AVweb's Don Brown has been attending safety meetings and training sessions again and the news is not altogether good. Deals are up and the situation is not likely to improve as capacity problems worsen. Something's gotta change and it will probably have to be the way that pilots and controllers communicate with one another. Don discusses the why and the how in this month's
May 30, 2002
|About the Author ...
worked his way through high school and college as a lineman at the
Spartanburg (SC) Downtown Airport (SPA),
graduating from the University of South Carolina (Spartanburg) in 1980.
Hired by the FAA in November 1981, he
graduated from the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City the following February
and was certified as a Full Performance
Level Controller in August 1984, at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center.
Don has spent his entire career at
ZTL, earning numerous Letters of Appreciation and four Letters of Commendation,
including an Outstanding Flight
Assist, during his tenure. Don was also one of the initial founders of the
National Air Traffic Controllers
Association and was the very first general (non-officer) member.
He was appointed the NATCA Facility Safety
Representative for Atlanta Center in 1997 and has served in that position since.
He also serves on NATCA's Southern
Region Safety Committee.
A full-time controller, you can find Don in front of a scope and on
the frequency five days a
week, just like every other controller at the Atlanta Center.
Welcome back aviation fans. Your friendly safety rep here, Mr. Sunshine.
I'm pleased to report to you that all is well and everything is coming up
roses. Everyone on both sides of the mic has heeded my advice and we are all
using perfect phraseology. Controllers are sticking to all the procedures and
the pilots are all obtaining the best and latest forecast. They're even filing
an appropriate route including the preferential route. We've had no near
misses, no operational errors, not even an operational deviation. Things just
couldn't be better at Atlanta Center. We even have D-sides plugged in at all
Yeah right pal.
It's been a heck of a week at Atlanta Center. As I told you in "Say
Again? #8: Air
thunderstorm season makes me crazy. Evidently I'm not the only one. We had
about a half-dozen deals (operational errors) this week. That means we've had
more than six controllers pulled out of the control room at various and
assorted times while initial investigations were done. That also means that
there were probably a few pilot deviations filed too.
I bet that got your attention didn't it? It's one thing to have a
discussion about vague safety principles and good operational habits. It's a
whole different ball of wax when we start talking about punching your ticket
isn't it? Those with visions of captain's stripes in their head get real
upset about violations. I got an earful about that subject from our pilot
friends at the Communicating for Safety conference last month.
Well guess what folks? Many times when a controller has a deal the FAA
starts looking at the pilot too. Because of the system we have, someone must
take the blame. Controllers are the easiest to get to. We're in-house,
everything we do and say is recorded and there are so many rules that we're
bound to have broken at least one. While our pilot friends are concerned about
changes to the "interpretive rule" we controllers are buying deal
Before your mind starts heading off into the wrong direction let me say
this. I'm not worried about who buys what or who gets blamed. I'm worried
about the fact that two airplanes got too close together. That's my problem.
That's where my heartburn comes in. Solve my problem and all those other
problems go away. To paraphrase what I've told more than a few controllers,
thinking "safety first" can save you on the front end instead of
having to pay some lawyer to save you on the back end.
Just how big of a problem is it? Atlanta Center has been running a
readback awareness program for about two years. You may have read about it in AVweb's Newswire
some time ago.
It's called "Catch a Bad Altitude" (CABA), the emphasis being on
catching an incorrect altitude readback. Controllers who catch bad
altitude readbacks can fill out forms and their names get thrown into a
pool for the prize of the month. We had over a thousand forms filled out last
An impressive number huh? What you need to keep in mind is that I don't
participate in the program. Neither do many of the other controllers at
Atlanta Center. So the number of incorrect altitude readbacks is probably
twice as large. And don't forget, that's just the ones that we catch.
Playing With Numbers
Anybody want to play the numbers game? There are 20 Air Route Traffic
Control Centers in the United States. Conservatively, that's 20,000 airplanes
going to the wrong altitude per year. Want to toss in the Approach Controls?
At the Centers, we'll have numerous aircraft fly through the entire Center
without changing altitudes. You can't say that about most Approach Controls.
Once a month management sends us upstairs to the training department to
read a short analysis about recent operational errors. When you read about
these incidents it always crosses your mind, "What were these people
thinking?" Sometimes you're left wondering if they were thinking at all.
