VFR Towers Part Deux: Even Controllers Don’t Agree

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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.   

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21 COMMENTS

  1. “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.”

    True enough, but isn’t it ultimately always the pilot’s responsibility to “see and avoid”, regardless of airspace or operating rules (VFR or IFR)? I suppose while IFR it’s not *solely* the pilot’s responsibility, but an IFR midair crash report would still add “a contributing factor was the pilot’s failure to see and avoid” (which is kind of a useless statement anyway, since it doesn’t bother explaining *why* the pilot failed to see and avoid).

    • In the 1956 TWA/UAL Grand Canyon mid-air, see-and-avoid was brought up by the CAB because TWA was VFR-on-top. In the 1960 TWA/UAL mid-air over NYC, see-and-avoid was not brought up because the wx was obviously IMC.

    • The article is about VFR Towers..!! GB, you digress, and make a point of “”see and avoid”, regardless of airspace or operating rules”.. Umm VFR reg’s have a visibility requirement throughout the entire flight. IFR reg’s have minimum visibility for take-off and landing, but enroute IFR has no minimum visibility requirement. Meaning ATC is the sole source for separation, not the pilot. There is a difference..

  2. 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 paragraph says it all. Certainly, all controllers, regardless of what type service is being provided will certainly in any situation they suddenly see getting very bad quickly will do all they can to say, “Damn…S##t! Y’all watch out!”, phrasing that as appropriate for the particular developing situation. But as you said, they have to first see and then recognize a situation is getting quickly ugly. However, they can’t be all things to all aircraft and have no responsibility to do so. A busy facility has a bunch of stuff going on all at the same time. Attention is spread to all required operations (priority) and general observation of the rest when time permits. And, I’m basically speaking about class D VFR towers at the moment. IFR control and class B is a different thing. You sign up for those and we are required to not let you run into anyone else signed up for it. But, if you’re in a VFR pattern with simultaneous parallel runway patterns in progress, you’d better know what the story is there and fly and think accordingly. We’re here to help but can’t do it all. You are part of a team effort and have to do your part. That’s just the way it works….for now.

  3. I noticed that my local Class D tower must have ADS-B displays. They are now calling out traffic to me (by my N number) when I’m still 20 miles inbound and before I ever establish contact with them.

    Just curios; will ADS-B mean the end of squawk codes?

  4. The tower at my home (Class D) airport must also have some sort of ADS-B display (D-Brite?). They recently gave me a call regarding the altitude information they were receiving from me as I called in for approach to landing. I verbally stated altitude at 2,000 descending while they were seeing 6,500. They also sometimes ask me to do a 360 on downwind to allow for better separation to another aircraft on straight-in final. I plan to meet with the person in charge of tower ops sometime soon and get his input on this topic.

      • Keith, I was reporting the correct altitude to ATC. My newly installed ADS-B equipment had a software logic conflict that prevented it from reporting changing altitude information. It locked onto my cruising altitude and was stuck there as I descended. After a conversation with the installer, we changed some values in the setup screen and all was happy. A short test flight afterwards and ATC was seeing altitude changes accurately. By ATC, I mean the guys in the control tower at the home airport.

  5. “See and avoid” has “limitations” (to be polite). I’m not the first one to note that every war pilot who got shot down was trying very hard to see and avoid the source of the bullets. The technology to prevent almost all midair collisions exists. Like all things in aviation is costly and it will take a long time to be implemented.

    • Sadly, it will only cost a fortune because of regulations. One can build a serviceable ADS-B “out” setup for an E/AB from scratch for a month’s worth of lunch money. The regulation should only state that the system must broadcast reliable and accurate information, with perhaps the same self-test that’s used now.

  6. Well, just to add to the “noise” around here:

    -Many ATC & Pilot REGs. were (are) written by lawyers, grieving family members, and p!ss poor pilots who took to the stand saying someone else was liable/responsible for their clients/family member’s/their poor choices and inability to properly operate/understand their aircraft.

    -The “written by lawyer” part also covers why such REGs. are difficult and obscure to interpret. Odd because I’m sure many lawyers are (crappy) pilots. Guess they gotta cover their @$$e$.

    -The FAA doesn’t really care about GA aircraft. It’s a cheap check to write vs. that of an airliner incident/accident. Hence why VFR/Class D/VFR tower services are so limited and outdated.

    -“What is not spelled out is how VFR towers are supposed to do this for airborne traffic”…
    It doesn’t matter HOW traffic is supposed to be separated. All that matter is that it IS separated.

    Furthermore: “The primary purpose of the ATC system is to prevent a collision involving aircraft operating in the system.” 7110.65Z, Ch. 2, Sec. 1, 2-1-1, ATC Services.

    Someone explain how to prevent a collision without separating?

  7. I need to add something.

    Everyone seems to be attempting to put a #/figure/value to “separation”. Something as simple as a “S Turn” or pattern entry (left base, 4 mile straight-in) is separation because if you do anything different, you may hit or be hit by something bigger/smaller, faster/slower, higher/lower.

    ATC separation also applies on the ground – taxiways, runway crossings, and designated movement areas.

    And, there is obligation to “separate” traffic from known obstructions.

    It’s pilot prerogative to comply.

  8. Ah yes, ‘Definitions are our friends.” an objective person I knew liked to say, but s/he slid out of being objective to defend people who smeared someone trying to protect her duff against assault.

