ATC Pet Peeves

In the spirit of good-natured chiding, here for your amusement, possible embarrassment—and hopefully for your education—are some ATC pet peeves.


Being both a pilot and air traffic controller, I enjoy learning the dos and don’ts from both sides of the mic. We’re all human and everybody makes mistakes—yes, even controllers as I’ve observed from the pilot seat. But, I’m hoping you’ll ride along with me as I share some observations from the tower cab about a few pilot actions that, well, could use improvement.

Wrong Surface

One of the top-five trending safety items is wrong-surface landings. According to “A wrong-surface event occurs when an aircraft lands or departs, or tries to land or depart, on the wrong runway or on a taxiway. It also occurs when an aircraft lands, or tries to land, at the wrong airport.” So, they are a big deal.

A wrong-surface event can bring significant consequences ranging from an automatic pilot deviation report to fatalities. Fortunately, loss of life is far less common than the underlying event. The most obvious example in recent years was the Air Canada Airbus that almost landed on a taxiway filled with other aircraft at San Francisco. The pilot went around.

Landing on the wrong runway—more common on parallels—or on a taxiway has the obvious potential of hitting another airplane. You can add many human factors into the mix, the most common being expectation bias and situational awareness.

One way to help guard against this is to always load an approach to the planned runway. Garmin’s visual approaches make this even easier. Also, some pilots like to announce, “Runway xx confirmed,” or something similar as part of their final GUMPS check. This is and has been a continuing issue for years, so I encourage you to explore ways of avoiding wrong surface landings.

‘Fess Up

Sometimes just a little assist or reset from your friendly controller can make all the difference in the world—if ATC knows you need the help.

Another problem relates to how readily pilots can ask for help when things aren’t quite right. I’ve said it before, as have many others: Ask for help whenever you don’t understand or are simply disoriented or confused. We’ll do whatever we can to bring clarity to your issue. The key, of course, is how quickly you can recover; seconds can be critical.

How do we notice? We might see an erratic or simply incorrect track, either on our radar or simply by looking out the tower window on a nice day.

I had one aircraft flying erratically on an ILS, doing S-Turns and generally struggling. Approach had switched him to Tower 10 miles out, but the pilot didn’t call me until four miles out while obviously struggling and calling with an unsure voice. I asked if everything was alright. With the flight path he was flying and the extended “uh” response to my query, my best response became clear. “Fly present heading and maintain 3000.” I called Approach and told them what I did and why, and they responded with, “Oh yeah. He was having all kinds of problems.”

A VFR tower telling an IFR aircraft to fly a heading and maintain an altitude is not something I should do without coordination first. But, I recognized that all might not be going well so I reacted. Thankfully, the pilot came back around again and seemed to have a better handle on things. After he landed, I asked, “How about that first approach?” he responded, “Yeah, I got disoriented, and it took me a bit to figure it out.”

Cleared For Immediate

There are two phrases ATC uses to indicate an urgency with their instruction. First is, “without delay.” This means that things are fine at the moment, but any delay on your part might lead to this next phrase. “Immediately” is used by ATC to indicate that a perilous situation is developing and you need to react right now to avoid a mishap.

With that in mind, the next item on the hit parade is “immediate takeoff.” Few pilots like this directive, and fewer still properly comply. You should know that we occasionally have to pull some squeeze plays to keep things moving. Pilots who accept the clearance must act immediately. Now, controllers know that if we’re dealing with heavy aircraft, nothing is really immediate. But “Cleared for an immediate takeoff,” doesn’t mean that you can stop and do a run-up or take the runway and pause for a checklist. It means you should get out there and go. Push the throttle(s) forward. If you’re not ready, simply refuse the clearance. As PIC, you have all the power in the world to say “unable.”

Communications Discipline

We all know the rules and requirements to enter a Class D airspace—two-way radio communication. I still see VFR traffic entering my Class D without establishing that two-way communication. “Oh yeah,” they say. “I was waiting for you to get back to me.” My reply is often, “Okay, I’m getting back to you now. I have a phone number for you; advise when ready to copy.” Of course, it’s a big sky and about half the time nothing happens. That means that half the time they get too close to somebody else. If you don’t have two-way radio communication with a Class D tower, stay out. If you don’t have a VFR Bravo clearance, even if you’re being vectored toward Bravo airspace, ask for the clearance, and stay out until you get it.

IFR pilots are conditioned to stay on Approach frequency until told to contact Tower. What if ATC forgets? This is not good, as there could be traffic or other things going on, to which the pilot is oblivious. I’ve even had a pilot stay with Approach all the way until he landed and exited the runway.

IFR pilots should be talking to Tower by about four miles out, regardless of any approach. (There are exceptions, such as prior coordination or a PAR approach for military pilots.) If you haven’t been switched to Tower, just ask. “Do you want Cloudbasher 123 to Tower?” Whatever you do, don’t land without a clearance.

Taxi Time

Some pilots will taxi to parking without a clearance. Now, I’ve heard the stories and understand that at some bigger airports, they want you to keep rolling like your life depended on it, but you’re still expected to call Ground when you can. Since no Class C or D airport is that busy, call Ground as you’re exiting the runway to prevent the possibility of meeting another airplane face to face.

If you haven’t previously received taxi instructions, cross the hold line to the taxiway side and stop unless given instructions to continue. Don’t go anywhere outside the non-movement area without a clearance. It takes only a few seconds, and it’s a requirement.

