Say Again? #3:
ATC 101

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To the controller trainee, ATC presents almost as many mysteries as it does to the average pilot. Two of these mysteries involve handoffs and VFR flight following, which can often arise at the same time. Believe it or not, there is method to the madness. Using some real-life examples and the Aeronautical Information Manual, Don Brown, the NATCA Safety Representative at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center, explains all.

I had a nightmare the other night. Boy, I hate those things. In this one, I could "see" through the eyes of a new trainee. Weird huh? Anyway, this trainee comes strutting around the corner of the control room, full of vim and vigor, and the first thing he sees is this old beat-up guy sitting at a sector known as "The Rock." His hair is gray, he's got reading glasses perched on his head and he looks like he forgot to take his Metamucil three days in a row. The grumpy old guy looks up at the trainee and I realize the trainee is looking at ME! I woke up yelling, "But, I'm not that old, I'm not that old!" My loving wife assured me that I wasn't that old, and if I didn't shut up and go back to sleep I never would be.

I can only assume what touched off this nightmare was that we are finally getting some new trainees at Atlanta Center (ZTL). I was thinking how much I'd hate to be a trainee now. Even the junior people at ZTL now have ten years or more experience working traffic. Do we have the patience to listen to a trainee as they try to learn how to give a point out?

"Uhhhh, point out, uhhhh two zero southeast, uh, I mean southwest of uhhhh..."

Spit it out kid; I ain't got all day.

"...southwest of Holston Mountain request control to climb uhhh N12345."

Are you kidding me? He couldn't get in my sector if he had a Saturn V strapped to his tail. Get off my override line.

Training

Ah, the fond memories of training. Trainees do get their revenge though, even if they don't realize it. As soon as he hangs up, you just know he's going to turn around and ask his instructor, "What's a Saturn Five?" Ouch. Funny how, as you get older, you actually feel bad about knowing things. I guess it's not the "knowing" that hurts but the "remembering." Was that 30 years ago?

Anyway, one thought led to another and I started thinking the same thing about student pilots. Do we have the patience to let them learn? We always think of pilots training at uncontrolled fields or with the tower. Sooner or later though, they'll wander into the world of Approach Controls and one day they will hear the dreaded words; "Radar service terminated, squawk 1200, you can try the Center on 125.15 for further advisories." Panic City? I hope not, although I do see quite a number of aircraft come up to our borders on a 0xxx beacon code, change to 1200, but they never call.

You did know about the beacon code assignments didn't you? Each Approach Control has its own subset of beacon codes starting with 0 (zero) for VFRs. So if you call up your friendly local Approach Control and request VFR advisories, you'll probably get a beacon code that starts with zero. There is a new program in their computer systems that will request a beacon code from the Center's computer when Approach enters a flight plan into the NAS computers. Those codes don't start with zero. So, if you're assigned a beacon code that starts with a zero (say 0123) and you're on a VFR cross-country flight, be prepared to hear "radar service terminated." On the other hand, if you are assigned a code that doesn't start with zero, in all likelihood you'll be handed off to the Center (assuming the Center owns the next sector) and your flight following should continue without interruption. Those aren't hard and fast rules, they're just a rule of thumb that will allow you to be prepared.

I really don't think that controllers and pilots are on the same page when we use the term "handoff." Let's walk through it and see.

Handoff

The vast majority of handoffs are automated these days so we'll stick with that example of a handoff. When an aircraft approaches an airspace border (horizontal or vertical), the sector/facility controlling the aircraft will initiate a handoff. A data block will appear on the next sector's scope and a portion of the data block will be flashing on both scopes. The receiving sector will take the handoff (hopefully) and the flashing will stop on both sectors. That lets the previous sector know that they have permission to enter the next sector's airspace. This process normally starts about 10 to 20 miles, or a few thousand feet of altitude, from the next sector's airspace.

What comes next is the frequency change. It's important to note that this should occur prior to the aircraft entering the next sector's airspace. This is where you will hear something like "Contact Atlanta Center 133.6." You'll dial in the next frequency, you'll pause to listen (you will listen first, right?) and then you'll say "Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345, level seven thousand." What? You thought this was for VFR students? There are IFR students too, you know. The handoff process works the same way, regardless. IFR, VFR, student, pro: It doesn't matter.

Speaking of pros though, right about here is where most think it's a good time to make a request for direct "down the road somewhere." They'd be wrong. Remember I told you it was important to note that the frequency change should be accomplished prior to entering the next sector's airspace? Well, guess who's airspace you're in now? That's right, the previous controller's airspace. The controller you are talking to can't move you without calling back to get control from the previous controller. You won't be in the airspace of the controller you're talking to for one to five minutes. If you make a request that involves changing direction (horizontal or vertical) you are probably going to be told "standby" until you enter that controller's airspace. There are some exceptions, but as a general rule of thumb, that's the way it works.

Terminated

Let's go back to the example where VFR flight-following was terminated. It can happen for many different reasons. Most of them have to do with the controller being busy. The point being, if you get terminated, it's not a good time to argue about it. The vast majority of the time you'll be given another facility to contact for further advisories.

