U.S. Department

of Transportation


Federal Aviation



Air Traffic


A Communication from the  Director of Air Traffic                        



Issue # 2003-4

October  2003                                                                                             

                                                                                                                 Return to Air Traffic Publications Home Page

                                                                                                                 More Air Traffic Bulletins





In this Issue:


Emergency ATC Services to Aircraft with Difficulties

Giving Specific Traffic Directions

Flight Check Aircraft Procedures
Do You Hear Me Now?
Clearance Limits



Excess Verbiage in ATC Communications

Business as Usual

     TIPH Gone Awry


Emergency ATC Services to Aircraft  with Difficulties

/*TER/ The Pilot/Controller Glossary describes EMERGENCY as "a distress or an urgency condition." Aircraft instruments can individually or collectively conspire to require pilots to consider declaring an emergency. Vacuum pump, alternator/generator, and pilot/static systems often seem to be the culprits. Loss of any of these systems should probably cause a prudent pilot to consider declaring an emergency and to land as soon as practical. However, pilots often hesitate to declare an emergency fearing the mythical mountain of paperwork, government interviews, and ramp checks they have read about in chat rooms and heard about in pilot lounges. Few, if any of us, have ever met a pilot with firsthand knowledge of this paperwork catastrophe, but most pilots believe it exists. Fortunately, FAA orders allow controllers to handle a situation as though it were an emergency even if the words "Mayday" or "Pan-Pan" are not used.

Vacuum pumps wear out, but few general aviation aircraft owners replace them before they notice low or no suction. When the vacuum pump stops working, the suction-powered gyros in attitude and heading indicators will stop spinning. A proficient pilot should be able to use the magnetic compass, vertical speed indicator (VSI), electric turn coordinator, and airspeed indicator to verify and maintain flight attitude and heading. Every instrument-rated pilot learns and practices this during training;
however, all pilots may not maintain proficiency at these skills.

Alternators and generators wear out. When the charging system stops charging, electric turn coordinators and other battery driven instruments, transponders and radios will soon begin to fail as battery voltage drops. Communications with air traffic controllers may become more difficult and a pilot may want to turn off the transponder and lights as well as minimize transmissions to prolong battery life.

Pitot or static systems can fail because a large bug finds a home. A bug in the pitot tube can stop airspeed indications; a static system problem can affect the airspeed indicator, altimeter, and the VSI. Some aircraft have an alternate static source, in others some static can be restored by breaking the glass on the VSI.

Aircraft system malfunctions can occur even in well-maintained aircraft, but none of these aircraft system malfunctions should have dire results from the inability to retain or regain situational awareness.

Controllers can greatly assist pilots with difficulties. For example, airport surveillance radar (ASR) approaches are responsible for a number of successful outcomes where pilots have communicated an inability to use standard approach procedures. Controllers providing emergency services must be current, proficient, qualified and authorized to offer the services they provide.

As in the example above, in accordance with FAAO 7210.3, an authorized controller providing an ASR approach should have provided three ASR
approaches within the previous calendar quarter with at least one being a "no gyro."

Additionally, controllers must adhere to the procedures described in the FAAO 7110.65. Base your decision as to what type of assistance is needed on information and requests received from the pilot because he/she is authorized by 14 CFR Part 91.3, "Responsibility and Authority of the Pilot in Command," to determine a course of action. 14 CFR 91.3(b) states, "In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency." Controllers have no such authority to deviate from procedures required by FAAO 7110.65.

Because of the infinite variety of possible emergency situations, the FAA recognizes that specific procedures cannot be prescribed. However, when you believe an emergency exists or is imminent, select and pursue a course of action which appears to be most appropriate under the circumstances and which most nearly conforms to the instructions in FAAO 7110.65. Chapter 10, Section 2, Emergency Assistance, lists procedures for dealing with many situations.

When an aircraft emergency exists, controllers should start assistance as soon as enough information has been obtained upon which to act, provide maximum assistance, and enlist the services of others (supervisors, pilots, facilities, and controllers.) (ATP‑100)


Giving Specific Traffic Directions

(The following is an excerpt from an Air Traffic Bulletin article published in September 2002.)

