Posted: March 18th, 2023
Communication Between Commercial Pilots and Air
Traffic Controllers During Emergency Situations
Flight safety is a broad area encompassing numerous variables and interrelationships. Successful negotiation of emergency situations demands a full- spectrum application of technical competence, experience, as well as the all-important efficiency of communications with air traffic control. Myriad factors can either adversely affect the ability of pilots to successfully negotiate emergencies; in that regard, some of the most crucial include: (1) a mutual commitment to a team approach on the part of both pilots and air traffic controllers, (2) preparedness for unanticipated circumstances, (3) the ability to process information in real time and deduce the optimal responses required by specific events, (4) bi-directional clarity of communications, (5) preplanning of emergency procedures, (6) appropriate responses to dynamic changes in flight plans and landing approaches, (7) the availability and reliability of emergency avoidance equipment, (8) the ability to avoid tunnel vision in crises including thinking “out of the box,” and (9) procedural rules and federal regulation that provide appropriate and unambiguous protocols outlining the hierarchy of respective responsibilities between flight crews and air traffic control as well as between and among various segments of air traffic control.
Situational Awareness and Mutual Cooperation Between Air Traffic Control and Pilots:
In a series of two articles on the subject of cooperation and coordination in communications between pilots and air traffic control, Shelton (2007) details the factors commonly responsible for communication breakdown as well as the respective annoyances and frustrations that pilots and controllers often experience as a result of each other’s habits and operational practices. Likewise, Miller (2008) emphasizes the importance of understanding appropriate and inappropriate degrees of reliance and expectations, primarily of pilots with respect to controllers and their relative ability (and responsibility) to provide specific types of safety-related information such as severe weather.
Berge (2008) details the various contributions that pilots can make to assist controllers maintain flight safety, even while performing at maximum capacity. In particular, Berge relates the importance of proactive situational analyses of pilots and the need to think ahead of air traffic control rather than merely reacting passively to instructions. Berge infuses humor into the analysis; on pilots, Berge writes,
At the risk of forfeiting my Phil Boyer lapel pin, let me say that I’m a big fan of user fees (wait for it) — based on radio airtime. Talk more, pay more. Under my plan, pilots would receive a yearly radio allowance good on any ATC frequency. The first so many minutes would be free, with every second thereafter billable at an exponentially increasing rate. The FAA would make a bundle from pilots who think aloud on the air.”
Similarly, on “chatty” air traffic controllers Berge writes, “Similar disincentives would exist for chatty controllers, with the truly egregious ATC talkaholics promoted into management, where mindless blather is gold.” Notwithstanding the humorous tone, Berge dispenses valuable insight, such as the value to overworked controllers represented by proactive pilots who monitor sector transmissions with an open ear to assisting controllers and fellow pilots, such as by confirming relative position to other aircraft in response to calls to other aircraft pertaining to their own position.
Berge also distinguishes the appropriate degree of input for pilots in communications during approach, suggesting when to assist controllers with time saving requests based on pilot knowledge of specific flight corridors and conditions and when to acknowledge instructions without input:
Before you check onto an approach frequency, determine the controller’s workload. If the controller is busy, chances are you’ll get vectors for a sequence. Acknowledge and fly it. but, if traffic is light, then inject your own plan into the controller’s head… If it works, the controller will approve it, maybe slap on an altitude crossing restriction and even clear you for the approach, all in one breath. Job done…. [T]he controller’s IAF choice might demand a procedure turn. If there’s another IAF that eliminates the PT, then request the alternative. It never hurts to ask…. Let the controller know that you have the traffic flick and can deliver without sounding pushy. If declined, consider negotiations closed. You get one shot at this bargaining table; after that you’re a pest.”
Shelton (2007) echoes the importance of proactive pilot awareness and input:
Controllers get frustrated when they have to make multiple calls to an airplane before they receive a response. They expect pilots to listen for their own callsigns as well as be aware of other traffic. it’s handy when a pilot sees a brewing issue because he or she was paying attention to other aircraft and their intentions. Sometimes offering a helpful solution or just bringing up the issue helps everybody’s day go smoother.”