Here's the scenario. You departed VFR, your local Approach Control has been giving you advisories but they were too busy to get a flight plan into the computer. You were expecting this ever since Approach gave you the 0145 beacon code:

"Cessna 12345, radar service terminated, squawk 1200, you can try Atlanta Center on 125.15 for further advisories."

Now what? There's a couple of things to keep in mind. First, it's the Center. There is a world of difference between Center and Terminal controllers. The difference that's important at this moment is that Center controllers are a little "slow." Okay, maybe that's a bad choice of words. It would be more correct to say that Center controllers are not as proficient at handling VFRs. We don't get as much practice. I've been told by some approach controllers that they want all the flight information on the initial check in. I can't imagine why, but I won't argue about it. I prefer this method straight out of the AIM.

"Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345 requesting VFR advisories."

That serves to get my attention. It's short and lessens the chance that you'll transmit at the same time someone else is transmitting. It's just a good idea, period. Once I'm off the landline, I'll say, "Calling Atlanta Center, say again." You, realizing that Center controllers are slow, will say, "Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345 requesting VFR advisories." I'll hit the CODE key on my keyboard, type in N12345 and press ENTER. Seeing as it's me doing the typing, I'll go back and make sure I really hit the CODE key this time, type in N12345 and press ENTER. (I always said I could be a great controller if I could just learn to type.) The computer will spit out a beacon code and I'll say, "Cessna 12345 squawk 3231 and go ahead."

This is where it gets a little fuzzy. The students I've talked to want to know exactly what to say. I've searched the AIM but haven't found any format that is preferred. If you find it, write me and let me know where it is. In the absence of guidance from the book, this is what I recommend:

"November 12345, a Cessna 172, 20 miles northeast of Sugarloaf Mountain, level VFR seven thousand five hundred, en route to Winston-Salem, North Carolina."

For those who like to write lists, it would look like this:

1) FULL callsign;
2) Type aircraft;
3) Current location;
4) Current altitude and altitude to which you are climbing/descending; and,
5) Destination.

There is a method behind my madness. Most Center controllers will find this format comfortable and oddly familiar. That's because it's the format that the flight plan is written on a flight progress strip.

If all goes according to plan, you will shortly hear, "Cessna 12345, radar contact two zero miles northeast of Sugarloaf, maintain VFR and advise prior to any altitude changes, Hickory altimeter two niner niner two." Those who know the book will see that I've added a little phraseology, "advise prior to any altitude changes." Guilty as charged. Over the years, I've discovered that many pilots don't understand that we're not staring at their aircraft's target on the scope.

Too many times I've looked up and seen that a VFR I was working had descended through another aircraft's route or altitude. It's tough calling traffic to an airplane when you don't know what that airplane is doing. I guess that's one reason this is in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) at paragraph 4-1-14, b.2.:

"Pilots should also inform the controller when changing VFR cruising altitude."

That's the second thing you need to remember when you're talking to the Center about VFR flight following. The vast majority of our airspace is Class E. We don't "approve" a VFR altitude change. Pilots "inform" us that they are changing altitudes. That's quite a switch from operating with Terminal controllers in Class B, C or D airspace, so don't feel bad if you get confused about it. To continue, I can advise you if changing altitudes will conflict with any other traffic. I won't advise you of the traffic at 6,000 if you're at 7,500. If you descend to 5,500 while I'm not looking at your target, I may not notice that you are descending through the 6,000 traffic in time for you to avoid it.

To summarize, you don't have to tell us you're changing altitudes when in Class E airspace, but it's a real good idea. We're not staring at your target watching every move you make.

Controllers don't stare. We scan. That means that I glance at your target and datablock for about one second and then I move on to the other targets. How soon I get back to your target depends on how many targets I have to scan, how many phone calls I have to make, how many flight plans I have to fix and how many times I get interrupted with "Hey Center, can we get direct Newark?" If I'm not busy, I'll glance at your target every few seconds. If I'm busy, it may take two or three minutes to get back to your target. And despite what you may hear, you can't tell if a controller is busy by listening to a frequency. I'm not chatting away on the radio when I'm trying to type in the preferential route to TEB that some pilot "forgot" to file.

The Real World

I have to let you in on a secret. As I told you in my first column, I'm not a writer. But I'm having so much fun writing these columns that I feel guilty. I was worried that I'd quickly run out of things to write about. I'm finding all I have to do is plug into a sector for a couple of hours and I wind up with a dozen topics that I want to write about.

Here's an example from yesterday when I was working a low-altitude sector. I was busy enough that I actually had a D-side (data controller) helping me. I was only talking to about eight airplanes (which isn't much) but it was what controllers call VFR, uhh ... heaven. Visibility was about four miles with haze. Just good enough to fly VFR but bad enough where everyone wants VFR advisories and the IFRs would have to get very close to the airports before canceling. Then, we hear the following:

"Atlanta Center Cessna 12345 is with you."