/*TER/ Even though controllers and pilots use the same language, sometimes there can still be misunderstandings. Perhaps it's because they each have such different viewpoints—tower controllers are working multiple aircraft and coordinating with coworkers in a complex, dynamic tower environment, and pilots are trying to get their aircraft out to the runway, (or in to the ramp,) concentrating on the physical operation of the aircraft and following their traffic.

This article addresses one of the "best practices" that many controllers use when communicating with pilots. More specifically, when controllers fully describe "traffic" to pilots, it helps them find their traffic quickly while they are listening to control instructions.

FAAO 7110.65, Air Traffic Control, tells us in paragraph 3-8-1, Sequencing and Spacing, that if we tell a pilot to follow traffic, we should give the description and location of that traffic. Now, if we were working at Oshkosh during AirVenture week, we'd be giving very detailed descriptions of traffic, in order to help pilots find who to follow in all the activity: "Follow the blue-and-red biplane to your right," or, "Follow the yellow taildragger ahead," or, "Follow the silver Citabria on left base." When there is a need for more description, the controller provides it.

But, since most of us will never work AirVenture week, we usually avoid cluttering up our frequencies with that much detail about traffic. At most airports, when working air carriers or commuters, for instance, it usually suffices to say, "Follow the DC-10 ahead," or "Follow the Dash-8 off your right." But imagine you're working at an air carrier or commuter hub airport: you're looking at long lines of similar jets and commuter aircraft taxiing out for departure. When you tell that fifth MD‑80, or the fourth regional jet, to taxi out and join the mix, the pilot will appreciate some help in identifying his/her traffic.

Imagine you're in the pilot's seat; it's easy to lock on to your traffic if the controller gives you both the aircraft type and the name of the airline—you look for the paint job and the characteristics of that particular aircraft. Not so easy if the controller uses generic terms like, "Follow the 737," or, "Follow the regional jet," and there happen to be several of each within your view! As a controller, when you're working one of those situations where airplanes are everywhere, help pilots out by giving them more information: "Lear five Charlie Echo, Runway 30, follow the United Express Embraer ahead and to your left, hold short of Runway 25."

What does the book say? FAAO 7110.65, paragraph 3-7-2, Taxi and Ground Movement Operations, shows controller phraseology examples for use on the airport surface. It doesn't specifically say that you have to give the company name or the aircraft type in the example, it just tells you to provide "traffic." Paragraph 3-1-6 (b), Traffic Information, states, "Describe the relative position of traffic in an easy to understand manner, such as 'to your right' or 'ahead of you'." Here, an example is provided: "Traffic, U.S. Air MD-Eighty on downwind leg to your left." This phraseology gives a pilot two specific things to look for—the red, white, and blue colors of USAirways, and the shape of the long MD-80 fuselage. Remember, it is a good practice to describe "traffic" to pilots using both company name and actual aircraft type. (ATP‑120)


Flight Check Aircraft Procedures

/*TRE/ Flight check aircraft have a responsibility to check many items but this article specifically
addresses the minimum safe altitude warning (MSAW) adaptation. These checks are necessary to ensure accurate adaptation of new and existing obstructions. FAAO 7110.65, Air Traffic Control, paragraph 9-1-3, Flight Check Aircraft, directs "special handling of flight check aircraft." This includes the route of flight and beacon code assignment.

Subparagraph d. of paragraph 9-1-3, directs air traffic control to not change the previously assigned discrete beacon code of special radar accuracy flight check aircraft. This is to ensure MSAW alarm occurs when the aircraft executes predetermined descent or flight profiles in close proximity to terrain or obstructions.

The flights conducted by flight check are effective only if the aircraft squawks a discrete code eligible for MSAW processing. A common practice is for flight check to be assigned a visual flight rules (VFR) code. Unfortunately, the assignment of VFR codes does not provide the aural MSAW alarm since MSAW processing is inhibited. Flight check will ask if the controller received an aural and visual alarm. The activation of MSAW can be verified through continuous data recording.

FAAO 8240.41, Flight Inspection/Air Traffic
On-Site Coordination Requirements, provides the guidance for flight inspection. This includes coordination procedures between the flight check and the operational facility. Additional guidance in FAAO 7210.3, Facility Operation and Administration, paragraph 5-2-2, Flight Inspection Aircraft, advises air traffic control that aircraft engaged in flight inspection of navigation aids shall be provided special handling to the maximum extent possible.

