U.S. Department
of Transportation

Federal Aviation

St. Louis
Flight Standards District Office

10801 Pear Tree Lane
Suite 200
St. Ann, Missouri 63074


September 2005




Thought for the month..... If two of us agree on everything,
you may be certain that only one of us is doing the thinking.

A Unique Balance of Authority... In 1930 Cleveland, Ohio was the first airport that used a radio to transmit information about the airfield and weather conditions to airplanes that had receivers. It wasn't until about 1938 that control tower operators were licensed by the federal government and authorized to issue instructions to aircraft. Enroute information was handled by individual airlines that were operating at the time. The concept that air traffic controllers could issue instructions and clearances didn't really take form until instrument flying on federal airways began.

Since that time the unique balance of PIC and controller authority has always been a challenge and one of the toughest things to teach a new pilot. We've got one regulation that clearly places all responsibility and authority on the PIC (91.3), and we have another that requires the PIC to comply with all ATC clearances and instructions (91.123). As we all know, the PIC can do whatever is necessary to deal with an emergency and can always refuse a clearance, but knowing when to do it is the real issue.

I have given many check rides. One of the things I normally do after asking the pilot to describe how to handle a specific in-flight problem is to ask whether they would declare an emergency. There is usually a hesitation at this point, and more often than not, the reply is that they would not declare an emergency. When asked why, the response is that they didn't think the situation was serious enough to require it, or they thought they could handle the problem without assistance from ATC. There is a concern that if they declare an emergency; they could get in trouble for doing so.

I'm not a controller and I don't play one on TV, but I know a lot of controllers and of all the ones I know, none of them would like a pilot think that way. Obviously, no one wants emergencies declared for frivolous reasons, but if there is some kind of problem that the pilot is dealing with, controllers want to know about it. The problem is that most controllers are not pilots; so talking with one about a situation that exists in the aircraft might not make the proper impression regarding the seriousness of the situation. Many of us have heard the audio replay of the pilot who reported he had a vacuum failure and the controller mistakenly thought he was talking about a vacuum tube failure and didn't fully grasp the seriousness of the situation. If the pilot had declared an emergency, there would have been no room for misunderstanding or any delay in the response.

Most pilots would declare an emergency if an engine failed but might not consider a door popping open worthy of a special request and would simply ask for closed traffic for a landing. Depending on the aircraft, a popped door can be anything from a nuisance to a critical condition. Just relaying to ATC that a door has popped doesn't convey any particular level of importance to the event. At the very minimum, some indication about the aircraft's condition should be transmitted, even if it is just to report that no special assistance will be required.

I think flying helicopters gave me a greater appreciation for working with a controller to ensure things are done correctly for both of us. There is nothing like showing up at an unfamiliar airport talking with a controller who has no idea how to deal with a helicopter. They would often throw out clearances and instructions that were beyond the capability of the helicopter, or just not the best way to do things. Once I understood what the controller had in mind, I could usually suggest a modification that was either safer or more efficient. It only took a few brief transmissions for both of us to get to a common understanding of what was going to happen. Technically, I guess I was refusing the clearance, but that has such a negative and combative connotation. The reality was that we were negotiating to help each other fill-in the gaps in our knowledge and understanding. It was a cooperative effort, not a clash of authority.

Pilots are often afraid of sounding stupid on the radio. I guess it's better to die sounding cool than to risk a phraseology faux pas. It can be intimidating to show up at an unfamiliar airfield and get a bunch of complicated instructions coming through the headset. Everyone else on the frequency seems to know what's expected of him or her, but I'm unsure. If I express that on the radio, everyone will know I'm an aeronautical idiot. Of course one thing we can do to reduce the stress of such a situation is to carefully study all the material available about our destination so that it isn't all that unfamiliar. Before a controller is certified at a tower they have to memorize every detail about the airport, and they still have a diagram of the field with them in the cab. As pilots, we should be equally equipped when we arrive.

There is never a question about who is in command of the aircraft. Along with the responsibility of command goes the responsibility to comply with ATC clearances and instructions unless they create a safety concern. Then it is the PIC's responsibility to request a different clearance. The balance of authority between the PIC and ATC is unique to the world of aviation. If we don't always agree, it's a good indication that we're both thinking.

Upcoming Events

Sep 8
Grecian Steak House
Kennett, MO.
7 to 9 p.m.

Sep 10
3rd Annual Helicopter Fly-In
Cline Farms, Union, MO.
Go to http://www.stlouishelo.org for more information.

Sep 26
Florissant Valley College
3400 Pershing Rd
AOPA Air Safety Foundation
The Last Five Miles.
7:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Oct 1
EAA Room, Hangar 1
St. Louis Downtown Airport
Speak No Evil
12:30 p.m.

Oct 22
Mid Coast Training Center
18 Mark Allen Dr
St. Louis Downtown Airport
Helicopter Safety Seminar
9:00 a.m

Register at http//faasafety.gov for E-mail notification of safety seminars in the St. Louis District.

Let's Not Meet By Accident
Fred Harms
Operations Safety Program Manager
800-322-8876 ext 4835