it to the FAA 609 hearing with me. You should have seen his face..
    When I showed up for the appointment with the FAA in Oakland..They said there must have been a mistake that all actions had been withdrawn. I said don’t you want to see the video ?? That one day I made an unsafe landing and the next day I’m a Star……They didn’t want to see it they didn’t want to even discuss it at all…It was all just a misunderstanding….No matter what they say the FAA and the tower controller when push comes to shove are not your “Friend”

    • Sorry but you are wrong. Not all controllers are the same and not all pilots are the same. When I control traffic I am not the “boss’ or “in charge”. I am only there because you are. I am there to provide a service and to enhance safety. I AM your friend because when you need me I will be there. When you don’t I will NOT interfere in you flying the airplane. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone has a bad day. Don’t judge all by the actions of a few. With controllers as with pilots there are those that are at the top of the class and those that are at the bottom.

      • IPADGUY,
        Sorry but YOU are wrong. While most of the controller are just fine, you never know when you get a bad one that will cause grief, and they can do it unjustly, and have. Fortunately, rare, but the pilot must protect himself from this by treating all controllers the same, with respect, but caution and by the book, if necessary. The controller in this situation should have done a LOT better, and could have, but chose to be an a-hole. Unfortunately when you deal with the FAA, it’s MUCH worse. Caution be advised.

  10. I too am a CFI who often flies to ENW, DPA, PWK, and UGN. I really respect those tower controllers…they are good at their job! But, they are doing a tough and demanding job and they are human – which means, occasionally they make mistakes. Actually, I like it when they make small mistakes that I can point out to my student explaining that they, like us pilots, make occasional mistakes. The difference being they make their mistakes in air conditioned comfort while we make ours while flying these expanded metal cans. BUT, the tower controllers in these four towers operate in four quite different social environments. You can feel the differences between them. The phrases they use, the word choice, the speed of delivery, etc. are all the same but their affects are different. I would have expected no more from the ENW crew than what you received. It’s their “sociology”. Some control tower crews welcome you and are glad to hear from you 15 miles out. Others are annoyed when you call them more than 7 or 8 miles out and you can feel it. It’s their “sociology”. We all need to be aware and accepting of these subtle differences so we can more precisely communicate and accommodate those differences and peculiarities that really don’t affect safety. Those that have a safety impact must be reported – to NASA or, in more immediate situations, the FSDO. At least that’s the way I see it.

  11. The following opinions are based on my background : Comm’l/ASMEL&SES, CFII (Active), ATCS/FSS,Terminal-Twr & Apch, En Route (Retired). 1. At MSN, this was your fault, 100%. You know that, both as a pilot/IP and former controller. The GC’s caution statement afterwards was far better than a PD filed and should have been graciously accepted as such. Your decision to ‘let it go’ on the freq was correct, albeit a bit late. 2. At ENW, a garden variety GA pilot might not have the situational awareness necessary to picture the potential conflict from the departing Citabria. However, as a former tower controller you have an added gift. You have the ingrained ability to see that picture based on what the tower said, and the potential conflict it would create. You didn’t utilize that ‘gift’ until it was almost too late. 3. Having said that, the big hammer goes on to the local controller that launched you into that Citabria without calling out the traffic when he cleared you for take-off. Even though the tower is theoretically only responsible for runway separation, based on what you stated, the controller’s actions generated not just a routine ‘traffic call’ but a ‘traffic alert.’ He not only failed to provide normal routine service, but failed to provide a required high priority safety alert. 4. I don’t care who it upsets. If I get bad service I’m going to make sure that ATC knows about it. Not on the freq, but on the ground. I never advocate getting into a peeing contest on the freq, either as a pilot or as a controller. It’s just not professional. The most I will do is ask for a number to call when on the ground. That usually give the other side a ‘heads up’ that I’m not happy and generates a quick review of the situation before my call. If they discover something amiss with the service the call will usually go very well. (Don’t expect to learn about any action taken against the controller) 5. Last but not least, if you’ve been told to expect a follow-up call and don’t get one, someone dropped the ball. If it’s important enough to you to contact ATC about an issue then hammer them until you get an acceptable response.

    Yes, we all make mistakes, that’s why air safety is a ‘shared responsibility.’ But don’t let that ‘we’re all human’ stuff cloud your thinking. They (the FAA) is not paying us to fly, we’re paying them to provide us with the highest quality service on the planet. And we need to hold them to the highest standard of service and professionalism.

  12. Regarding your accidental touch and go, the controller shouldn’t have cleard you to land if the touch and go would have created a conflict. What would have happened if your landing hadn’t gone well and you had to go around? The same conflict would have occured and your action would have been perfectly correct. They encourage you to go around as opposed to crashing and the controller should have taken that possibility into consideration when giving you the clearance.