Flight inspection area office's flight inspectors are expected to coordinate with the facility air traffic supervisor on duty, or a designated representative, prior to conducting flight inspections. Occasionally, due to unplanned/special flight inspection requirements, flight inspectors may attempt to conserve flight hours and accomplish additional opportune flight checks with minimal advance coordination.

Unless otherwise agreed to, direct contact shall be maintained between the flight inspection pilot and the air traffic control facility to provide for an exchange of information regarding the intention of the pilot and the known traffic in the facility's area of responsibility.

The aural alarm occurs at the position (at common ARTS facilities) or in the TRACON for ARTS IIIA facilities.  The testing of aural alarms at positions is necessary to ensure properly functioning speakers. Guidance for testing is found in FAAO 7210.3, Facility Operation and Administration, paragraph 11‑2-7, MSAW, Conflict Alert (CA) and Mode C Intruder (MCI), or paragraph 11-8-7, MSAW and CA.

In summary, flight check aircraft must test MSAW alerts as aircraft positions are compromised by terrain or obstructions. Flight check are effective in checking MSAW adaptation only if they are assigned a discrete beacon code eligible for MSAW processing. VFR codes are not processed for MSAW alerts. Therefore, it is essential that pilots are assigned discrete beacon codes eligible for MSAW processing (not VFR) so they can effectively test MSAW alerts. (ATP‑100)


Do You Hear Me Now?

/*TER/ This little phrase is heard often with cell phone users, on TV commercials, or whenever there has been a break in our communication. This underlines the importance of clear communication. Clear communication is necessary to ensure that our intentions or desires are exchanged. This clearly defines why active listening is such an important part of our lives. (Active listening must be important, because we were all given two ears, but only one mouth!) We must listen for what is said to ensure a complete and accurate communication transfer is made.

Communicating face-to-face allows us to be more relaxed since we can rely on nonverbal cues to assist with recognizing how effectively we have gotten our message across. However, with pilot/controller communications, we are missing this nonverbal link. Therefore, more emphasis must be placed on ensuring our intentions have been effectively transferred. This is accomplished by the pilot's "readback."

After our clearances or instructions are relayed verbally, it is easy to get very involved with other responsibilities—talking to other pilots, traffic planning and/or sector scanning and coordinating with other controllers. During these times, it is very important to heed that little voice in our head that recognizes something is out of order—we need to verify that the instructions we issued, or thought we issued, were clearly received.

FAAO 7110.65, Air Traffic Control, paragraph 2‑4‑3, Pilot Acknowledgement/Readback, tells us to ensure that clearances or other instructions are acknowledged by the pilot. It also tells us that if a pilot reads back an altitude, heading, or any other items from a clearance or instruction, we must ensure that the readback is correct.

Some examples of incomplete communication or when a readback could be misunderstood include:

·         Abbreviated call signs used in situations where full call signs are required.

·         Controllers not ensuring that pilots read back all runway hold short instructions.

·         Aircraft call signs not used in successive transmissions.

·         Facility ID omitted.

·         Aircraft ID not used when giving clearances.

·         Transposed numbers in instructions such as headings and altitudes.

·         Omitting the call sign prefix (aircraft type or model, manufacturer, or "November").

Remaining vigilant of readbacks is essential, as many of these missed readbacks lead to errors or become causal factors contributing to errors.

Improving communication requires a great effort from all of us. Striving for error-free communication is well worth the trouble it takes to reissue a heading, altitude, or runway hold short instruction. Failure to do this can be devastating. Listen! Listen! Listen! (ATP‑100)


Clearance Limits

/*TER/ The same name may be assigned to a city, an airport, a navigational aid (which is normally located within the airport boundary,) an air traffic control facility, and to an aviation weather station. With certain restrictions, variations of the airport identifier may be assigned also to landing systems. For these reasons controllers must specify more than just a name when assigning a clearance limit or destination to a pilot. When clearing an aircraft to an airport, the word "airport" is to be used. When clearing an aircraft to a VOR, the word "VOR" is to be used. For example, "Cleared direct Morgantown VOR."

