I strongly suspect that I’m just one of the many among the subjugated masses of aviators yearning, figuratively at least, to breathe free. And I’m damned sure that I’m not alone in feeling mad as Hell that a few bad apples — make that rotten apples — have made America’s skies much less friendly. But particularly now, when it has become less and less socially acceptable to question authority, I feel it is time we remind ourselves that when it comes to your own safety and that of your passengers, certain rules have never changed.

When ATC says “jump“, you don’t always need to ask “how high?” We must never let ourselves feel that, when something up there has already gotten our full attention, responding with some aeronautical equivalent of Nancy Reagan’s “just say, no“, i.e., “unable“, “negative” (or even “uh-uh, no way“) will put a black mark on our record. As a group, we’re pretty much already self-selected for assertiveness, self-direction, and knowing what we want and going for it. You probably have no trouble dealing with telemarketers, but when another insistent voice of Higher Authority comes to you over a headset instead of a handset, the natural (and proper) deferential response is to do what you’re told. