Hey, Tower, Do I Amuse You?


A pilot friend who knows more than I do about everything once said, “All air traffic controllers should first be pilots.” He was buying the beer, so I agreed. At the time I was both a pilot and a controller. Today, I still fly but haven’t said “Cleared to land” with any authority in years. I got into flying because it was fun. Well, fun after I quit throwing up. I got into ATC for the money and never once threw up in the tower. Enroute I discovered that being a controller could be a real giggle and pays way more than being a CFI.

Recently, AVweb ran a video by Anil Sangwan, recording a four-ship Bonanza formation flying VFR between New York City’s busiest airports: Kennedy (JFK), LaGuardia (LGA) and Newark (EWR). Full disclosure: I was born in Newark, which is unrelated to this article, but omissions like that can haunt a guy when running for president. Not that I’m running. You can view the video here.

VFR touring above the Hudson River is one of the best things you can do in an airplane with the FAA’s blessing, and dealing with three of the busiest control towers in the world is surprisingly easy. Investigate possible landing fees before letting the wheels touch. Watching the video, I was reminded how most controllers, even those who are not pilots, get a kick out of working air traffic. It’s not just a job; it’s awesome power with FAA backing … sometimes exercised behind the FAA’s back.

Not all air traffic control facilities are created equal, but while keeping traffic separated is fundamental to the job, the pilot/controller’s right to pursue happiness isn’t equally self-evident. Some towers are just friendlier than others. And some air traffic controllers really love a good, unscheduled airshow.

Like the time, years ago, when I was working in the Des Moines, Iowa (KDSM) tower on a mildly busy VFR day, and approach handed me a string of arrivals, neatly spaced like Walmart shoppers in line for nose swabbing, so all I had to do was launch departures between them. What made the lineup interesting was the airplane that checked on frequency with “North American” in his callsign. I assumed it was an old North American Navion (low wing, four-seat, complex). Given its impressive groundspeed though, I asked the pilot in my Opie Taylor voice, “Gee, Mister, is that a P-51 Mustang?”

The pilot answered, “Affirmative,” and probably expected a landing clearance. Instead—because Mustangs weren’t a daily occurrence—I glanced over my shoulder to make certain the supervisor was busy reading his Road & Track magazine, and I asked the Mustang pilot as quietly as I could, “Do you need to perform a low pass gear check past the tower?” I might’ve added, “Please!”

Aero Chivalry requires that all Mustang pilots be cool and do their best to amuse the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free avgas fumes. The pilot replied that he did, indeed, need a gear check, something normally the pilot initiates when suspicious that the landing gear is stuck in the up position. No such request had been made. I was strictly free-wheelin’ here and cleared the Mustang for a “Looowwww approach,” which the P-51 pilot obliged in a reverse banana pass and tower cab level that made the supe sit straight and reach for a cigarette, as I innocently broadcast, “North American 31Z, gear appears to be up. Cleared to land.” And the supervisor gave me an irritated nun look that said I wasn’t management material. She was right.

After abandoning my ATC career to pursue full-time airport bumming, I flew my Marquart Charger (open-cockpit biplane) to Van Nuys, California, via a whole slug of fuel stops through Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Outside the Phoenix, Arizona, Class B airspace, I called approach on what I thought was the correct frequency, identifying myself not by Marquart, which would mean nothing to most controllers, but as “Experimental Biplane 645.” Wind noise across the microphone implied open cockpit. Phoenix approach didn’t seem busy but would have nothing to do with my 1930s biplane fantasy in the 21st Century and shuttled my empennage from one frequency to another, until I lost interest and flew under and around the airspace. A minor inconvenience.

Nearing Palm Springs’ Class C airspace, where I expected the sky to be much less cluttered, I found an approach controller who was working more traffic than I’d heard on any of the Phoenix freqs. The controller took my call as though he could never have too much company, and through I flew. Similar results occurred later when I called for clearance into the LA Class B airspace, before reaching Van Nuys. Each controller seemed busier than the one before, and not one voice seemed stressed. Slightly annoyed, perhaps, by me missing my exit over the Four O Five (I-405), a major navigational landmark known to all except to this biplane pilot from Iowa, but no one told me to get out of town. 