FAAO 7110.65, paragraph 4-2-1 Clearance Items, says to issue a clearance limit. The Pilot/Controller Glossary defines the clearance limit as "the fix, point, or location to which an aircraft is cleared when issued an air traffic clearance." Throughout Chapter 4, phraseology and examples of phraseology specify either "airport" or "fix." A pilot receiving a clearance to "El Paso" could be cleared to an airport in Texas, a VOR in Texas, a glider port in Arkansas, or 12 other different locations. Make sure clearances and clearance limits are not vague, ambiguous, or confusing. Clearly identify the intended limit by stating the word "airport," "VOR," or other clearance limit/destination after the name. (ATP‑100)



Excess Verbiage in ATC Communications

As a developmental or controller in training, did your instructor deliver withering remarks regarding your "excess verbiage" on the microphone? Excess verbiage can be a destroyer of message clarity and gobble up precious time on the frequency, which can help send you right down the tube. Did your instructor also tell you how equally troublesome a too-brief transmission can be? How about an instruction that catches the pilot or another controller off guard?

Verbal communication in the aviation community is a balancing act. There is an art to issuing control instructions in such a way that the pilot or controller is able to understand your transmission the first time quickly and accurately. The tricky part of any transmission is deciding what and how much to say. As a rule of thumb, the longer the transmission the more likely it will be misunderstood, especially if it is complex in nature.

These days, controllers are likely to combine transmissions as much as possible because there are many things to be said to many aircraft. Sometimes combining transmissions is not expedient. The following are tips to help you get your messages across accurately the first time, for as we all know, the need to repeat messages takes up precious time. Three examples of actual communications are provided to illustrate what you will want to avoid. An example of how the same communication could have been set up or phrased is also provided.

Example #1. The Ambush

Imagine that you're the pilot of EGF 218, a commuter aircraft. You hear the controller issue various instructions to other aircraft, heading assignments, altitude changes, frequency changes, etc., then you hear this:

Controller: "EGF 218 you're cleared to the Lucky intersection via radar vectors turn 10 degrees left intercept Victor 7 hold southeast on Victor 7 expect further clearance two one three zero."

Pilot: "Ah, that's a lot of numbers but I think I've got it…we're gonna go to Lucky ten to the left Victor 7 we're gonna intercept that we're gonna hold at Lucky southeast we're gonna expect further clearance at twenty-one thirty."

Controller: "EGF 218 thank you, I probably should have warned you about that, sorry."

Pilot: "That's alright, I just wrote all over my arm. Was that 10-mile legs?"

Controller: "Ten-mile legs approved."

Controller: "And EGF 218 just to verify, right turns please."

Pilot: "EGF 218 right turns, roger."

This is an example of a lengthy or complex control instruction issued to a person without warning or preparation. The pilot has to memorize the transmission as well as understand it, and read it back. This pilot gently chided the controller by remarking that there were "a lot of numbers" to remember in the clearance and that having been caught unprepared, he had written his notes on his arm. Did he really write on his arm? I have no idea, but it is possible. Care should be taken to avoid surprising the pilot with a lengthy transmission with many details. If the pilot had not been willing to write on his arm, he probably would not have been able to remember all of the elements in the clearance. However, there are times when a lengthy or complex message is unavoidable. Approach clearances, holding instructions, reroutings are often rather lengthy. An excellent technique to help assure that the message gets through is to prepare the pilot for the message. The following examples work quite well:

"Eagle Flight 421 change in routing, advise ready to copy."

"Eagle Flight 421 holding instructions, advise ready to copy."

This works particularly well if you stick to one subject. For example, if you have chosen to issue holding instructions, issue the approach or weather information in a separate transmission. These tried and true techniques ensure that you maintain control of the frequency and that your "customers" receive your instructions and information accurately. Remember, the "extra" words used to prepare the pilot are a savings in the long run. If you "ambush" the pilot with a string of instructions, one of two things can happen, and both will cost you time and tax your good humor. Either the pilot will guess at what he should be doing, or he will take up your time asking clarifying questions for the information that you did give embedded in that long surprise transmission.

Example #2. Controller to Controller Communication: the Taciturn Communicator, or Who's Wasting Whose Time?

Handoff controller: "Hey yeah, uh I've got a handoff if you can see him, N1234AL. He's about 20 south."