Miller (2008) also details the respective points-of-view of controllers and pilots and stresses the importance of pilot’s understanding the limits of information available to controllers in the realm of adverse weather:
At the TRACON (Approach) level, the Airport Surveillance Radar system (ASR- 9 and ASR-11) provides the controller with real-time images of developing precipitation in scales of light, moderate, heavy, and extreme. In other words, the controller can see rain. He cannot see clouds or the turbulence and convection inside these clouds. With few exceptions, it is convection, not rain, that hurts us in airplanes.”
In particular, Miller addresses the importance of pilot pre-flight preparation and monitoring of weather conditions such as thunderstorms capable of interfering with operational flight control, precisely because the data available to controllers is not necessarily capable of predicting relevant turbulence:
While one might reasonably argue that heavy or extreme precipitation signals the presence of active thunderstorms, this doesn’t hold true in all cases. Similarly, the absence of precipitation, extreme or otherwise, is no guarantee that thunderstorms are not present. Air route traffic control center (ARTCC) controllers have even less-precise thunderstorm detection capability.” Miller (2008) also relates the exasperation of air traffic controller caused by conflicting (or at least profoundly ambiguous) regulations distinguishing respective responsibilities for adverse weather system awareness:
Section 2-1-1 of the 7110.65 makes it clear that the controller’s primary job to separate traffic. A bit further into 7110.65 it says: The ability to provide additional services is limited by many factors, such as the volume of traffic, frequency congestion, quality of radar, controller workload, higher priority duties, and the pure physical inability to scan and detect those situations that fall in this category… ” and later, “… controllers shall provide additional service procedures to the extent permitted by higher priority duties and other circumstances…Section 2-6-4 nails it down by requiring controllers to provide pilots with information that includes ‘weather significant to the safety of aircraft [which] includes conditions, such as tornadoes, lines of thunderstorms, embedded thunderstorms, large hail, wind shear, microbursts, moderate-to-extreme turbulence (including clear air turbulence), and light-to-severe icing.’ So, let’s see. Controllers are told exactly what job One is, but they are also instructed that jobs Two, Three, and Four are not optional – but are only to be done when workload permits…In other words, the rule book tells the controller that aircraft separation comes first and, if workload permits, they should keep pilots informed of hazardous weather ahead. But since safety is involved with hazardous weather, do the latter regardless of workload. This is sort of like damned if you do and damned if you don’t, right?”
Like Berge (2008), Shelton (2007) provides specific examples of communications habits conducive to avoiding critical incidents and relays informal protocols requested by surveyed air traffic controllers with regard to communications to enable pilots to avoid causing or contributing to miscommunications:
Open your ears before keying the microphone. ‘Listen not only for a time when nobody is talking, but know when ATC has asked a question of another pilot and is waiting for a response,’ said one controller. Acknowledge your clearance with a complete readback. That means more than just the numbers. ATC wants you to use proper phraseology. One controller stated, ‘if they read the full instructions back and I miss [the mistake], then I buy the error, not the pilot.’ For the approach clearance, ‘Read back heading, altitude, and cleared for the approach.’ ‘OKs, Rogers, and mic clicks are poor substitutes for full readbacks,’ says another.”
The other informal protocols relayed by Shelton (2007) include: Using callsigns or flight number on all transmissions; acknowledging all frequency changes with the new frequency and callsign (because “Controllers usually don’t have time to call the next sector to make sure you got to that frequency”); not listening to the ATIS during frequency changes (because “The next controller may need you to check in immediately.
Make the change, and then ask to go off frequency to get the ATIS”); eliminating colloquial communications; speaking slowly and clearly, and confirming proper operation of radios and headsets.
In the current (April 2009) issue of Plane & Pilot, Valerie Salven emphasizes the importance of thinking “out of the box” in emergency situations and details the types of circumstances in which pilots might conceivably resort to cell phones to maintain communications with air traffic control. Obviously, those situations include survivors of ditches and crashes, but equally important is the degree to which cell phones offer solutions to flight emergencies.
Salven acknowledges that cell phone use of this nature is specifically prohibited by FCC restrictions but relates the views of an FCC spokesman who relates that.”.. The FCC isn’t aware of any enforcement action having been taken against pilots using cell phones in emergency situations during the past 30 years.” Salven describes situations such as cell phone communications between pilot and controllers necessitated by emergency conservation (i.e. shutdown) of electrical power caused by acute ammeter discharge in flight.
