Say Again? #7:
ATC 102 – Blue Sky IFR

ATC101 covered some of the elementary aspects of pilot-controller communications. ATC102 picks up where the the last class ended, building on the topics, exploring new subjects and laying out a new series of Do's and Don'ts. Don Brown, the NATCA Safety Representative at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center, fills us in.


Welcome back, class. For those that cut the last session, you can review it here.

For the rest of you, here’s a quick review of the highlights from the last session. We covered beacon code assignments, handoffs, initial callups and student pilots using ATC services. In this session we’ll build upon those subjects, explore some new ones and cover some very common situations that you thought you understood. After we’re done, hopefully you’ll know a little more about what you’re doing, even if you might not sound like it.

Mike Fright

TraconI’ve always said that I made it through the FAA ATC Academy because I sounded good. I know I passed at least one problem because the instructor missed an error. Many trainees come to the Academy with a serious case of “mike fright.” Otherwise intelligent individuals are struck dumb when someone places a microphone in front of them. I’d been talking on the radio (unicom) for years. If you sound like you know what you’re doing, people think you know what you’re doing and don’t pay as much attention.

While that might have been a good thing for me, it isn’t for you, the low-time pilot. It’s actually beneficial that you don’t sound like an old-timer so quit worrying about it. If you don’t sound quite so sure of yourself, controllers will pay a little more attention to you. When you start thinking in terms of safety, that’s not a bad thing.

In time, you’ll start sounding better and better. Notice I didn’t say you’d start sounding like a “pro.” I really don’t want you to. There’s enough mumbling, grumbling and whispering already. I want you to speak distinctly and enunciate clearly. You don’t have to yell and you don’t have to try to sound like James Earl Jones. Don’t try to be cool; just follow the rules.

I Just Called To Say…

If you’ll remember, in the last lesson I covered how to call up for VFR advisories. “Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345 requesting VFR advisories.” Simple, right? Okay, how do you call up the Center to get your IFR clearance? If you’re like most people you’ll say, “Atlanta Center, this is Cessna 12345.” Now if that’s not particularly useful when asking for VFR advisories, what makes people think it’s useful when asking for an IFR clearance? How does, “Atlanta Center, Cessna 12345 requesting clearance to Avery County.” sound?

Those two phrases may not sound very different to you but they’re like night and day to a controller. If a pilot says “requesting VFR advisories” the controller knows he doesn’t have any information about your flight. If the controller hears “requesting clearance” he knows that he should have a flight plan on you. If the controller is on the ball and has reviewed his proposal strips, the call sign stated with the destination will jog his memory and you’ll hopefully hear “Cessna 12345 is cleared to…” instead of “Cessna 12345 go ahead.” Five seconds and one transmission saved, multiplied by 1,000…oh, you know the spiel.

Effective communication doesn’t have to be lengthy. Review the contact procedures in AIM 4-2-3.

On/Off Switch

RadarWhile we’re here, there’s another thing that comes to mind. When an aircraft calls the Center for clearance the first thing a controller wants to know is if you’re still on the ground or airborne. Please notice the selection of words. I didn’t say “on the ground or off the ground.” I once had an aircraft call for clearance and I swore I heard “off.” I was behind the power curve (what else is new) and just issued a beacon code, intending to get back to the aircraft with radar identification and a clearance at the same time. Once I finished talking to a couple other airplanes, I went back to him but couldn’t find the code. “Cessna 12345 say altitude.” “We’re still on the ground, waiting for clearance.”

Now that we have that straightened out, you’ve got your clearance, you lift off the runway and you call the Center with a check-in straight out of the book: “Atlanta Center, Skyhawk 12345 leaving one thousand six hundred climbing five thousand.” Good job. You didn’t add anything extraneous like “with you,” “runway heading” or “direct to.” “Skyhawk 12345 Atlanta Center roger.” What? No “radar contact”? No “climb and maintain”? Maybe the Center doesn’t have radar coverage at 1,600. He didn’t say “radar contact” because he doesn’t see you yet. He didn’t give you a higher altitude because he’s using non-radar rules to separate you from the rest of his traffic. Those rules require large margins for separation and he’s not going to give away any more airspace than he has to. Patience Grasshopper, this ain’t an Approach Control.

Five minutes later you’re approaching 5,000 and you’re starting to worry. The controller still hasn’t said anything to you. “Skyhawk 345 radar contact eight miles west of Elkins climb and maintain eight thousand.” Whew! Finally! You’re so relieved you respond, “345 climbing to eight thousand.”

Validated Flying

That by-the-book phraseology didn’t last long did it? “Cessna 345, say altitude leaving.” Dang it! “Skyhawk 345 is leaving four thousand seven hundred climbing eight thousand.” I’m not trying to give you a hard time. It’s important. Controllers are required to verify your Mode C readout to be able to use it for separation. We can’t verify your Mode C while you’re not in radar contact now can we?