Receiving controller: "Twenty south of what?"

Handoff controller: "Tyler."

Receiving controller: "I don't see him, uh what's his altitude?"

Handoff controller: "Yeah…he's at 4,000"

Receiving controller: "Four thousand? Uh, okay keep, oh I see him, radar contact."

The handbook phraseology isn't just "nice" to use. It actually has a purpose and can make your work easier and more efficient. If the controller had used standard phraseology all of the information would have been supplied to the receiving controller in less time. Here is how it could have been stated:

Handoff controller: "Handoff, N1234A, 20 south of Tyler at 4,000.

Receiving controller: "N1234A radar contact."

Example #3 The Gabby Transmission

People who say they are too busy to use standard phraseology are often too busy because they don't use standard phraseology. The gift of gab wastes time and is not that efficient. Consider the following example of wordy or conversational phraseology.

"Jet Blue 497 we've got a lotta weather in the area that's slowing things up a little, so I need you to go to Fostor the 010 Fostor radial and hold at the 15‑mile fix, left turns expect further clearance at 1‑5‑1‑2."

Compare that transmission to this:

"Jet Blue 497, hold NE on the Fostor 010 radial one five mile fix, left turns, expect further clearance
1-5-1-2, time now 1-4-5-5."

In the first example, the pilot won't have a clue what the controller is getting at until he hears the word, "hold." The excess verbiage or non-standard phraseology can be confusing because although much is being said, it is taking a long time to get to the point. Getting directly to the point using specific key language is very important.

Polish your phraseology and its delivery to make your transmissions more effective. When the pilots and other controllers can receive and quickly understand your messages the first time, your job will be made just a little bit easier. If other controllers do the same when communicating with you, you will spend less time on the land line and have more time to devote to your plan of action.


Business as Usual

Many of you realize that an incident can be caused by a chain of events that go unchecked. In many of the accident/incident investigations that AAT-200, Investigations Division, has been involved in, the chain of events is constructed or not broken due to the way a person or facility does business.

We are sometimes our own enemies in this regard. For example, recently an accident and operational error occurred when an Airbus 330 was issued takeoff clearance for a runway that was closed for maintenance. During the aircraft's departure, the men ran off the runway and no one was hurt. However, the aircraft flew over the equipment, and during its takeoff roll, struck a barrier cone, hence the incident was termed an accident.

During the investigation it was discovered that the controller had followed all of the procedures his facility required of him. The runway closure had been posted in the status information area. The runway closure memory aid was posted at the local control position. The ASDE III/AMASS had been configured for the closed runway and the closure was included in the ATIS broadcast. The controller had received a position relief briefing and admitted that he was fully aware that the runway was not available for use. So how was this individual undone? How did he forget that one of the parallels was closed?

It was a midshift. The local control position was located on the east side of the tower cab with all other positions combined there, but the flight strips were still being printed out on the machine located on the west side of the cab. The controller was on the west side of the cab "stuffing strips" when the Airbus crew called requesting an opposite direction takeoff. All living things have one thing in common, and that is this: they will take the path of least resistance, that is, do what is easiest. And why not? This controller did a completely natural thing. He picked up the handset located at the ground control position closest to the printer where he was working, and responded to the crew's request. He coordinated the opposite direction departure with the TRACON and subsequently issued the takeoff clearance. We expect that this individual was conscientious and would have included in his scan the posting of the closed runway had it been present at the position. But it wasn't!

The "memory aid" or scratch pad areas are designed to supplement the human short-term memory. Short-term memory needs frequent refreshing or else it will be supplanted by other information relatively quickly. That's why you need to review your flight data blocks, strips, and other notes to yourself as you work. If you don't, you may forget or misremember the data!

How we conduct business has a great bearing upon whether or not we make ourselves vulnerable to errors or worse. In our example, the error could have been corrected if other people had chosen to break one of the links in the chain of events. But before we discuss those opportunities, let's look at the reason this error chain began.