Equipment, Flight Hours, and Rule Priority Ambiguity:
The other components of emergency communications relate to the relative capability of equipment to prevent emergencies (particularly on the ground), various factors capable of reducing the efficiency of pilot responses to emergencies, and the inherent ambiguity and even apparent contradictions in FAA regulations. The European Aviation Safety Agency (2009) published the results of the analysis of several studies detailing the adverse effects of current working conditions of airline pilots, particularly as pertains to excessive flight hours.
According to study released by that agency in January, that study.”.. clearly indicates that the flight times to which pilots are subjected are too long.” It reported.”.. A link with the risk of accidents…” And recommended.”.. reducing the flight times anticipated by Community legislation.” According to the EASA,.”.. A working time of 10-12 hours increases the risk of accidents by 1.7 times and that a working time of 13 hours or more multiplies this risk by 5.5.” and.”.. fatigue is a contributing factor in 15% to 20% of accidents principally caused by human error.”
That report generated a refutation by airline representatives who.”.. are questioning the methodological process, considering the scientific and medical content of the report to be insufficient” and who warn that “[i]f the recommendations were to be implemented, airlines would have to employ an additional 15% to 20% of pilots to serve the same number of flights.”
Another report published in the January 2009 issue of Nursing Standard also suggests a reevaluation of pilot flight hour requirements, although on an entirely different basis: the long-term health consequences of cumulative exposure to ionizing radiation.
That study, “Increased frequency of chromosome translocations in airline pilots with long-term flying experience” (Yong, et al., 2008) appeared in Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2008 was inconclusive but strongly suggested the need for further study because of the known chromosomal abnormalities associated with cumulative ionizing radiation exposure and the fact that.”.. among pilots, the adjusted translocation frequency was significantly associated with flight years (P=0.01) with rate ratios of 1.06 and 1.81 for a one and ten-year incremental increase in flight years respectively” in the Yong (et al.) study.
Rozendaal (2007) addresses the extent to which pilot preparation and situational awareness relate to efficient communications between pilots and controllers and maintains that.”.. being fully prepared for the approach is essential.” The author provides the example of unanticipated last-minute approach changes necessitated by the emergency closure of a runway during approach and the manner in which subsequent communications sequences can potentially impact the ability of controllers to maintain their highest degree of awareness: “How you answer that radio call may have a direct impact on the quality of the service received from ATC in the next few minutes. An air traffic controller’s mind works much like a pilot’s and the controller is feeling just like you are: pissed. A huge load of crap just landed in his wagon and a few kind words from you might be rewarded with short vectors to 29R. Mumble your string of expletives before you key the mic and then set those feelings aside, smile, and respond, ‘Baron 321 left 250.’ Like Berge (2008) and Shelton (2007), Rozendaal (2007) emphasizes the importance of preflight preparation and the proactive anticipation of emergency routes on the part of pilots and their contribution to the efficiency of communications with air traffic control in the same example:
Now it’s time to get to work, and the first job at hand is to evaluate your options. If the weather is bad, your flight plan already has an alternate, and, if the fuel is low, proceeding immediately to the alternate maybe the best choice. That leg should have been part of your original plan and will require the least additional work.” In that regard, Doane, Young, & Jodlowski (2004) report that preparation of this nature is even more important for relatively inexperienced pilots by virtue of the extent to which their study disclosed the importance of cumulative flight hours as a direct determinant of the ability of pilots to process multiple streams of information, particularly during stressful conditions. That study is doubly important because it also implies that controllers cannot relay on the same degree of comprehension and operational competence of different pilots in circumstances where controllers must communicate emergency procedures.
The researchers provide an established definition of situational awareness as.”.. A term that emerged from aviators’ and air traffic controllers’ characterization of incidents and accidents as being caused by a failure to develop and maintain awareness of the flight situation” and summarize the importance of proactive anticipation vs. reactive response in flight operations in that regard as follows: “Fixed-wing pilots are trained to simulate mentally the future state of the aircraft in order to mentally’ “stay ahead” of the current flight state (Horne, 1997). This is necessary because of the delay in the effects of control movements on flight status. If pilots fly by reactively responding to the immediate aircraft state rather than mentally planning ahead, then they have difficulty meeting flight goals… ”
Finally, Paul Marks (2005) reports that current emergency warning equipment technology is insufficient to provide adequate incursion awareness to avert potential emergencies, primarily because existing systems rely on the controller to relay information in circumstances where that delay precludes a timely reaction on the part of pilots.