I didn't recognize the callsign so I start scanning the entire sector, which is 100 miles long and 80 miles wide. I don't see anyone matching that callsign. I start scanning the entire strip bay. I don't see a strip matching that call sign. My D-side is simultaneously scanning the departure strip bay, thinking it might be an IFR flight that departed VFR. He doesn't find anything. I know it sounds silly reading it but you have to understand the Center controller mindset. We're always thinking IFR flights.

I write down the callsign down on a blank strip and reply:

"Cessna 12345, Atlanta Center, go ahead"

"Cessna 12345 is with you, VFR to Latrobe"

We double-check all the strips. Nothing.

"Cessna 12345, I'm sorry but I don't know you, say position."

"Cessna 12345, Charlotte just handed us off, we're at 7,500."

We start looking for a discreet beacon code along the CLT border, all 60 miles of it. Nothing. I do see a 1200 code just five miles inside CLT's boundary at 7,500.

"Cessna 12345 what code are you squawking?"

"CLT told us to switch to 1200 but they told us to give you a call."

"Cessna 12345 squawk code 6113"

"6113, N12345"

"Cessna 12345 radar contact 10 miles south of BZM, maintain VFR and advise prior to any altitude changes."

Confused Version...

Let's compare the difference between what happened and what should have happened shall we? Yes, skimming is allowed.

  • N12345: "Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345 is with you."
  • ZTL: "Cessna 12345, Atlanta Center go ahead"
  • N12345: "Cessna 12345 is with you, VFR to Latrobe."
  • ZTL: "Cessna 12345, I'm sorry but I don't know you, say position."
  • N12345: "CLT just handed us off, we're at 7,500."
  • ZTL: "Cessna 12345 what code are you squawking?"
  • N12345: "CLT told us to switch to 1200 but they told us to give you a call."
  • ZTL: "Cessna 12345, squawk code 6113."
  • N12345: "6113, N12345"
  • ZTL: "Cessna 12345, radar contact 10 miles south of BZM, maintain VFR and advise prior to any altitude changes."

...Close-enough-to-the-book Version

  • N12345: "Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345 requesting VFR advisories."
  • ZTL: "Cessna 12345, Atlanta Center, squawk 6113 and go ahead."
  • N12345: "N12345 is a Cessna Skyhawk 15 miles southeast of Barrett's Mountain, level VFR 7,500, en route to Latrobe, Pennsylvania."
  • ZTL: "Cessna 12345 is radar contact 15 miles south of Barrett's Mountain, maintain VFR and advise prior to any altitude changes. Hickory altimeter 2992."
  • N12345: "Cessna 12345, altimeter 2992 and advise prior to any altitude changes."

The "Confused version" has 10 transmissions. The "Book version"? Only five.

If you're on a discreet beacon code, we should know you. If your radar service was terminated and you were told to squawk 1200, we won't have any idea who you are or where you are because we didn't receive a handoff on your flight.

If you recognize yourself in the confused version, I only have one thing to say: It's okay. This is ATC 101, remember? We're here to serve you. Part of that is having the patience to let you learn. Every controller who has ever been a trainee (I think that pretty much covers all of us) remembers a time when all this phraseology stuff was confusing. We also remember it was a lot more difficult than it looks, spelled out on paper. Don't be scared of us because of the way we handle the pros. They're paid to be professionals just like us and we expect (and demand) a lot more from them.

A Special Note For Students

If you are a student pilot, I want you to read this and take it to heart:

c. Student Pilots Radio Identification.

1. The FAA desires to help student pilots in acquiring sufficient practical experience in the environment in which they will be required to operate. To receive additional assistance while operating in areas of concentrated air traffic, student pilots need only identify themselves as a student pilot during their initial call to an FAA radio facility.

EXAMPLE- Dayton tower, this is Fleetwing One Two Three Four, student pilot.

2. This special identification will alert FAA ATC personnel and enable them to provide student pilots with such extra assistance and consideration as they may need. It is recommended that student pilots identify themselves as such, on initial contact with each clearance delivery prior to taxiing, ground control, tower, approach and departure control frequency, or FSS contact.

Once again, you'll see that I'm quoting straight out of the book, AIM paragraph 4-2-4.c. These items didn't wind up in the book by chance. They didn't come about because some government bureaucrat was trying to justify his job, either (despite what you may hear). They are in there because this is a huge, complicated system called the National Airspace System. The rules are there to keep you and me out of trouble. Don't be embarrassed to identify yourself as a student pilot. It will help us to help you gain the "practical experience" that is so vital to improving your judgment. There is no substitute for experience. We want you to become experienced.

I probably should end this column right here but there always seems to be just one more thing I should mention: Did you notice in the paragraph of the AIM about student pilots that every type of ATC facility was mentioned except Centers? When I saw that, my ego jumped right up and said, "Those knuckleheads left out the Center." It's as hard for me as it is for you to keep my ego in check. Was it left out intentionally or was it an oversight? The truth is, I don't know. Instead of assuming someone made a mistake, I'm going to think about it and do some more reading.

I've been a controller for almost 20 years and I still don't know everything there is to know about ATC. That's what the rules are about: the accumulated knowledge of the entire profession. I'll never outgrow the rules. You won't either.

Have a safe flight!


Don Brown
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Atlanta ARTCC