    Besides confusion without intent to, there is much deliberate.

    Evaluative terms like ‘good’ or OK regarding condition of an airplane or a pilot’s skills can be shaded. (As you might ask before riding with them into the OSH circus.) There’s ‘plausible deniability’ – ‘that’s not normally included’, ‘everyone knows …’, … Lying by omission is a big threat.

    Con artists thrive on selective use of words and facts, they are skilled at telling you what you want to know.

    Gethomeitis is related.

    Be careful with lingo out there.

  9. Here is a 10 minute audio link from many years ago, LGB, busy Sunday afternoon. It was before we had ARTS, so no altitude reporting or even ARTS tracks on this radar system. However, listen to all the VFR traffic I’m issuing. And…unfortunately, it is advisory only, no separation. Because as you listen, it would have been totally impossible for me to have done so. And unfortunately, actually in the L.A. area of a smoggy 3 or 4 miles visibility, any of these folks could have run into each other. I’d feel horrible had they done so, but my fault, no. It is the was the system is set up for maximum participation. Yes, technology now does provide much better information to assist. But the thought behind it really hasn’t changed. VFR tower or just VFR flight, it is a see and be seen thing still.
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-tub-t31DHccK8Pg37MTD-pMgrxfnHO8/view?usp=sharing

    • Hey there Mike. The tape I found said it was labeled Easter 1975. The tape is actually 1+40 of traffic. I just clipped out 10 minutes of it. It’s pretty much the same al the way through. This was during the heyday of VA flight training and airplanes (GA mostly) up the you know what in the L.A. basin. LGB was the 4th busiest in the country at the time. While I was at LGB, we supposedly had 22 flight schools operation on the airport. I will say that some of them were operating out of a phone booth though. And what’s scary, I was out there myself flying around all through that traffic. How we didn’t all hit each other, don’t know. Was a fun place both before and even then. I moved out of the L.A. area in ’76.

  10. ” 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.”

    Well, I was one of the pilots who thought Class D airspace controlled airspace, runway, and taxiway space. I never had a reason to reference “7110.65”. I have always handled my airplane within Class D, B, and C airspace the same way. We establish two way communications and work together with ATC from there.

    In all controlled airspace, I still look outside because, I don’t want to trade any paint no matter what regs say who is responsible for what. If I am in potential conflict with another airplane I can see visually, I say something. And if need be, do something before any collison.

    As a result of these couple of blogs from Paul combined with the mid-air at Centennial, it was my first knowledge of the legal responsibilities of me and ATC regarding the regs. However, regardless of the legal responsibilities, it does not change my operational behavior within Class B,C, or D airspace. Nor have I witnessed any ATC controller who operates within any controlled airspace, make it a virtue to stand on regulation vs keeping all this flying or taxiing aluminum, plastic, wood, tubing, and fabric from occupying the same space at the same time no matter where the two or more airplanes happen to be. I am thankful for that attitude.

    Thank you Paul for bringing the regulatory differences of legal responsibilities of both pilot and ATC in Class D airspace. Now I know better. However, it just reinforces that ultimately, I have the last say, action, and responsibility when flying in any airspace, controlled or otherwise.

  11. My 2 cents. I’m a veteran controller of all 3 variants of service. VFR Tower, Terminal Approach Controller, and Enroute Controller (also ATC in the NAVY). Regardless of how one interprets the verbiage, an Air Traffic Controller’s job is safety by means of avoiding a collision. If a tower VFR tower controller told you they don’t separate planes in the air, they clearly don’t fully grasp what they do on a daily basis. I’ve prevented many collisions via separation of aircraft “within” the rules of VFR tower service while working at a VFR Tower and at Oshkosh. See and avoid is still the expectation, but I will quickly step in if that looks like it isn’t working and puts aircraft in a risky position.

  12. I got this same response from a flight instructor / controller. He didn’t know VRF towers didn’t provide aircraft separation and told me I dint know what I was talking about. I was just a student pilot I guess.
    However, this was information that I had to know as an FAA Airway Transportation Systems Specialist working in the Maintenance Control Center. I had to know how ATC controls aircraft at all levels of air traffic control facilities, how to fly fixed wing and rotorcraft aircrafts as the Chief Pilot for the FAAs Caribbean operations, and how every piece of equipment was used in the National Airspace System (NAS) including how to fix the majority of the radars, navigation, weather, and communication systems down to the internal chip components, (You never know who is walking through the door for a little instruction at your flight school)
    I was the person that gave the authorization to shut off equipment like the D-BRITEs for maintenance. (Good piece for radar presentation equipment except the micro wave link used a frequency with the perfect wavelength for rain to block it… right when it was needed most)
    I was also responsible for accident investigation call outs, deciding what the pilots and controllers were or were not using during the incident… The stories I could tell…

    Yes, it is true. ALL towers are not responsible for aircraft separation in the air and don’t have a reliable means to keep the VFR or IFR traffic separated except for IFR traffic on the runway which is which is why they have to get clearance from departure and approach before a plane can take off into IMC and enter the NAS.
    All Tower controllers are really ‘ground’ controllers. They are only responsible for what is happening on the runways and taxiways.

  13. As I approached the end of the first sentence, I thought—”he could probably have worked that sentence a little more, but I think I get the gist..”

    Paul, you delight on so many levels. Please keep it up.