Why Ask Why?

It’s often said the most underutilized words in the pilot/controller lexicon are “Unable” and “Say Again”. Sometimes, it’s critically important to get your point across, clear up a misunderstanding and getclarification in the most expeditious way possible, and other times, the issue is a bit more subtle but just as important.

Recently, a story came to me of a classic case of miscommunication. Fortunately, the outcome wasn’tbad, but it could have been. It’s an interesting event, and perhaps will illustrate the importance of asking questions.

The pilot was departing from one airport and destined for another some 50 miles away, and across about three separate ATC sectors. The weather was good VMC, but he wanted to fly IFR just for thepractice. In our area, it’s possible to obtain a “canned” clearance – called a Tower Enroute Control –without filing an IFR flight plan and going through all those hoops. In any event, our pilot did exactly this and was soon on his way, cleared via the expected route and 6000 feet (which was higher than the normal 4000 published for the route). As he was climbing through 4700, the pilot was instructed to maintain 4500MSL for traffic, which he acknowledged and did, and got some additional vectors.

Soon, he was transferred to the next ATC sector, and then another one, and dutifully checked in each time level at 4500. One of the controllers instructed the pilot to “resume own navigation” (normally, an IFR pilot should expect a heading to intercept an airway or to a fix before resuming). The final controller eventually told him “Practice approach approved, no separation services provided.” The pilot respondedwith, “I guess I’ll cancel IFR then.” I can only imagine what went through the controller’s mind when heheard that!

I think this event illustrates a couple human factors mistakes, and offers a chance to review some best practices that we all might consider bringing into our technique. I believe any mistakes made were honest omissions, and no violations of procedures or regulations appear to have occurred.

First, the controller issued a bit of an unusual altitude to the pilot, which was modified to an even more unusual altitude. While it’s not normal to be assigned a strange altitude above the MEA like that, neither is it out of the question. In this case, conflicting traffic necessitated the change, and the controller probably intended to instruct the pilot to descend and maintain 4000 once he was clear of the conflict.On the pilot’s part, he received a clear reason for the different altitude, and it made perfect sense. Idon’t know whether the traffic was pointed out to the pilot, or whether he ever had visual contact with that traffic. And, it doesn’t really matter.

Next, control was moved to the next ATC sector, where the pilot checked in “Level at 4500”. Theprevious two airplanes in the same area were both at 4500 and under VFR, so the presence of a thirdprobably didn’t seem unusual, and no questions were asked.

I have no idea what was said during the handoff procedure between sectors, or if there is an indication on their screen as to the rules under which the pilot is operating. Eventually, control was issued to the final controller, and the approach request was made. I know from experience that if the request is made to that second controller, word often doesn’t get passed to the final, and it often seems like a surprise. He might have had a little Confirmation Bias here, expecting that any aircraft at 4500 clearly had to be VFR.


So, what lessons can we learn? What can we do to reduce confusion like this and help our teammates out on the other end of the radio? Perhaps an earlier communication with ATC, at almost any point on this flight, raising the question. Something along the lines of, “Hey, ATC, I was cleared to 4500 for traffic; do you still need that?” Or, “When can I expect to go back to 4000?” Or maybe reminding each sector that you’re “IFR, level at 4500.”

Remember that we’re all human. Our Air Traffic Controllers are excellent; they take immense pride in accurately and safely providing the services they provide us, and they do so without problems so much of the time that it may be hard to remember that mistakes will occur. They’re not perfect. But, it’s our kiesters strapped to that aerospace vehicle. If at any time, something seems unusual, or you don’t know why something is happening, don’t be afraid to ask the question. Don’t let any confusion remain in the operation, even if it’s not on your part, but you think the controller might be confused. Poke thecontroller for clarification or resolution. It’s possible that he or she might have just forgotten that he’dasked you to do something weird.

Finally, please take any opportunity to visit with controllers. Whether it’s visiting the tower at your localfield, or a pilot group-sponsored tour of a TRACON or ARTCC facility, or even finding the Pink Shirts at Oshkosh, I cannot recommend highly enough that you avail yourself of any and every opportunity to meet these people and see how they do what they do. Write down your questions and bring them and ask them; they truly enjoy meeting the people they serve and answering them. As it happens, in this case, the pilot happened to be scheduled to tour the very facility in question just two days after the event. It was a tremendous opportunity for them to meet and explore the nuances of this tricky situation in person.

Fly Safe! Have Fun! Fly More!

Mike Jesch
ATP, Master CFI
2018 LGB District FAASTeam Rep Of The Year

One thought on “Why Ask Why?

  1. Pingback: Why Ask Why? — PilotSafety.org – Fly 'n Things

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