A the Airport Movement Area Safety System (AMASS)… uses an airport-wide ground radar system to detect the position of aircraft and ground vehicles. A computer compares the position, velocity and acceleration of all aircraft and vehicles and then works out when there is a potential conflict. When it predicts a breach of minimum separation between planes it automatically issues visual and audible alerts to air traffic control. Then it is up to the controller to warn the pilots that they need to take evasive action.”
According to Marks,
The system relies on the controller getting the alert, deciding what to do and then warning the flight crew. But this takes crucial seconds that the flight crew may not have. The NTSB wants a system that provides a fast, direct warning to the pilots involved, not one mediated by a controller.”
Whereas the equipment limitations detailed by Miller (2008) pertain to technical capability, the limitations highlighted by Marks (2005) relate to inefficient information transmission processes. In the case of the former, the solution lies in better comprehension of controller capabilities of pilots and the corresponding need for their thorough preflight preparation and situational awareness. In the latter case, the solution requires a fundamental change in protocols for information transmission during emergencies.
The evaluated literature encompasses the most important issues arising in contemporary civilian aviation in connection with emergency communications between pilots and air traffic controllers. The literature suggest the need for mutual cooperation between pilot and air traffic controllers with regard to informal communication protocols, as well as the importance of anticipation, situational awareness, and preflight preparation of pilots because all of those factors affect the efficiency of emergency communications.
The literature also details the need for mutual coordination between pilots and controllers with respect to potentially ambiguous descriptions in applicable federal regulation delineating their respective emergency-avoidance responsibilities. Finally, other elements of the literature address the impact of environmental factors on pilots and the deficiency of existing emergency avoidance systems in their current operational configuration.
Berge, Paul. “Think ahead of ATC: sow your plan in the mind of ATC and watch it grow into a thing of beauty. it’s just a matter of knowing what to ask for and when.(SYSTEM NOTES)(air traffic control)..” IFR. 24.2 (Feb 2008): 17(2). Doane, Stephanie M., Young Woo Sohn, and Mark T. Jodlowski. “Pilot ability to anticipate the consequences of flight actions as a function of expertise.” Human Factors. 46.1 (Spring 2004): 92(12). EASA. “AIR TRANSPORT: PILOTS’ FLIGHT TIMES TOO LONG, SAYS STUDY. (European Aviation Safety Agency)..” European Social Policy. (Feb 12, 2009): 243326.
Marks, Paul. “Urgent call to end frequent runway near-misses: collision warning systems that rely on a response from air traffic controllers don’t give pilots enough time to act.” New Scientist. 188.2519 (Oct 1, 2005): 22(2).
Miller, Bob. “Getting no WX from ATC: thunderstorms can catch you sleeping any time of year. Don’t expect the controller to give you a heads-up, either. (SYSTEM NOTES)(weather report, air traffic control)..” IFR. 24.1 (Jan 2008): 6(5). Rozendaal, Doug. “Approaches in a hurry: sometimes you’ve got to get set up for the approach at lightning speed. The secret is to pretend there’s no hurry at all. (TRICKS O’ the TRADE)..” IFR. 23.3 (March 2007): 20(3).
Salven, Valerie. “Cell Phone to the Rescue: In the Air or on the Ground, it Could Save
Your Life” Plane & Pilot. (April 2009): 62-65.
Shelton, Joe. “Hey ATC, hear this: got a pet peeve or two with ATC? Yeah, we have them, too. Here are the most popular gripes and what you can do about them. (SYSTEM NOTES)(Air Traffic Control)..” IFR. 23.9 (Sept 2007): 14(3).
Shelton, Joe. “What ATC wants from you: controllers do their best for us, but sometimes pilots don’t make it easy. We found out what ATC wishes we did better. (SYSTEM NOTES)(Air Traffic Control)..” IFR. 23.6 (June 2007): 6(3).
Study raises question of pilot exposure to ionising radiation: pilots with long-term flying experience might be exposed to significant doses of ionising radiation. (Clinical digest)(Brief article).” Nursing Standard. 23.21 (Jan 28, 2009): 16(1).
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