Play Nice! … Especially With ATC

Anger can be an unruly marauder that displaces good judgment with ruinously immature impulses, but it’s also an indispensable guardian that guides our responses to life’s challenges — does it have a place in the cockpit? Anger is a natural, adaptive response to threats, inspiring powerful feelings and behaviors that allow us to fight and defend ourselves when we are attacked. From mild irritation to rage, it brings both immediate as well as enduring physiological changes. In the short term, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, as do your levels of adrenaline. In the long term … well, you don’t live as long. The usual expression of anger is the aggressive response. Of course, we can’t lash out at every thing or person that annoys us; laws, social norms, and common sense usually prevail … but then there’s ATC.

ATC RAGE — Real World Example #1:
The student pilot (flying with a CFI in the right seat) was on short final and had been cleared to land by the tower. Much to their surprise, they heard the tower clear another airplane, which had been holding short, for an immediate departure. The student on short final asked the tower for confirmation that he had in fact been cleared to land. For two seconds, there was no response. The pilot then advised the tower that he was now on shorter final, and asked again if he was cleared to land. (The airplane on the ground, whose pilot realized what was happening, did an about-face — still outside the hold short line.) Finally, a controller responded “N###, how many times do I have to clear you to land?” At this point, the CFI keyed the mic and recommended that the controller refrain from chewing out a pilot who just corrected a mistake, and asked if the controller would like him to call the tower when he got down. At this point, the controller evidently realized what happened, and apologized.

TO RAGE OR NOT TO RAGE — Real World Example #2:
In another case, an airplane in contact with ATC was vectored to the south to intercept the VOR approach to an uncontrolled field. Another pilot on the same frequency asked the controller if the traffic he had spotted was getting too close. The controller responded to the second aircraft saying that traffic would be a factor — provided he climbed a thousand feet and went supersonic. Unfortunately, somewhere in this jovial exchange, the controller lost track of the original aircraft flying the vector, which had now passed to the south of the final approach course. When the pilot asked the controller “How am I doing?” in regard to his approach, he was issued a new vector to re-intercept the approach course.

Every now and then, ATC makes a mistake. Sometimes their mistake becomes your inconvenience, and other times (and very rarely), it could threaten your life. However, when confronted with these unpleasantries, we need to remember that they are the exception, not the rule. And they’re ‘exceptional’ for two reasons.

  1. Most pilot-controller interactions are extremely professional (certainly, at least, in terms of intent).
  2. Most of the time, it’s we pilots who do the screwing up, not ATC! I have read countless tales, of controllers covering for pilots. Actually, they do it so often, they’ve got a term for it — they call it an ‘airshow.’ The controller’s airshow occurs when they have to scatter airplanes in all directions, because one pilot incorrectly follows a clearance, inadvertently turns the volume down on his radio, or just plain messes up.

In the spirit of distilling aeronautical advice to its simplest terms, the moral is this: Don’t let yourself get mad. Everybody makes mistakes — regardless of what the stakes are. For most of us, this is not war, so let’s not make it into one. Plus, when confronted with a nasty exchange with a controller, remember that a fairly large percentage of air traffic controllers are also pilots (in some areas it’s as much as a third) — and most of the time, he’s just doing the best job he can. Most pilots, on the other hand, have never seen how the other side operates. Pilots and controllers should have a healthy respect for each other.

Strategy: If diplomacy doesn’t immediately work miracles, keep anger at bay through conscious

  • relaxation (deep breathing, imagery, etc.);
  • cognitive restructuring‘ (replacing angry thoughts with more rational, constructive ones);
  • problem solving (make a plan and give it your best, but don’t get upset if it doesn’t work);
  • better communication (listen carefully to what the other person is really saying and take your time before answering), and the best one of all:
  • humor, which can help defuse anger in a number of ways, and actually turn what could be an unpleasant incident into a much less stressful learning experience.

BOTTOM LINE: Like in Robert Fulghum’s modern classic All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, our hectic, modern lives, and the considerably more hectic world of ATC, can often be boiled down to simple courtesies and accountability. Adapting any of the basic rules, such as “play fair” or “don’t hit people” or “don’t take things that aren’t yours” or “share everything”, and extrapolating it into the aeronautical arena, as he says, “holds true and clear and firm”. So, just play nice.