(Authors note: If you want to see how complicated such a seemingly simple thing as beacon codes can be, take a look at this whole chapter from the 7110.65.)

Okay, back to your trip. You level at 8,000, trim everything up, kick back and relax. Did you report level at 8,000? Are you supposed to? Hey, I can’t teach you everything. You have to read the book too.

Nothing But Blue Skies

It’s a nice view up there today isn’t it? “Atlanta Center, this is Cherokee 23456.” Excuse me a moment while I handle this VFR. “Cherokee 23456 Atlanta Center, go ahead.” “Cherokee 456 is requesting six thousand.” Huh? Looking back at the scope, I realize that I’m already working N23456, an IFR at 8,000. As I throw away the blank strip I’ve already started writing on, I clear Cherokee 456 down to 6,000.

I really hate that. Some people just sound like they’re calling out of the blue. Think it’s easy remembering everyone you’re working? Call up 10 strangers on the phone and see if you can keep all their names straight. You can help me with my short-term memory problems though. All you have to do is follow the book. (Is anyone else tired of reading that phrase yet?)

4-2-3. Contact Procedures

c. Subsequent Contacts and Responses to Callup from a Ground Facility.

Use the same format as used for the initial contact except you should state your message or request with the callup in one transmission.

Missed Him By That Much

AztecWhere were we? Oh yeah, it’s a nice view up there isn’t it? There’s not a cloud in the sky and I bet you can see 50 miles today. (You folks out West stop laughing. Fifty miles visibility is a great day in the East.) Have I ever told you that those are the worst VFR days to try and see traffic?

It’s true. Well, at least in my experience it is. You can call traffic all day long when it’s clear as a bell and it seems like no one ever picks up their traffic. The first time I ever noticed it, I had a VFR and an IFR nose to nose. The IFR was a 7,000 and the VFR was at 7,500. I wasn’t doing much so I was able to watch it closely and call the traffic out two or three times. I called the traffic right as the VFR was passing overhead the IFR. They never saw each other. I mean, all the guy had to do was look up and see an airplane 500 feet away, for crying out loud.

I was really surprised. And over the years I’ve seen it happen again and again. On the other hand, if there are a few clouds around pilots seem to pick up their traffic much faster. I think it might have something to do with the eye’s ability to focus on something (a cloud) in the distance and then detect movement in the distance. Without something to focus on, there’s a limited ability to detect motion far away.

I don’t really know the reason. It’s just something I’ve noticed and thought you might like to know. You can file it away for the next time you’re flying VFR to help you decide if you’d like VFR advisories or not.

I think I’ve mentioned it before but I call a lot of traffic if I have the time. I figure that seeing traffic is a skill like any other and you get better at it the more you practice. For those that find that annoying, here’s a way to separate the wheat from the chaff (so to speak). If the controller calls traffic three times and the relative position (say 10 o’clock) stays constant, you’re going to be close. Of course, even I don’t call traffic three times unless I think you’re going to be close.

On the other hand, if I’m busy you may only get one call. As a matter of fact, you may not get a call at all. That’s something that you should never forget. We can only talk so fast and I don’t care how hard we try, we can only talk to one airplane at a time. And sometimes, we just flat miss the traffic. We don’t like admitting that, but we only have two eyes and they can’t be in ten places at once.

FLIB Avoidance

RadarRight here would be a good place to mention vectors around VFR traffic. I’ll also remind you of something else that you’re tired of hearing: This is the Center we’re talking about. First, we are not required (under normal circumstances) to separate VFR traffic. We will advise you (if feasible) of the traffic. We may even suggest a vector or altitude change. But we won’t vector you unless you ask.

Here’s a hint. Ask early. If you get under about two miles from your traffic you can just about forget it. I know two miles looks like a lot out the window, but your target is a mile wide. Once you get under a certain distance, we may not be able to tell which way to turn you.

That advice goes double if you’re receiving VFR Flight Following and your traffic is VFR. We’re not going to turn you unless you ask. Another good reason to ask early is that you’re never quite sure what a VFR is going to do. I’ve turned an airplane around a VFR before, looked at it again about 60 seconds later and discovered that the traffic had turned too. Ditto for changing altitudes to avoid a VFR. And yes, I’ve called VFR traffic to IFR traffic that was “in the soup.”

IFR pilots get real upset about that one. “Center, there’s no way that guy is VFR.” That’s usually answered with one word, “Roger.” Some pilots think we don’t get it. “Center, I’m telling you, there’s really no way he can be VFR. There’s not a mile visibility up here.” You’ll probably get that one word reply again: “Roger.”

It’s nice to know, but what do you want us to do about it? If you want to file a complaint, we can usually track the aircraft down. Do you really want to do that? More important, do you want us, representatives of the Federal government, to do that?

