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What ATC wants from you: controllers do their best for us, but sometimes pilots don't make it easy. We found out what ATC wishes we did better.

Picking on ATC is a perennial pilot pastime. What did they do this time? Turned you on to an approach 2000 feet high? Gave delaying vectors that seemed more like a cross country? Sometimes they just get it wrong. Or, at least, make life uncomfortable for pilots.

Those in glasshouses shouldn't throw stones In the years that I've been flying IFR (don't ask how many), it seems that pilots are more often the ones that that don't meet expectations.

I contacted a controller friend and he had some recommendations regarding what IFR pilots can do to ensure that ATC provides better service. This led to call to another controller, which led to another, and finally I'd talked to eight controllers from all over the country. All had recommendations for us IFR pilots, but seven themes emerged. I've collected them here, interspersed with the more noteable quotes.

Listen Up

Not surprisingly, and at the top of their collective priority, almost every controller mentioned a need for better communications. There were enough specific beefs here that they merited their own sidebar (see opposite page), but the general sentiment was best summed up by one controller who said, "Listen to the frequency like your life depends on it, because it does! TCAS will not save you from an aircraft without a working transponder. My traffic call will."

Controllers get frustrated when they have to make multiple calls to an airplane before they receive a response. They expect pilots to listen for their own callsigns as well as be aware of other traffic. It's handy when a pilot sees a brewing issue because he or she was paying attention to other aircraft and their intentions. Sometimes offering a helpful solution or just bringing up the issue helps everybody's day go smoother. One controller politely suggested that some pilots might periodically review AIM 2-2 on communications.

If you read articles on accidents or final NTSB reports, one thing that often stands out is something that one controller refers to as "the expectancy trap." "They ask for an altitude, for example, and then 'hear' that altitude rather than the one I actually give." Stated another way, it is human nature to hear or see what you expect. Listen hard and apply the sniff test to all clearances/instructions.

Get the Flick

Instrument instructors usually say that you need to be aware of the big picture. Well, the big picture includes more than knowing the approach, where you are on the approach, and what the missed approach instructions are.

You have the flick when, in addition, you are aware of other aircraft ahead and behind you on the approach, the local geography, the clearance routing, whether your destination has aircraft going missed, weather conditions on your route as well as to your alternate, and so forth.

Too often pilots aren't even prepared for their own routing or missed approaches. We tout it in training, but in practice it seems to be falling short.

Clarify Your Clearance

We've all been there. A clearance can be long, detailed, and/or confusing. There begins the conundrum, especially while en route. Do you spend time trying to figure it out or should you ask for clarification?

To a person, each of the controllers absolutely wants you to ask for clarification quickly before you accept the clearance. Or at least inform them if you need time to sort it out. "For the sake of both of our careers, don't be afraid to ask questions," said one.

Another requests that you "don't read back your best guess," and hope that the controller catches and corrects any errors. They're human, too, and are expecting the right answer. If they miss the error you read back, everyone loses.

Once you get the clearance, fly the clearance. One controller commented, "I expect to hold the hand of the guy in the Bonanza because he doesn't do this for a living, but come on, it's [still] your job to navigate the airplane." Another controller added, "Pilots [don't fly] the speed they file on their flight plan." That impacts their planning. Remember, it isn't just about you and controllers; they are trying to fit you into a flow of both fast and slow aircraft.

Make It Work

Our panel wants you to "Make the clearance or vector work," even if it is difficult. Sure, if you've been given a bad heading or impossible descent, you may have every right to tell ATC "unable." If safety is compromised, you must do whatever is necessary to remain safe.

But if you can make the bad heading work--if you can descend or climb to meet the required altitude, or whatever--do your part. ATC will appreciate it more than you know, you'll undoubtedly help other traffic, and you'll probably be on the ground more quickly.

Part of this is being aware of what one controller termed "unusual procedures." Standard or terrain avoidance departure procedures that aren't simple straight-outs seem to cause problems because pilots just aren't ready for them. So do some arrival procedures, operations at uncontrolled airports, and operations in non-radar environments.

Be Prepared

There is no reason this should be on their list, but evidently we IFR pilots don't always prepare well enough before we launch. Do more than just review the IFR charts and procedures.

You should know your routing cold, as well as how to spell the intersections along your route. Also, study the local geography in the context of IFR departures and arrivals and search out any local procedures. It's always bad form to depart into marginal conditions and then have to air-file IFR. "When the weather is like that," says one controller, "I'm too busy and I won't derogate service [from people who have done it correctly]."

Turn Now, Twist Later

Fly enough and you'll receive clearances that will be a challenge to program into your GPS. What our group of controllers wants you to be able to do is to "execute the clearance immediately and do your follow-up reprogramming afterwards."

