U.S. Department

of Transportation


Federal Aviation



Air Traffic


A Communication from the  Director of Air Traffic                        



Issue # 2002 - 3A ***SPECIAL EDITION ***

September 2002                                                                                             

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In this Issue:


Holding and Weather: A Trend

Small Plus

Giving Specific Traffic Descriptions




Holding and Weather: A Trend

/*TRE/F One thing that gathering lots of data does for our system is it allows us to detect national trends. Recently, a trend became apparent in the Operational Error/Deviation statistics that requires us to pay extra attention to both holding practices and weather situations.

In general, we must remember that holding situations place aircraft in close proximity to one another. Though separation standards do not change in holding, aircraft may be stacked two, three, four, five, or more, high in a small geographic space. This means that we must be extra careful in our awareness of the operational situation, and particularly attentive to issuing the correct altitudes and receiving accurate readbacks. In one recent incident, a controller was holding several aircraft for arrival. As the controller worked the stack, things got a little busy and he misidentified the sequence. As a result, clearance to lower altitude was issued to an aircraft that was not the next one in the sequence. It was a simple mistake, but one with serious consequences.

We have several methods of avoiding these kinds of errors. Flight progress strips are probably the best. They may seem to be old-fashioned in our increasingly electronic world; however, strips used for managing a holding stack are a clear visual reference to the location of everybody in the stack, be it two or ten. And this is fundamental air traffic control (ATC) – sequence the strips, mark the altitude changes, and note the expect further clearance times. Working a holding pattern is an art unto itself, and if you have not done it for a while, you might be a little rusty. Do not let that rust cloud your judgment. Use the tools you have available to help get back in the groove. Use those strips, or consciously doublecheck your altitudes. An extra set of eyes always helps, too. Whatever works, but make doubly sure until you are back up to speed.

Weather presents a problem any time of year, but none more so than the spring thunderstorm season. Each spring, we must reacquaint ourselves with the peculiar needs of applying ATC in a thunderstorm environment. We must remember to completely coordinate routings and deviations approved for aircraft. We must ensure that aircraft are back on their own navigation before transfer of frequency and control. And we must always ensure that, when aircraft are authorized to "deviate as necessary," we understand whether we mean vertical as well as horizontal navigation. There is nothing worse for a controller than an aircraft doing the unexpected. In a complex, busy environment, we must understand what the pilot intends to do to avoid the weather so that we can continue to provide separation service.

In one recent weather event, a pilot, authorized by ATC to deviate left of course, continued turning left until the aircraft had almost reversed course. Though previous aircraft the controller was working had made it through the area in question, this particular pilot could not find a similar way through. The lesson here is clear: never assume what the pilot will do when deviating. Try and pin them down. We work hard to get aircraft through or around weather, but we can only do it safely if we stay on top of the situation.

What is the common thread here? Perhaps nothing more sinister than unfamiliar procedures. From winter to spring, our traffic volume changes. So does the character of that traffic. Give yourself the chance to expand your skills with the traffic, and take that extra step, or that additional follow-through. Let us become holding and weather experts again. (ATP-120)

Small Plus

/*TE/R  What is a small plus (+) aircraft and the purpose of this aircraft designator? A small + is any aircraft weighing between 12,500 pounds and 41,000 pounds. These aircraft were considered large until 1998 when a safety recommendation made by the Associate Administrator for Regulation and Certification relating to the wake turbulence was adopted by the FAA. The recommendation provided for increased protection from wake turbulence for aircraft weighing 41,000 pounds or less. This created a new class of aircraft known as "small +." Examples of small + aircraft models include the Super King Air 350, Citation 10, Brasilia EMB-120, Falcon 50, and Learjet 60.

The separation standards for a small + aircraft are the same as any small aircraft with one exception. When operating in or around Class B Airspace, a small + aircraft is to be treated as a large turbine engine-powered airplane. 14 CFR Section 91.131 states, "Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, each person operating a large turbine engine-powered airplane to or from a primary airport for which a Class B airspace area is designated must operate at or above the designated floors of the Class B airspace area while within the lateral limits of that area." The small + aircraft would fit into this category. When applying the separation standards of FAAO 7110.65, Air Traffic Control, Paragraph 5-5-4, Minima, a small + aircraft is to be treated as a small aircraft. (ATP-120)

Giving Specific Traffic Descriptions

/*TER/ Even though controllers and pilots use the same language, sometimes there can still be misunderstandings. Perhaps it is because they each have such different viewpoints. Tower controllers work multiple aircraft and coordinate with coworkers in a complex, dynamic environment. Pilots need to get an aircraft out to the runway (or in to the ramp) and concentrate on the physical operation of the aircraft and follow 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 would be giving very detailed descriptions of traffic, in order to help pilots find who to follow. "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 DC10 ahead," or "Follow the Dash-8 off your right." But imagine you are working at an air carrier or commuter hub airport: you are looking at long lines of similar jets and commuter aircraft taxiing out for departure. When you give that fifth MD80 (or that fourth regional jet) taxi instructions to go out and join the mix, the pilot will appreciate some help in identifying his/her traffic.

Imagine you are in the pilot's seat; it is 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 are 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, Air Traffic Control, Paragraph 3-7-2, Taxi and Ground Movement Operations, shows controller phraseology examples for use on the airport surface. 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.

Let us talk more about those regional jets. It used to be that everyone knew that a regional jet was made by Canadair, the aircraft ID was CARJ, and they all looked alike. Not anymore! These smaller jets generally seat less than 71 passengers. They can look very different and be configured for a wide range of passenger loads. They are now made by several different companies, among them Embraer, Canadair/Bombardier, and Dornier, and all have different aircraft type designators. Newsflash: It has just been announced that Russian aircraft designers Sukhoi and Ilyushin are teaming up with Boeing to design and build a Russian regional jet by 2006. Also, look for some "stretch versions" coming out soon (holding more than 71 passengers); they will further blur the line between regional jets and other air carrier aircraft.

These smaller jets can also have widely differing performance characteristics. Some fit right in the flows with the larger jet aircraft. Others have various ranges of performance differences in the climbout phase, at altitude, and in descent. These differences require that controllers learn what to expect from each aircraft type. As more companies upgrade their fleets from turboprops to regional jets, system capacity will be affected as jet routes get filled up and turboprop routes go unused.

One thing you can always count on in air traffic control: things will change. As more and different regional jet aircraft join the air carrier and commuter fleets, you will likely see more instances where different regional jet aircraft types wear the same company markings. Remember, it is a good practice to describe "traffic" to pilots using both company name and actual aircraft type. (ATP-120)


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