The controller was working alone with all positions combined on the east side of the cab. The controller's work station should have been set up so that he did not have to walk to the opposite side of the cab to retrieve strips. All of the controller's tools should have been at his workstation and available for use. By continuing to use the printer at the other side of the cab it meant that those tools were not at hand and the controller was vulnerable to human error. In some tower cabs where there is only one printer, a different strategy must be employed. If the cab is very small, the memory jogger can be posted so that it is in the normal scan regardless of what handset is picked up. If the cab is designed so that is not possible, then individuals must exercise self-discipline and return to the chosen work site position religiously when communicating with anyone, or use multiple postings at all other positions.

The chain of events could have been broken if:

·         If the crew had questioned the controller's assignment of departure runway. That is, "The ATIS still shows runway XXL closed for maintenance. Is it open now?"

·         If the TRACON controller had questioned the controller by saying, "Oh, so runway XXL isn't NOTAM'd closed anymore?"

·         If the maintenance worker who was monitoring the tower frequency had said, "Hey tower, we're still working on runway XXL and it will be closed for several more hours."

·         If the controller had walked back to the local control position on the east side of the cab to issue the takeoff clearance where he would presumably have read the memory jog posting and moved the aircraft to the open parallel runway.

But alas, none of those things occurred.


TIPH Gone Awry

The following is a heads up for terminal controllers. Taxi into position and hold (TIPH) is a valuable tool that helps the controller move aircraft efficiently off airports. One aspect of the TIPH procedure that has caused more than a little concern is described in the following incident that occurred very recently at a large metropolitan airport. Similar situations have occurred at least a half dozen times at other airports in the recent past. Please read this with care so that you can recognize what elements are involved, and how to avoid the problem. Use extreme caution whenever you put aircraft in position on runways that physically cross each other or have departure paths that cross.

Runway 12R and 03 were in use. After a Chandler aircraft had landed runway 12R, COA478 was instructed to TIPH on runway 12R. The COA pilot was informed that traffic was on final for runway 12R behind him. The controller then instructed Chandler428 to TIPH on runway 03. The Chandler pilot was told his traffic had just landed runway 12R and would clear momentarily. A UPS DC-8 requested clearance to taxi across runway 12R on taxiway November, which is the parallel taxiway for runway 03. When the controller issued the takeoff clearance to Chandler 428, more than one aircraft responded. The controller reiterated the takeoff clearance for CAA428 and then issued approval to the DC-8 to taxi across runway 12R. Too late, the controller realized that COA478 was also on takeoff roll. Like a well-choreographed ballet, everyone passed at the intersection. What happened?

Both pilots were primed to expect a momentary delay ostensibly due to a previous arrival aircraft. Neither pilot was aware of the other. Phonetically, the call signs were very, very similar. Chandler is pronounced, "Kandler." Continental and Chandler both have the hard "C" sound in the beginning of their names. Controllers often do not pronounce all four syllables of the name, Continental (Con-tin-en-tal.) It is often clipped to a mere two syllables (Cont-nel.) Chandler has two syllables. Both flight numbers began with a 4 and ended with an 8, "478" and "428." In addition, the Continental crew may have felt an additional urgency to depart because they knew another aircraft was on final for the same runway they were sitting on.

Interestingly, the controller elected to issue the takeoff clearance to the Chandler aircraft that did not have anyone on final behind it. One might question the need for both aircraft to be sitting in position on their respective runways. Putting two aircraft into position to hold on such a runway configuration carries a degree of risk. If you believe you need to use this procedure, please employ some effort to reduce the risk of both aircraft departing simultaneously. It really doesn't matter much whose fault it is if the end result is a collision at the intersection or a wreck from aircraft trying to avoid one another.

·         Tip #1: Advise the pilots of each other.

·         Tip #2: If your plans change, that is, if you see an opportunity to move aircraft/vehicles across the runway or to depart another aircraft downfield on the same or the other runway, take the time to tell the pilots who are holding, and to reiterate that they are to continue holding.

·         Tip #3: Tell crossing vehicles/pilots when aircraft are holding in position on the runway that they are crossing or taxiing on.

·         Tip #4: If you decide to issue takeoff clearance to an aircraft that is not in position, tell the aircraft holding in position to continue holding and issue traffic.

·         TIP #5: If the above is too much to say, or will take too long to say, or is just too hard to remember, then don't put both aircraft in position. Put only one in position.

Keep it efficient. Keep it Safe!   (AAT-200)




Questions/comments about content should be addressed to ATP-100