It’s a real sticky wicket for me, as a safety rep. It’s obviously dangerous, but do I want to go down that road? The vast majority of controllers don’t. Despite the horror stories you hear in the hangar flying sessions, controllers work real hard at avoiding the role of policeman. You wouldn’t believe the things we overlook on a daily basis. I’ve told you how I feel about pilots that file direct to places like DCA. Sloppy phraseology drives me nuts. Do you want some nut job working your flight with a copy of the FARs in his lap looking for trouble? I didn’t think so.

What Goes Up…

Let’s move on to more pleasant subjects. It’s about time to land this thing isn’t it? “Atlanta Center, Cessna 345 is requesting lower.” “Cessna 345 descend and maintain 7,500 report Avery County in sight.” Before you read this clearance back let’s think about what you’re going to say, shall we? You know that you want to read back the altitude. Do you really want to read back, verbatim, the entire clearance? Especially the “in sight” part?

This is where people get all twisted in knots about phraseology. Some want to have a pat answer for every situation. It’s not possible. Some want to act like a parrot and repeat everything that a controller says. If you say, “Cessna 345 descending to seven thousand five hundred report the airport in sight,” I might answer, “Cessna 345 did you say you have the airport in sight?” Parroting won’t work in all situations either.

Cessna 345 descending to seven thousand five hundred, Roger.

Cessna 345 descending to seven thousand five hundred, Wilco.

Cessna 345 descending to seven thousand five hundred, looking.

Any of the above is fine. You’ve read back the important part (the altitude) and acknowledged the rest.

Okay then, you’re level at 7,500 and you’re looking for the airport. “Cessna 345 Avery County is twelve o’clock and one zero miles.” All that is required of you is to say “Roger.” Controllers started this practice back before you had GPS. It was helpful for pilots to know where to look for the airport back when navigation wasn’t so precise. It most definitely is not a prompt for you to say you have the airport in sight when you don’t.

Have you got the airport now? Okay, let’s hear it.

N12345: Atlanta Center Cessna 345 has Avery County in sight.

ZTL: Cessna 345 cleared visual approach Avery County.

N12345: Cessna 345 cleared visual approach Avery County leaving seven thousand five hundred.

The countdown has begun. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5… What? Think about it. What’s about to happen?…4,3,2,1:

ZTL: Skyhawk 345 radar service terminated eight east of Avery County, no traffic observed, report your cancellation this frequency or your down time to Raleigh Radio, frequency change approved.

N12345: Cessna 345 cancel IFR.

ZTL: (GRRRRrrrrr) Cessna 345 squawk 1200 good day.

If you intend to cancel IFR that far out then let’s do it on the front end.

N12345: Atlanta Center, Cessna 345 has Avery County in sight, cancel IFR.

Or, if you don’t understand that we’re going to call traffic to you anyway (VFR or IFR) and you’re worried about it…

N12345: Atlanta Center, Cessna 345 has Avery County in sight.

ZTL: Cessna 345 cleared visual approach Avery County.

That assures you that there isn’t any conflicting IFR traffic.

The Uncontrollable

Uncontrolled airports are “one in, one out.”

N12345: Atlanta Center Cessna 345 cancel IFR.

ZTL: Cessna 345 Roger, VFR traffic two north of the field, southwest bound indicating 6,500, intentions unknown. Radar service terminated squawk 1200 frequency change approved.

N12345: Cessna 345 Roger, copy the traffic have a good day.

BE 35At the risk of stating the obvious, at uncontrolled airports, you have to be clear of all conflicting IFR traffic before we can issue a clearance for the approach. Therefore, if you call the airport in sight and aren’t issued a visual approach clearance, chances are there is IFR traffic in the way. There are a few other considerations.

Occasionally we’ll have a pilot call an airport in sight when the aircraft is still in another sector’s airspace and we haven’t accomplished the coordination to use that sector’s airspace. Some airports do lie on the boundary of facilities/sectors and we have to coordinate. That doesn’t mean there’s IFR traffic in the way. It just means we don’t know if other IFR traffic is in the way. So we may withhold an approach clearance until you are out of the other sector’s airspace or we have coordinated between sectors.

There’s a couple of more items and we’ll wrap this up. Please don’t use the phrase, “Center if you don’t see any traffic between us and the airport we’ll cancel IFR.” I hate conditional cancellations. I’d explain it in detail but if you’ll read and study all that’s above you’ll be able to figure it out.

And last but not least, don’t ever feel pressured to cancel IFR. Yes, most times it helps speed up the system. But I’m a safety guy, remember? Safety comes first. If your comfort level of safety requires that you hold onto your IFR until you’re on the ground then that’s what you should do. I know if I was flying into the middle of nowhere at 2 a.m. I wouldn’t be canceling until I got on the ground. It’s your safety. Don’t let anyone else make the decision for you.

Have a safe flight!

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