For pilots, a visit to an ATC facility often results in a mental sunrise on why things are done as they are and how to get the best service.
A local group of pilots visited an ATC facility and observed:
VFR flight following: At a moderately busy Class C facility, on a nice VFR Saturday morning, the amount of traffic was impressive—especially around the edges with clusters of aircraft who weren’t speaking to anyone.
At a satellite airport outside Class C airspace there were several VFR targets in the pattern or nearby. As an IFR Cessna 210 was picking up his clearance on the ground, the controller advised him of the nearby beehive. It got more exciting because although the winds were light, the 210 elected to depart against the prevailing flow—his prerogative. The controller advised of the nearest targets, altitudes, and that there was a Hawker jet setting up for an RNAV approach to the opposing runway. The 210 launched uneventfully and avoided everyone. We’ll catch up to him momentarily.
The Hawker was advised of “the hive” and the controller reminded him to cancel when appropriate. A thin layer of clouds precluded it right then and the controller asked for a pirep. Two minutes later the Hawker reported bases broken at 1,300 and canceled. The controller now had a better picture on what was going on and where a conflict might develop recognizing, of course, that everyone was adhering exactly to the prescribed cloud clearances. Right! Pireps are important—make ’em!
For pilots, the mantra is Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. For controllers it’s Safety, Efficiency, and Pilot Requests—in that order. Controllers may be working two or more frequencies, and we only hear one side of the conversation. Be patient since ATC’s highest priority is avoiding a paint swap before they can get to our request.
On an initial call for VFR flight following, just the call sign and possibly “flight following” is all that is needed. Don’t unload that you’re “a Buzzard 110 at 2,000 somewhere northeast of Mudville headed up to see Aunt Tilley who has a world class twine collection.” ATC will reply when they can with a squawk—and then it’s time to provide type, altitude, and destination.
The IFR Cessna 210 was headed northbound and assigned 7,000 but the Mode C readout showed 7,300 and climbing. The controller provided the altimeter setting and asked the pilot to check altitude. He reported level at seven and when the Mode C showed 7,700, ATC requested him to stop altitude squawk.
Meanwhile, an inbound RJ was descending out of 10,000, which the controller stopped at 9,000 just to be sure. The 210 was handed off to the adjacent sector and told to start squawk again, to ascertain the problem. The 210 showed level at 7,000, which points out that sometimes there are intermittent gremlins in the system. A good reason for the biennial altimeter/transponder check and the need to check anomalies in several locations/times. Perhaps in the distant future we’ll be using GPS-derived altitudes, at least in some airspace.
Approaching even moderate high density airspace, don’t wait until arriving near the boundary before calling. It’s a three-dimensional chess game of time, speed, and distance—the pieces are constantly moving. It’s even more complex when ATC has to anticipate what the non-participating players might be contemplating. ATC is managing considerable traffic 40 to 50 miles out from the Charlie or Bravo boundary of mandatory communication and typically up to 10,000 feet. So there is opportunity for unpleasant encounters even though communication is not required, as described in the accident below.
Arrival and departure gates are often a mystery to VFR pilots who sometimes believe staying clear of Charlie or Bravo airspace should eliminate any conflicts. Not so! The fast movers need to get into and out of the communication airspace (which AOPA works hard to keep as compact as reasonable). Choice of altitude becomes critical. A midair collision last year in the Charleston, South Carolina, area outside of Class C between an F-16 and a VFR Cessna 150 illustrates this point.
Minimum vectoring altitude, in this case, was 1,600 as the fighter was being guided to the final approach. The Cessna had just departed on a cross-country and was not in contact with ATC. While several traffic calls were made to the jet, the defensive approach would have been for the Cessna to level at or below 1,400 until establishing contact and to listen on the ATC frequency. It’s good to know those arrival and departure gate altitudes in areas where you fly a lot.
Some pilots are uncomfortable talking to ATC, being uncertain about what to say or that, somehow, there’s a violation lurking for the least little foul-up. As they say in Jersey, Fuhgettaboutit! ATC is there to help, and it’s seldom that controllers will be anything but helpful. Just tell them you’re a student pilot. I’ve used that to good effect in high-density IFR traffic in the Northeast, which always gets their immediate attention. (Just kidding!)
The AOPA Air Safety Institute’s recently updated Say It Right: Mastering Radio Communications is an excellent free online course to help you feel better about it. You’ll be talking like a pro in no time.
Post your thoughts about using Flight Following in the comments section:
a) I always use Flight Following – when available
b) I stay away from the busy airspace
c) My eyesight is excellent and I have lightning fast reflexes to see and avoid any traffic
d) Other comment