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What Would You Have Done?
By Peter Conant
February 2017 - I’m sure I’m not the only pilot who has ever gotten confused over a clearance, an assigned heading, or an approach procedure. Here are a few situations I have found myself in, wondering what I should or might have done differently. What would you have done?
The first was a relatively straightforward clearance to fly the ILS Runway 24 approach at Nantucket. The weather was clear, but it was after dark, so I had requested the ILS procedure. Cape Approach had assigned me a heading (I think it was 210) and as I watched, the localizer needle came in from the left, crossed the center, and began drifting off to the right. I didn’t say anything, having never heard “join the localizer” or “cleared for the approach.” Cape came back a few seconds later, and I was given “turn right to 270, join the localizer, contact Nantucket tower.”
Should I have said something? It was not a busy night and as far as I knew, the controller at Cape Approach might have just forgotten about me. Should I have joined the localizer anyway with the weather being VFR, telling Cape what I was doing? What would you have done? I never did hear “cleared for the approach.”
The second was at Teterboro, New Jersey. I was flying my daughter and a friend down to New York from Boston and was cleared to land on Runway 24. Turning left base, I noticed a Cessna holding on the numbers at the approach end. I called the tower, saying, “Teterboro Tower, this is Arrow N824ND. It looks to me like there’s a plane on the runway. Are you sure I’m clear to land?” I was immediately told to go around, and then heard the tower say, “Cessna N12345, what part of ‘taxi for takeoff’ don’t you understand?” Perhaps the Cessna had heard this non-standard language for the first time, which probably indicated an inexperienced controller and a low-time pilot. I mean, when have you ever heard the words “taxi” and “takeoff” in the same transmission? Was there something else I might do? What would you have done?
Next was an IFR flight to College Park, Maryland. I had crossed over the Delaware River and was talking to Dover approach (“Over to Dover”). The weather was solid IMC, visibility nil. As Dover handed me off to Baltimore Approach, I heard, “Bonanza 1016W, radar service terminated, frequency change approved.” Uh-huh. I’m ashamed to admit that I was just a bit testy, saying something like, “Dover, I’m in IMC here on an IFR flight plan. Can you do something better than terminating me?” Obviously, this was an inexperienced controller thinking I was VFR, but I regret that I snapped at him. Now older and (hopefully) wiser, I think I could have just calmly pointed out the situation. I mean, there was no immediate danger involved here. What would you have done?
The Baltimore controller, as I remember, gave me a heading and went off to talk with someone else. The heading had no termination limit (fix or waypoint), and I was just flying down the Chesapeake Bay, dumb and happy, waiting for the next heading, which never came.
By this time, the weather was good VFR, so I called Baltimore and asked if I could proceed GPS direct KCGS. “Oh yeah, sorry about that; proceed direct College Park” was next. Again, not a serious problem, although an experience that always reminds me that controllers can forget things. Should I have requested direct sooner? What would you have done?
Next was the ground controller at Centennial Airport in Colorado. I had just completed a long cross-country to attend my nephew’s wedding in Englewood and was a bit bushed when I landed. Taxiing clear of the active, I called ground control for taxi instructions (progressive taxi), and I was told rather curtly that the ramp was “uncontrolled.” There was no further information at all. I finally found the transient tiedowns but was a bit put out that, tired as I was, I had only the airport diagram to work with. This, of course, was before anything like the GPS SafeTaxi feature on an iPad. I didn’t feel like arguing with a ground controller, but perhaps I should have said something like, “Unfamiliar, request taxi to transient parking” or some such. When I am tired, I don’t think as well as I might. So, what would you have done?
And then there was an experience, early in my IFR days, when coming back from Maryland to Norwood I found myself over Long Island, monitoring EFAS and hearing about thunderstorms between New York and Connecticut. I was given a heading along an airway that I was pretty sure would take me close to the reported storms. I declined the clearance, saying I wanted to go north to avoid what I had heard were storms along the route. The controller, clearly put out, gave me a heading and an airway up to New Hampshire. I didn’t know and still don’t know if approach control radar would be showing the lightning and heavy rains, but I didn’t want to be the first to find out. Should I have relied on the controller to keep me clear? Was I too cautious? Should I have asked him about the weather ahead? What would you have done?
I’m sure there are other stories like this out there. I know I have quite a few more. So I’m interested to hear your comments. Now that we all have XM Weather in the cockpit and can read all about real-time trends, are we better off than blindly trusting to ATC? Should I have contradicted a New York TRACON controller in busy airspace? Given what you can now see on your iPad, what would you have done?