Because I'm a safety rep and I read more of these things than most folks (yes
controllers, I actually read them) they all seem depressingly familiar.
Let's look at last month's.
1) A pilot at FL280 is issued traffic at FL270. The pilot reads back
something and then descends to FL270 right into the traffic.
2) A pilot checks on the frequency. The controller is expecting another
aircraft from the same company. Using the callsign he is expecting, the
controller issues a climb clearance. The pilot checking in is expecting a
climb clearance and using his correct callsign, acknowledges the clearance and
climbs. In other words, everyone is using the correct callsigns but no one is
3) A controller issues FL310 and the pilot reads back FL210.
4) A controller issues 16,000 and the pilot reads back 6,000.
Let's dispense with number 3 and 4 at the same time. The analysis we're
given doesn't address it in enough detail but I'll make a wager that this is
For number 3 the readback on was probably "(click) one zero, Airliner
The readback on number 4 was probably "(click) six thousand,
Five bucks says nobody said "leaving" or "descending
If you don't understand the (click) reference go back and read "Say
Again? #4: Tape
Talk" so you can be
Seven Come Eleven
What's interesting is that controllers are so used to the phenomenon of
pilots cutting off the first word of their transmission that even when the
first word isn't cut off, controllers think it was (or don't notice).
Management, in this case, recommended that we restate the altitude in group
form per the 7110.65. "Screamer one descend and maintain one six
thousand, sixteen thousand, altimeter two niner niner two."
Not a bad idea. As a matter of fact, I know the guy who took the idea and
had it incorporated into the 7110.65 so controllers could use it. But just to
show you how a good idea can go bad let's look at what has happened. The other
day I was working the arrivals and at some point in time, I had to issue the
following to every inbound.
"Airliner twelve cross DAFIX at and maintain one one thousand Airdrome
altimeter three zero zero two."
Every single one of them not half, not most, not almost all of them
every single inbound during the push read back "eleven." Some of
them didn't even bother adding "thousand." Right now at least a
dozen guys (pilots and controllers) are saying, "So what, that's not so
Which one is going to eleven thousand and which one is going to seven?
I don't mind them saying "eleven thousand" as long as they say
"descending to one one thousand" first. Really, I don't. I don't
mind them saying "fourteen thousand" as long as they say
"descending to one four thousand" first. I swear it doesn't bother
me. Really. But it annoys me to no end when I hear "(click)teen thousand
Airliner twelve." I've got an idea. How about saying anything first
except your assigned altitude? "Uhhhh" will work. So will your
callsign, "descending" or "leaving." I bet the AIM
has a suggestion that will work.
Number 1 and 2 are real head-scratchers. Unfortunately neither one is
unique. It's way too easy to slough it off as people deciding to be dumb. That
in of itself is stupid. The people involved really aren't trying to put two
airplanes together. They're doing their best to keep them apart. So what
Again, the analyses we are given raise more questions than they answer. How
busy were the controllers? Was the radio reception good? Again, we're left
to guess. That's okay with me, my guesses are pretty good after this many
years. The pilots both wanted a different altitude and heard what they wanted
to hear. The controller had their plan and both heard what they wanted to
hear. It's not a very scientific way of putting it, but it'll suffice for my
ATC And Mom
Haste makes waste. Did your Mom ever tell you that? I swear my mother
could have been an air traffic controller well, at least an instructor
anyway. It's so easy to get into a rush as a controller. I've noticed that
when a controller gets busy and starts talking too fast the pilots follow
suit. If your friend jumps off a cliff are you going to too? It doesn't take
a genius to figure out that talking fast isn't conducive to solving the
hearback/readback problem. Even my Mom could figure that one out.
The solution is as obvious as it is simple. Slow down. Right here, every
controller from Atlanta Center (and probably every other facility in the
country) is saying to themselves, "We can't slow down. There's no way we
can move this many airplanes if we slow down." I don't agree with that
sentiment but I'll play along for a minute. Let me ask a question. How fast
are you going to have to talk to work 10,000 airplanes a day? How about
11,000? Or 15,000? Do you think talking faster is going make that work too? Chew on that for a little while as we move on.