  13. Hi Rob,

    I’ve had both experiences too.

    I was thankful that ATC at BTV in the 90s after the second one in a lesson, told me there were two options, leave for the practice area or taxi to the ramp on the frequency!. It’s very easy to focus on the student and the process and loose the ATC thread especially when you are a new CFI or not used to dividing your attention in the pattern. If you practice mainly touch and goes it becomes a routine that when you are concentrating intensely on a student may distract or take priority over a “clearance” in the old gray matter.

    I’ve always felt very bad and disappointed in myself when I’ve had to “call the tower.” The tower however has always been very good about showing me the way! (This might not always happen everywhere. I’ve been fortunate to work with very professional ATC people.)

    The second one is that when I started teaching in 1991 all the controllers were seasoned. The first time I heard a controller with less than 10 years experience was just recently as the new bunch started because of the controllers strike. At one time I knew all the BTV controllers and they knew me. Now there are only a few that I know even by voice. An aside was that it tickled my funny bone to hear a newbie in the tower sound like a newbie student pilot. The point is that now there are a lot of unseasoned controllers and tha the mistakes made are a lot more frequent. The shoe is on the other foot now. I’ve seen a couple of close ones. I am always pleased to be in a position to be able to see ahead through a situation and avert a problem, sometimes by keying the mike or sometimes by calling on the phone. One of the demands I make of all the people I am teaching is that they think about the whole situation and not just blindly read back and comply.

    I think that the MOST IMPORTANT thing to remember is that we are all human and that it is important to work together! Noise abatement (two aircraft bumping into each other and then hitting the ground) is all of our goal!!!

  14. Isn’t the humility thing the way to go? I know I sure appreciate it when someone doesn’t rub my nose in “it”, on the rare occassion when I do err of course.

  15. Rob, Thanks for opening this up for discussion. The ‘what would you do’ question has generated lots of comments & include equally interesting perspectives.
    Great topic!
    … and some helpful advice in the reader comments.

  16. I am so impressed with the amount of time so many of you have spent commenting on this story. As I said early on, I don’t think I knew the answers to these questions myself which is why I reached out to you. And you have not disappointed me.

    That said, I think there is enough of a variety of opinion here to say some of you agree with my perspective and some don’t. That’s fine with me.

    What I do find interesting though, is the number of folks who said just “shut up and let it go.”

    While, as one person suggested this week, I am a child of the 60s and am also possibly someone who questions authority, although in these situations I did not speak up just to be a pain in the butt to some controller. I just wanted to know the answer.

    In the case of MSN, I do agree that asking on the radio was probably not the best idea. In the case of ENW, I was concerned, despite my former controller mind as one of you commented. I believe I said I felt something was going on, but that I missed it because I wasn’t being a controller, I was the PIC and was focused elsewhere.

    Getting round to the point though, I do not agree with the idea of always letting it go when you really believe you are right, or simply want to know what happened. How else can anyone else possibly learn … pilot or controller … or both? That of course, is the way I look at life.

    That said, I don’t believe a nasty response on the radio serves anyone’s purpose even though I recognize my own limitations at keeping my mouth shut. But I absolutely do not agree with something that someone else mentioned in this thread, that we should simply shut up because someone at that ATC facility might remember you next time and hence penalize you in the future. There is no way, no time I would ever put up with that. I agree about the importance of picking your battles, but that would be an uncrossable line to me.

    Have any of you actually experienced this kind of retaliation from ATC? I never have despite a lifetime of stupid mistakes and speaking up when I thought it was justified.

    • I have had instances of controller retaliation, not sometime later as I recall, but almost immediate. The one that comes most immediately to mind was flying IFR into Grand Junction, CO (KGJT) from the north. You have to come in high to clear the MEA (10 to 13k) and as you clear the Book Cliffs just north of the airport (the source of the higher MEA) you are right on top of KGJT at 4,858′ msl. I had a brand new engine and even added “remarks” to my IFR flight plan to that effect and that I could not accept extreme ascents nor descents. As I was handed off to the Tower, descending out of 11k, the controller wanted me to enter a left base for Rwy 11. I explained my situation, told him that I would prefer to overfly the field and enter a midfield upwind for 11, and was promptly and abruptly told to NOT overfly the field and, instead, enter and left downwind. It was very clear to me that my downwind being extended somewhere into Utah was the price I would now have to pay. My wife and I joked about whether the Tower was ever going to turn me back to the airport. For the life of me, I still can’t figure this one out … there was no conflicting traffic I was aware of, there was only one other aircraft in the pattern as I recall, and, let’s face it, KGJT is not exactly a busy airport.

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