Air Traffic Control room

Question authority – and ATC

5 min read

Many new pilots regard Air Traffic Controllers with a mix of respect and fear. They seem to be a divine voice, unseen but all-knowing, orchestrating the movements of dozens of airplanes from a dark room. So it’s only natural that we trust them and want to follow their instructions no matter what.

But as Ben Franklin famously said, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Franklin may have meant that in a revolutionary way, but the same basic idea still applies today. Whether it’s a kid questioning his parents or a driver talking to the police officer who pulled him over, there’s nothing wrong with double-checking that the authority is correct (just be respectful about it).

Trust but verify, as they say.

This same philosophy applies to pilots and ATC. While most controllers are outstanding at what they do, they are human–and humans make mistakes. When we’re talking to ATC, it’s all too easy to assume they’re in control and you don’t need to think anymore. Resist that temptation. You are still pilot in command, and the one ultimately responsible for the safety of your flight.

Air Traffic Control room

Here are just a few scenarios where you should be especially alert:

  • Line up and wait–At some airports, you will be cleared to “line up and wait” on a runway (some controllers may still say “position and hold”). That means you are cleared to enter the runway and line up for takeoff, but you are not cleared to start your takeoff roll until ATC clears you specifically for that. There’s nothing wrong with this procedure, but you should be very impatient (maybe even paranoid) in this situation–you are on an active runway, unable to see any traffic that may be coming in to land. That’s a very vulnerable place to be. So if you’re told to line up and wait and you’ve been on the runway for more than about 20 seconds, don’t hesitate to remind the controller that you are holding in position. He probably hasn’t forgotten, but the last thing you want is an airplane landing on top of you. Some pilots even start a timer when they enter the runway, so they know how long they’ve been there.
  • Terrain avoidance–You take off and request a left turn on course. ATC approves your request and you start to bank left–ATC said OK, right? You may get away with this in Florida, but certainly not out West and not even in Florida if there’s a tall tower out there. Just because ATC approved a turn, it does not mean they are guaranteeing terrain and obstacle clearance. This is even true for IFR pilots in many situations–see the TWA 514 crash for a good reminder.
  • Traffic–When you’re in the pattern at a non-towered airport, you probably do a good job of looking in all directions for traffic. After all, you don’t have ATC there to look out for you. But do you relax your scan a little when you’re using VFR flight following? You shouldn’t. While flight following is a great service (use it on every cross country), it’s not infallible. For one, ATC may not see that Piper Cub that doesn’t have a transponder, so don’t mistake a quiet radio for a lack of traffic. Plus, VFR flight following is a lower priority for ATC, whose main job is to separate IFR traffic. If the controller gets swamped with traffic at Big City International, he may not notice a developing traffic conflict in your area. Keep your head on a swivel.
  • Weather–ATC can be a big help with weather questions, but it’s important to remember that most controllers are not pilots. Their understanding of weather is probably quite different from yours, and in any case, you’re the one who has to fly through it. It’s perfectly fine to ask a controller for his opinion about a line of rain or the latest reported ceilings, but don’t let him make the decision for you. Only you know what the weather looks like out the window, and only you know your personal weather minimums.
  • Taxi instructions–At busy airports, the taxi clearance can be the hardest part of the flight (“taxi to the hangar via C, E, D2, hold short 35L”). That means you need to be alert and looking outside. It also means you need to be 100% sure of where you’re going and where you’re supposed to be going. Never cross a runway if you are not completely certain that you are cleared to cross it–take 2 seconds and confirm with ATC. It’s better to get chewed out for being unsure than to cause a runway incursion. Another good practice is to always look to ensure the runway is clear. Every time I cross a runway, I look left and right, then verbally confirm “clear left, clear right, cleared to cross.” I trust that clearance, but I like to verify there’s not a regional jet barreling down the runway at me. It has happened before.

I’m not suggesting you start an aerial revolution, or you refuse ATC clearances just because they’re inconvenient. After all, ATC is there to help us, not punish us, and only they know the big picture. But a smart pilot retains a bit of skepticism, and is never afraid to key the mic if he is uncomfortable.

Aviation has a good safety record precisely because everyone double checks everyone else. The stakes are simply too high to be complacent.