Final Outcome

There are many approaches (pun intended) you can take to reading this. Some of these items might not be relevant based on the type of flying you do. For example, a back-country bush pilot might never talk to ATC, but each of these items has an aspect of safety behind it and originated with my personal observations. I have compiled this list of incidents, problems, and my “pet peeves” over the past few years. It started with more than 50 items, but I have narrowed it to the most important ones. They involve all pilots, from the 15-hour solo student to the 15,000-hour “I stopped counting” pilot. As controlled airspace is most of the NAS, there is always room for improvement, even on the ATC side. How to go about that is a subject for another article.

It’s taken years to compile this list of common—and potentially dangerous—pilot mistakes, and then to refine it to the five most critical.

Expectation Bias Is Real

A few years ago, the last airport where I worked had parallel runways and other airports nearby; it was a nice slow starry night, with a Pilatus PC-12 inbound. They decided to fly a visual approach to the left (main) run[1]way and called me 14 miles out while transiting another Class D airspace. They had transition approval when they called but started to descend well below MSA. It didn’t take me long to see that they were trying to land at this other airport. I called them out on it, “Hey, it appears you are trying to land at the wrong airport; confirm you have my airport in sight?” After a VX climb, and 30 seconds, the pilot responded, “…Yeah, we were…uh…yeah we were lined up for the wrong airport. We’re inbound now.” I closely monitored them and went ahead and cleared them to land on the main runway.

As they got closer to the correct airport, I noticed that they were starting to veer off course, but not by much. They were on an extended right base to south parallel runways; one is over 8000 feet long and the other about 4000 feet. I assumed they were continuing for the correct runway. But, they lined on to the west (shorter) runway. I gave them until about one mile final and called them again. “Now it appears you’re lined up to the west runway; you’re cleared to land on the left.” Again, no verbal response, but they did correct it and changed to the left side, and landed.

After that was done, I taxied them to parking and asked, “Everything okay?” Trying to land on the wrong piece of pavement twice within five minutes warrants at least a basic question. They responded with, “Yes, everything is okay … now. We’ve had a long day. And Tower, did you know that the west runway has brighter lights than the main?” I replied, saying, “Yes, I’m aware. They were upgraded about two months ago to LED lights, which appear much brighter and more intense than the main runway’s lights. But, we do turn the main runway lights up to a higher step of brightness.” The pilot responded by saying, “It’s probably just me, but that small runway looked a lot brighter.” I could understand and replied, “Roger, you would think they’d upgrade the main runway lights first, right?” He came back with, “That’s exactly what we thought, which is why we lined up wrong.”

With that experience I changed my own night-flying practices. I always use electronic guidance to the runway, even if it’s just Garmin’s new visual approaches.

I filed an ATSAP report (like your NASA ASRS report) and kept this event in mind. In the months before I left that airport, I had five more instances like this. They were all at night, and aircraft were flying a pattern, not straight-in. With this being the first event that I experienced, I kept a closer eye on arrivals at night to make sure the traffic was where it should be on the finals. A NOTAM was issued and remained permanent about the lights on the smaller runway being LED. Despite not being at that airport anymore, I know the trend has gone down but remains an item. Maybe someday they’ll upgrade the main runway lights and the problem will disappear.

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of IFR magazine.

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  1. No saint here, but in the spirit of sharing…

    Tower controllers who can clobber a two plane pattern while holding departure traffic for a C172 on 3 mile straight in…or engage a 10 mile check-in for their life history while you’re on short final trying to get your landing clearance.

    ATC directing bug-smashers to “maintain separation” from an airliner climbing at 4x the the ROC and 2-3x the speed…if the airliner is determined to hit us, he will. Being on flight following, looking down the intakes of the departing Lear who’s telling ATC about his TCAS resolution while ATC says “oh yeah, forgot about that guy”. Or heaven forbid anyone not using a GPS coupled auto-pilot to maintain the magenta line within +/- 10 meters.

    I have had my share of rectal cranial impactions and appreciate the patient and cheerful tower controller managing a full pattern on the first sunny day, smoothly managing the pattern, working with the shaky voice stumbling thru which direction they’re approaching from while working a formation coming in for the break…a demonstration of SA and planning that warms the heart of a sometimes too grumpy pilot.

    …and when on initial climb out your engine informs you there will be an immediate return to earth, the tower controller who doesn’t direct or play 20 questions but clears out everything else so you can focus on actions resulting in a reusable aircraft.

  2. This doesn’t have anything to do with ATC pet peeves, but it’s mine. When getting fuel, just how hard is it to get your gas, and get out of the way? Not a big deal, right? Yet I continually see pilots checking the oil, trying to wash all the windows, looking at charts, doing everything BUT getting fuel. One kid was actually using and dip sticking his fuel tanks and doing the computations. While going up and down the ladder many times doing so. Yes, perhaps it should have been done for safety sake. No, it didn’t need to be done at the gas pump. With 3 other airplanes waiting to get fuel……

  3. A number of my own past screw-ups have involved confirmation bias. The most recent example was at an airport I had been frequenting which has two parallel east-west taxiways. One is “always” assigned to westbound taxiing traffic, the other used for eastbound…except on the day it wasn’t, for me. Exiting the runway I cheerfully and correctly read back Ground’s taxi instructions and then proceeded to do exactly the opposite, putting me head on with another aircraft on a narrow taxiway. I’ll transmit this expression of thanks ‘in the blind’ to the annoyed controller who gave me a break on that one.

  4. I’ve been lined up on the wrong airport twice in unfamiliar areas to me. ATC was trying to help, but I was disoriented enough both times that what they were saying made no sense. One guy gave me a good vector which solved the problem, but the other guy for some reason could or would not. I swear he got me off my proper vector, and then back on it or there was a third airport that looked JUST like the one I was aiming for all along. I’ve found that humility and civility make up for a lot of stupidity. At least I didn’t catch any anger coming through.

    I would think glass panels would help reduce this a lot.