So, hold your beer and answer this: Should air traffic controllers be pilots? I say, sure, why not? Many people—not all—should be pilots, but knowing how to fly an airplane doesn’t mean you’ll make a good controller, any more than being a good controller qualifies someone for ATC management. Listening to the lead Bonanza pilot in the diamond formation negotiating with Big Apple ATC reminded me that every pilot should jump into the deep end of the airspace pool, now and then, if only to see that the lifeguards aren’t so scary and on a sunny day while airliners are hiding from tiny microbes, some of those lifeguards might get a kick out of watching you splash about. 

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  1. The best controller at my home drome is not a pilot, the worst is a pilot, go figure. They are great to deal with and keep the ego in check. Right after I got checked out in a T28B I was feeling pretty full of myself and asked for a low and over and break.

    The response from the tower was, “only if you can keep your speed up, faster traffic behind.” In a rather injured tone I said “Well a T 28 is pretty fast! “

    The controllers reply, “not nearly as fast as the F18 behind you !” There was no doubt about the smirk on the controllers face.

    Back when sex was safe and flying was dangerous I flew a beater piston twin on contract to a local and very scummy air freight forwarder

    One of the daily stops was a large international airport. So it is the Friday afternoon push and I am finally no 1 at the hold line. I am cleared to line up and hold just as a three holder slides past just starting to flare. As I line up I see the 747 in final and he looks really big and really close.

    I can’t be cleared for takeoff until the jet clears and I can’t help thinking about the 747 on short final. As soon as the cl on cleared for takeoff was uttered i was on my way. The Comment from the controller
    “Bet you thought you were going to squashed like a bug Eh “

  2. I dunno if they should be pilots – but if 34 is the active at KPVD – that mean’s it is windy. The tower cab has a good view of the numbers and I always get asked to “tighten it up” when landing there. Presumably because as you rotate downwind, base, final in the strong breeze – small GA seems to just hang over the EMAS before sliding down the wind onto the numbers. Someone in the cab is enjoying it.

  3. I’m a controller, enroute and I work in Safety. I think every controller should be pilot rated and I think the FAA should pay for it. Some of our best trainers are pilot rated controllers. We have had several aircraft saves in the past with a pilot rated controller at the helm. It helps that controller to know what the pilot in trouble is dealing with on the other end of the radio. In the same light, it would help to have more pilots visit towers or air traffic control facilities to become familiar with what we do and see. Sometimes, the pilot rated controller can be a little “too confident” and present like he’s “above the rest” but, so can any other controller. We all tend to have Type A personalities. There is something to be said for what I call “bi-lingual”. If I had it to do again, I would have become pilot rated.

    • Oh… and on the management thing…. maybe being a controller doesn’t necessarily make someone a good ATC manager, but good ATC managers in MANY cases were once very good controllers. Some ATC managers today are grown from the weeds and have no business being in charge of an operation they know nothing about. I think managers should be controllers for at least 5 years first before becoming managers.

  4. “… neatly spaced like Walmart shoppers in line for nose swabbing …”

    ‘Way to put the “smile” in “simile”, PB! I’ve already stolen that image, without attribution of course. I steal from only the best, but admit it only to the exemplars. Keep at this writing gig and you might topple the sainted Gordon Baxter …

  5. “Top Gun” really got it wrong when “Maverick,” in a supposed sign of disrespect, buzzed the tower. As a controller, heck yeah, of course I enjoyed a low-altitude, high-speed flyby.

    Even the Goodyear Blimp could give a thrill. You ever had something the size of a blimp fill the tower windows as it streaked by at 40 MPH? Tailwind pushing and Continental IO-360s screaming, I’ll bet the pilot thought he was absolutely FLYING! I know I did.

    (I think the blimps back in the 1970s used Continental IO-360s. My apologies to Lycoming, Franklin, or even Continental, if the engines were actually something else.)

  6. After a forty year flying career I have heard a number of pretty snarky controllers, but for the most part they have been very professional and a pleasure to work with. During three inflight emergencies I found them to be extremely helpful and willing to go above and beyond to lend a hand when I needed it the most. They are unsung heros in my books.