On the pilot side of things it's just amazing to controllers that number 1
happened, much less that it's not the first time we've seen it. As bad as some
of the phraseology is that I hear controllers using these days, I can't recall
a controller calling traffic to another aircraft without using the word
"Airliner 123 traffic twelve o'clock five miles opposite direction
flight level two seven zero a Boeing seven thirty seven."
Does that sound anything like "Airliner 123 descend and maintain
flight level two seven zero," to you?
Of course we all would need to use standard phraseology if we're to develop
the habit of keying into hearing certain catch words like "traffic,"
"leaving," "climbing," "heading,"
"speed," etc., etc., etc.
It's really tempting to come up with a knee jerk reaction to these kind of
incidents. I know some controllers who have had this happen to them before
and they just don't call traffic to airplanes that don't have good radios or a
decent command of the English language. Some restate the altitude to maintain
with the traffic call. I also know some pilots and some controllers who don't
understand why we call traffic in the first place.
You've probably heard the saying that the checklists are written in blood.
Much the same can be said for the controller's 7110.65. Back in the early jet
age there was a midair collision between two airliners. The gist of the
accident was that two airliners were legally separated. Due to an optical
illusion, the aircraft below climbed right into the aircraft above because
they thought the traffic was at their altitude. Hence the requirement to call
traffic/apply merging target procedures. According to ATC folklore that is.
Which brings up an interesting point. Just yesterday (I don't write these
columns in one day you know) I was upstairs for my monthly refresher training
and one of the subjects just happened to be merging target procedures. The
lesson lasts about three minutes as a multimedia presentation on the computer.
It's dry as toast and boring as watching paint dry. It's also the same lesson
that I see year after year. In other words, your average controller daydreams
his way though it. And the lesson never mentions why we call traffic.
Why Oh Why?
That's a bone I keep picking over and over. The "why" behind the
rule. I understand that we don't want to load every student pilot or
controller up with a million war stories during their initial training. They
have a lot to learn already. But students invariably want to know, "Why?" "Because I said so," stops working after a while. Just ask
my Mom. Sooner or later it's in our best interests to start explaining the
reasons behind the rules. It's a lot more interesting too.
I've had more than one pilot over the years confess that they believe
controllers call traffic as a "courtesy." Nope. That's not why.
There are several reasons and I bet that I don't even know all them. The
simplest one is that it makes us look. Controllers look at the scope and
pilots look out the window. It lets pilots know that there is an aircraft in
close proximity that warrants their attention. It's that situational awareness
thing people are always talking about. It provides one last chance for
everyone involved to make sure the aircraft are separated.
Talk It Out
I was just having a conversation with another controller and he brought up
a point that I hadn't really thought of. Think back to the broadband radar
days before Mode C readout. The only way you knew the altitude of an aircraft
was by pilot reports. That "last chance" takes on new meaning
doesn't it? I bet their phraseology was better back then. They depended on it
more. Can you think of more reasons (besides the fact that it might keep you
from descending into another airplane)? The next time you hear the word
"traffic," sit up and pay attention. Mom says so.
Remember when I said you should take the opportunity to talk about these
things when you're getting your currency in hangar flying? You'd be surprised
what you might learn. Sure, controllers look at me funny every time I start
talking about air traffic control when we're out on break. But they get over
it. And they start thinking. The next thing you know they're teaching me
Have you controllers been chewing on the numbers I mentioned? I told you
I'd get back to them. Can you imagine what it's going to be like working
15,000 operations a day? If our operational error percentage stays the same
we'll be having 100-150 operational errors per year. Instead of being able to
count the number of operational errors you've had in your career on one hand,
you'll be using two, no matter how fast you talk. The number of pilot
deviations the FAA files will go up correspondingly too.
We're not only going to need some new equipment and more people to handle
the volume, we're going to need to change some procedures and invent some new
ones. In order to do that we're going to need to know what works in our system
and what doesn't. I can't tell you that standard phraseology and good radio
technique will be able to handle that kind of volume. I don't see enough
people using them to be able to tell. I can tell you that talking faster and
using non-standard phraseology won't work. We've already proved that. So,
straighten up and fly right or I'm telling Mom.
Have a safe flight!
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association