Pilot/Controller Confidence: From The Tower At LGA

I overheard two private pilots talking, recently, — one was telling the other about the poor controller service received the last time he had gone into a particular Class C airport. ‘They took me way out of the way — it was the worst I’d ever seen.’ After I overheard just part of the conversation, I began to wonder: Was it poor air traffic control or did the controller lack confidence in the pilot’s abilities?

I was in New York last week and spent some time in the control tower at LaGuardia airport. The airliners were taking off to the southeast, past Shea Stadium. At the same time, arriving airplanes where landing to the southwest on the intersecting runway. There was a continuous line of airplanes on the taxiway…and a continuous line of airplanes inbound that I could see on the Radar. Whenever an airplane landed and rolled out, an airplane on the ground was cleared to cross that runway. At that same moment, another airplane, in position on the crossing runway, would be cleared to takeoff through the intersection. Each time the takeoff airplane would roll through the intersection, another airplane would emerge from the clouds over the runway lights to land through the same intersection.

Every 30 seconds, some airplane was either landing or taking off through that intersection for the entire day.

It really was like a well- choreographed dance or a perfectly timed symphony. You would think that the controllers would have been a bundle of nerves, but they really weren’t. They were talking and joking with each other and with me. Although I enjoyed interacting with them, I remember wishing that they would talk to me less and watch what was going on more — but those controllers never missed a beat! LaGuardia has the worst on-time performance record of any airport in the nation — but I can tell you first hand that those controllers were doing all that was possible … and maybe more. As the controllers weaved the airliners in and out of the clouds, runways, and taxiways, one thing remained absolutely clear: The controllers and pilots in that airspace had complete confidence in each other. You could hear it in their words, their tones, and their cadence.

The confidence level that a controller has in a pilot and vice versa makes all the difference in the world. After I heard the private pilot complaining about lousy service, I envisioned what might have actually taken place that day. Here is what could have happened:

  • Pilot: ‘Nashville Approach this is 34 November’
  • ATC: ’34 November, what is your full call sign?’
  • Pilot: ‘That’s 1234 November.’
  • ATC: ‘Roger, 34 November, what is your type of aircraft and intentions?’
  • Pilot: ‘I’m a Cessna 172.’
  • ATC: ’34 November, squawk 2414, ident, and say intentions.’
  • Pilot: ’34 November squawking 2144 roger and ident.’
  • ATC: ’34 November the code is 2414, say your intentions.’
  • Pilot: ‘I am flying up to Nashville.’
  • ATC: ’34 November, Nashville has three different airports, which is your destination?’
  • Pilot: ’34 November, I’m inbound to Nashville International.’
  • ATC: ’34 November, Radar Contact 17 miles southeast of Nashville, do you have current information Delta?’
  • Pilot: ‘ah…’

Let’s interrupt this conversation and look at what is really going on. The pilot has now provoked at least 12 radio transmissions. This conversation is blocking the entire frequency. Could the pilot have passed on the same information with fewer transmissions if he had been more professional? He could have said: ‘Nashville Approach, this is 1234 November, a Cessna 172, inbound to International from the southeast with Delta.’ That would have been much better, but there is even more going on here than just radio conversations.

If you were that controller just had that 12-transmission exchange, what level of confidence do you think you would have in that pilot? The Cessna pilot might be a very proficient pilot, but his radio work did not instill much confidence in the mind of the controller. Result: Later, as the flight progresses to Nashville, the controller sees a potential conflict. There is a Southwest 737 inbound to Nashville and it appears that the airliner will be arriving just behind the Cessna 172. But in order to assure the proper separation, the pilot of the Cessna will have to fly the rest of the way with precision. He must keep his speed up all the way to final and then exit the runway at the first available taxiway. At this point the controller remembers how much trouble he had with this Cessna pilot. If you were the controller, would you have enough confidence to put the Cessna in front on the 737? Or, because of a low level of confidence in the pilot, would you be forced to give the Cessna extended vectors to a position behind the 737? What would the New York controllers have done?

You can see that sometimes ‘lousy’ controlling can actually be the forced result of lousy (or lazy) piloting. Controllers are not going to stick their neck out for a pilot that they have no confidence in. I don’t know for sure, but the private pilot who was complaining about vectors may have created his own problem when he was not able to build confidence with the controller. Before you complain about poor air traffic control, ask yourself, “What level of confidence did I instill in the controller?” And if your radio skills are a bit lacking, take some time to review procedures with a good CFII. The money you spend on training could easily be made up through more expedient communications while flying.