  7. I have always enjoyed flying my Husky A1-B into CLT Class B airspace – and crossing the numbers doing 100 mph ten feet off the runway is a hoot! The controllers have always been, well, accommodating…

  8. I was a controller/pilot/controller during my career. Controller in the USMC / student pilot training leading to commercial pilot in the late 60’s when hundreds of jet jockeys were bailing out of the military / FAA controller after that because there were no flying jobs. I even applied at Air America and Aramco. My first FAA instructor was a P51 pilot in the National Guard and several of the other controllers at LIT had lots of round engine time so my pilot credentials were trivial by comparison. Fast forward to the 21st century and it was a whole ‘nother story. I was the only controller I knew at SoCal that, when necessary, instructed pilots to fly “best angle of climb” vs “best rate of climb” through an altitude. I would be asked by younger controllers why and as often as not my explanation was met with a blank stare. So Yes, controllers should at least be sent through ground school and be required to pass the private pilot written exam.

  9. “…and be required to pass the private pilot written exam.”

    Good idea. Great, actually.

  10. You reminded me of a good controller story. For 27 some odd years, I was the Operations Director for Boston Fourth of July. We put on the Fourth of July concert, fireworks and fly-over in Boston, MA. Since I was a pilot, one of my responsibilities was to coordinate the fly-overs. We had a C-5, B-2 and other assorted aircraft. The most fun was a flight of three F-18s that flew in from the George Washington. The pilots had just completed a tour flying over Iraq. The day before the fly-over, I met the pilots at Hanscom duel use base just outside of Boston and we coordinated the fly-over. The FAA liaison had given us a hard deck of 1,000 ft. Hearing this, one of the pilots pulled me aside and said “sir, at 1,000 feet the crowd will not be able to see the airplane. How about I go a little lower”. I said that would be fine.
    The at the end of the Stars and Stripes, three F-18 flew down the Charles River right to left at 1,000 feet. The next pass the F-18s were “dirty”, lights on, flaps and gear out. Two of the F-18s swung around for another pass. As the crowd focused on these two, the third F-18 flew down the river at 500 ft, clean with after burners going. Mid point of the river, he pulled up into full vertical. It was a great spectacle and the crowd went wild. Everyone had a lump in their throat.
    As the F-18’s completed the last pass, I received a call from Boston tower, “Boston Fourth Operations, do you think the F-18s could do a Top Gun for Boston tower?”. You all remember the scene when Maverick flies past the tower and the controller spills his coffee. I said, “I’ll call and ask but I’m sure it be fine.” The next call was from an irate FAA liaison demanding to know if the F-18s were at the hard deck of 1,000 feet. “Of course,” I said. “You can call Boston tower and ask”, which she did. What do you think Boston tower told her? Controllers can have fun too!

  11. I made a point of getting my pilot license before becoming a controller and was never sorry I had. Being able to put yourself in the cockpit during an emergency and understanding when to interject and when not to was very important to a successful outcome. As a supervisor or front line manager, take your pick, I spent more time educating pilots who inadvertently broke the rules rather than just violating them and letting FSDO handle it. Granted, when a pilot broke the rules and refused to admit they’d done anything wrong, they got the call from FSDO. Having the pilot knowledge served me well in Center, FSS and tower operations.
    I also have a Mustang story. Working radar one day, a local P-51 pilot asked for a no gyro surveillance approach. I was moderately busy but not too much primary airport traffic, so agreed. I had him on a downwind and gave the command to turn left, then started counting in my head while attending to other aircraft in my airspace. After 30 seconds, I came back to the P-51 and instead of being on the base leg, he was going 180 degrees in the opposite direction! I stopped the turn and stated, “That was not a standard rate turn!” He laughed, acknowledged he had basically stood the bird on its wing and pulled and said he just wanted to see if I could tell. From there, we got back to business and completed the approach. After awhile, the pilot called the tower and asked to speak to the radar controller who was working his plane on the surveillance approach. He apologized for messing with me and offered to give me a ride after my shift to make up for it! Needless to say, I didn’t have to think twice before agreeing. It was an incredible flight with some mild aerobatics and just loafing along at 350 knots. Too bad I didn’t have any controls in the back to try my hand at it. The pilot sent me an autographed picture of the Mustang and we’ve been friends ever since, although I still haven’t been offered a ride in his F-100 Super Sabre. I understand, though, that’s one expensive ride!