If you're given an amendment to your clearance that involves an immediate change of direction or altitude, you're expected to initiate the heading or altitude change as quickly as possible. What they don't like is to see the aircraft continue on its current heading and altitude while the pilot reprograms his GPS. If you're not sure what heading to turn to without the GPS, ask your controller for an initial heading.

Fess Up

If you do something wrong, don't try a cute escape. An example given by one controller is when some pilots are about to bust an altitude they think they can avoid being caught by turning off Mode C until they are back on altitude. (That won't help).

Confess and get where you belong as fast as you can. He added, "My job is safety, not enforcement. I need your Mode C to keep you and others safe." The controller will undoubtedly see that you've lost Mode C, if only for a few seconds, and he'll know why you did it. But more importantly, you've taken away his knowledge of your altitude. That is one of his most important tools for aircraft separation.

If there is one overriding truth, ATC really is there to help you--especially if you have sailed up a river without your paddle. Don't play macho and try to work your way out of it. Ask for help with any emergency or other aircraft-related issue, weather avoidance, or if you need assistance with navigation. They will do their best to help.

That said, always fly the airplane first. If there is an issue with the aircraft or with aircraft control, don't communicate until you are comfortably in control. ATC will wait. Hand in hand with that premise is to say, "Unable!" if what you are told would place you or the aircraft in an untenable situation.

He Who Throws Stones

There's a lot to take in here, but most of it revolves around trying to be as professional as possible. We've all heard IFR pilots who caused us to flinch because of their unprofessional responses and terminology. Who do you think causes ATC the least heartburn and gets the most expeditious handling? Those pilots that speak and perform most professionally, of course. It's up to each of us to meet that standard.

One of the controllers responded to my initial query with, "It would be much easier to write about 'The 10 things that IFR pilots would like ATC to do better.' "

So, here is the challenge for you. Specifically, what are those things that you think ATC could or should do better?

I'll start with my two favorites. I'd like ATC to listen to my check-in, so when I say I have the ATIS information they don't inquire on their next call whether I have the current ATIS. I'd also like them to plan frequency changes for times when I'm not doing something else, like reprogramming the GPS with my new clearance or leveling off and setting cruise speed just as I am turning to intercept an airway. Yes, these two happen to me often!

Send your thoughts and comments to and we'll compile the responses for you in a future issue of IFR--and we'll pass them along to our group of helpful controllers.


There were so many little things about talking on the radio that they were worth listing on the side. Most of these you've probably heard before. They keep coming back like bad chili, though, so I suppose we'll have to keep bringing them up for review.

* Open your ears before keying the microphone. "Listen not only for a time when nobody is talking, but know when ATC has asked a question of another pilot and is waiting for a response," said one controller.

* Acknowledge your clearance with a complete readback. That means more than just the numbers. ATC wants you to use proper phraseology. One controller stated, "if they read the full instructions back and I miss [the mistake], then I buy the error, not the pilot." For the approach clearance, "Read back heading, altitude, and cleared for the approach." "OKs, Rogers, and mic clicks are poor substitutes for full readbacks," says another.

* Use the callsign or flight number on all transmissions. "We don't have voice recognition software, so a full readback with the tail number is the only way we know that your aircraft received the clearance."

* Don't just change frequencies, acknowledge a frequency change with the new frequency and your callsign. Controllers usually "don't have time to call the next sector to make sure you got to that frequency."

* Don't listen to the ATIS during a frequency change. "The next controller may need you to check in immediately. Make the change, and then ask to go off frequency to get the ATIS."

* Eschew colloquial communications. When you say "checking in" or "with you," the controllers are, literally, muttering in the control room, "Duh, what else would you be doing?" or "You're not with me, you're up there." You don't want to be that pilot. One fairly new and useless colloquialism is the use of "nothing" instead of zero, as in, "One twenty point nothing" for 120.0. Just don't do it.

* If the frequency is busy, the inclination is to rush or to omit parts of your transmission. A laudable concept, but make sure that the controller hears everything that needs to be said and at a slow enough cadence that he can understand it all. It's shorter to say it once, slowly and correctly, then to have to repeat it.

* Make sure your radios and headsets are operating efficiently. One controller told us, "Compare turbine aircraft transmissions with typical GA transmissions and you'll see why our level of teeth-gnashing approaches critical mass sometimes."


Joe Shelton is an IFR contributing editor and ATC user in central California. He flies a Malibu and a Comanche 250.
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Title Annotation:SYSTEM NOTES; Air Traffic Control
Author:Shelton, Joe
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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