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Think ahead of ATC: sow your plan in the mind of ATC and watch it grow into a thing of beauty. It's just a matter of knowing what to ask for and when.

At the risk of forfeiting my Phil Boyer lapel pin, let me say that I'm a big fan of user fees (wait for it)--based on radio airtime. Talk more, pay more.

Under my plan, pilots would receive a yearly radio allowance good on any ATC frequency. The first so many minutes would be free, with every second thereafter billable at an exponentially increasing rate. The FAA would make a bundle from pilots who think aloud on the air. Similar disincentives would exist for chatty controllers, with the truly egregious ATC talkaholics promoted into management, where mindless blather is gold.

Think Beyond Words

Controllers can work without radar or even sleep, but not without communications. Words have specific meaning and take time to say, and excess verbiage can drive a controller to leap screaming from the tower. With the looming controller shortage, we can't afford to lose any, so if every pilot were to shave a half-second off each ATC call, the time saved could be spent planning ahead rather than merely reacting.

Sounding good is cool, but the sharp pilot who can think like a controller flies ahead of the flow. When the approach controller, for instance, tells a Citation pilot to "report sighting a Cirrus, 10 o'clock, five miles," the heads-up Cirrus pilot knows--before being told--to scan for the Citation. There's no surprise when the Cirrus volunteers that the jet is in sight and hears, "Cleared visual approach."

Thinking ahead of the flow smoothes every phase of flight, particularly your arrival ... maybe not in miles saved, but in the ease with which you mentally transition from en route to approach. Radar controllers vector their targets to intercept the final-approach course at an angle between 20 and 30 degrees. Knowing that, you can visualize how you'll join the localizer. When the field is IFR, you should intercept two miles outside the approach gate; the gate is the imaginary aiming point located a mile outside the FAF.

Before you check onto an approach frequency, determine the controller's workload. If the controller is busy, chances are you'll get vectors for a sequence. Acknowledge and fly it. But, if traffic is light, then inject your own plan into the controller's head: "Request present heading to join the localizer." If it works, the controller will approve it, maybe slap on an altitude crossing restriction and even clear you for the approach, all in one breath. Job done. You can even request a turn-on right at the FAF if you're feeling freight-dog macho.


At satellite airports where vectors to a final-approach course might not be available, do everyone a favor by stating which approach you want and how you want to fly it. Get the AWOS/ ASOS info in advance, formulate your plan miles away, and then lay out the request in your first call: "Center ... request RNAV 17, direct AZETI at or above four thousand." Traffic permitting, a grateful controller will approve the request, eliminating an on-air round of 20-questions.

When shooting an approach via your own navigation (no vectors), ATC's choice of an IAF might not be yours. Most controllers aren't instrument pilots and may not appreciate the difficulty of going direct to an assigned waypoint followed by a roll-yer-socks-down steep turn onto the next segment. Or, the controller's IAF choice might demand a procedure turn. If there's another IAF that eliminates the PT, then request the alternative. It never hurts to ask. Controllers run traffic based on what's best for all users, and ATC's plan might not be ideal for you, so try to modify it. If vectors to, say, Runway 32, require a few extra gas-burning minutes aloft, request another runway and offer to hold short of the intersection: "Request Runway 4, hold short 32." Offer to adjust speed as necessary to make the flow work. Let the controller know that you have the traffic flick and can deliver without sounding pushy.


If declined, consider negotiations closed. You get one shot at this bargaining table; after that you're a pest.

Think Outside the Glass Box

The FAA loves CRM (crew resource management) so, put all of your resources to work for you. A handheld GPS might not be legal for IFR navigation but can be used, as the AIM says, " ... as an aid to situational awareness." Personally, I need all the aid can get, particularly when thinking beyond the instrument panel in that transition from IMC to VMC.

Let's say you're in Class C airspace on a downwind vector for a final-approach course. The ceiling is less than 1000 feet and the visibility two miles. You know the terrain and the airport layout, and your GPS draws a nice picture. Suddenly, you see the ground--there's the Dairy Queen at the airport exit.

A visual approach won't work, because you need basic VFR minimums, but you can request a contact approach. This allows you to scud-run without the runway in sight, provided you see the ground, remain clear of clouds and keep a skinny one-mile vis so you can avoid the cars swerving off the highway in your path. ATC cannot initiate a contact approach or a Special VFR clearance, both of which are trick ways to shortcut the system. How do you request a contact? Easy: "Request contact approach." How safe it is depends on your skills and familiarity familiarity with the area.

You can also think ahead of ATC while en route or on departure. Again, success hangs on your confidence level, terrain awareness, weather conditions and ATC's ability. An easy, and misunderstood, shortcut is VFR-on-top (OTP). With OTP, you keep your IFR status but sacrifice IFR traffic separation. Stay VFR and you can avoid IFR reroutes. A climb to OTP, allows you to penetrate the clag and then operate VFR (on an IFR clearance) once in VMC. The controller, however, might not understand your request. Many don't. As hordes of seasoned controllers retire, inexperienced new-hires will need to be educated. The FAA is not terribly good at teaching its own.

Controllers hate delays. Their job is to get you through the system as quickly and safely as possible. While you hold for release watching ice form on the windshield, miles away an air traffic controller is trying to figure out how to unwrap a Snickers bar and get you from the ground through layers of traffic before saying, "You're released." You can shorten departure delays with a request to climb VFR or to depart VFR and pick up the IFR clearance airborne. The en route pickup can be dicey: There are no guarantees that the controller will cooperate, so weather permitting, a VFR climb to an IFR altitude is usually the better choice. The ATC clearance sounds like this: "Cleared to the Ailerona airport, as filed, climb VFR and maintain 5000." This puts you on an IFR clearance, but ATC won't provide IFR separation until you reach 5000 feet. Controllers who understand the process will love you for it.

Ultimately, of course, true love happens when you whisper these two sweet nothings in a controller's earpiece: "Cancel IFR." Use your late-night voice, and there'll be no more talk of user fees.


For more information on saying the right thing to ATC, log onto our sister publication, www.avweb. com and click the PODCAST button, then the PODCAST Index. This month's feature includes an Interview with retired controller and former IFR editor Paul Berge talking about the communication demons that lurk in the control room and the botched ATC moments that stubbornly refuse all attempts to be forgotten.


Paul Berge is a retired controller who now sweet talks ATC only when his Champ needs to squeak in under Special VFR.
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Title Annotation:SYSTEM NOTES; air traffic control
Author:Berge, Paul
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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