I sometimes like to affect a look of wide-eyed, engaged curiosity to hide my usual jaded seen-it-all worldliness so as not to appear too enthusiastic. I could probably work that sentence a little more but I’m sure you get the gist. But even I will admit to some surprise at the rumble last week’s video on control towers stirred up. I’d stitch in the word “shocked,” but that would make me appear naïve and I’m far too cynical for that.
The basic drift here is that the video was based on another blog that assumed facts not in evidence. The video purported to straighten this out by introducing new facts that are, as it turns out, in dispute. To save you the ordeal of reading the previous blog and slogging through the video, I had assumed that everyone knows VFR towers don’t separate airborne traffic but only sequence arrivals and departures and offer traffic advisories. They do separate airplanes on the runways.
Many pilots don’t know this. To illuminate the details, I covered it in the video and this caused a curious reaction. (Scroll down the comments for examples.) Half of the controllers who commented on the video said, “yeah, great job, ‘bout time someone explained this.” The other half—well, several—said you don’t know what you’re talking about. Of course towers separate airborne traffic.
Little wonder that people are confused because we’re definitely not on the same page here. Much of it turns on how you define separation. I define it as what the AIM and the controller’s 7110.65 say it is, which is a hard minimum for IFR aircraft and for VFRs operating in Class B. VFR airplanes in Class C get conflict resolution which can be thought of as separation, but it’s not the standard 3 or 5 miles or 1000 feet minimum that IFR airplanes are afforded. All of this is clearly spelled out in the AIM and .65 if you look.
What is not spelled out is how VFR towers are supposed to do this for airborne traffic, whether they have tower D-BRITEs or not. Several controllers told me the FAA issued either a written directive or briefings—no one seems to be clear on which—ordering controllers to simply keep airplanes from running into each other. This was done in the wake of several accidents in Class D airspace in which ATC actions were cited as contributory. I suspect the Frederick, Maryland, midair in 2014 was one of them. (I’ve asked the FAA for clarification, but I haven’t received a reply.)
And, argue some controllers, the U.S. is a signatory to ICAO Annex 11 which specifies international standards for ATC services. Its overriding consideration is don’t let the airplanes hit when ATC services are being provided and isn’t that the same as separation regardless of whether it’s a TRACON, a Center or a tower? Not all controllers agree with this and two I had review the video after the fact noted that new directive or not, the rules for VFR towers haven’t changed. Controllers in VFR towers have no more tools to separate airborne traffic than they did five or 10 years ago.
And yes, that includes D-BRITEs because they can’t be legally used to issue vectors for separation although they’re certainly helpful for sequencing and safety alerts. But one experienced tower controller told me when he’s training a developmental controller who’s going down the tubes trying to keep the runway legal, the first thing he does is shut off the BRITE. The focus will always be, as it’s supposed to be, on the runway.
It’s understood that all controllers will try to deconflict potential midairs and for IFR aircraft under radar—or any—control, this is a hard contract. For VFR aircraft, it varies by type of airspace and is often workload permitting. If a tower controller isn’t aware of a conflict or thinks one doesn’t exist, no safety alert is required. Judgment is applied and judgment is variable.
That may be a factor in the Centennial midair that kicked off this discussion in the first place. One of the airplanes, the Metroliner, wasn’t given a traffic alert, although it’s unclear what he could have done with it even he had been. The Cirrus that ultimately hit the Metro was approaching from his rear right quarter. And the Cirrus was given a traffic point out, but fat lot of good it did. As for separation in Class D, halfway through 2021, there has been one midair collision and, right, it occurred in Class D airspace.
So the takeaway is this: Although I’m sure all controllers are dedicated to keeping airplanes from colliding, they appear to view the requirements inconsistently, especially with regard to VFR towers. It may be a question of different thinking or a semantical disconnect on what separation means. Pilots should take no comfort from this but use it to reinforce the simple message in the AIM: Regardless of how much or how little help you get from a VFR tower, seeing and not hitting the other airplane is solely on the pilot. All the happy talk about ATC and pilots being a “team” counts for squat if your windshield is full of someone’s oil smeared belly.
That was the point of the video. It was, is and always will be incontrovertible.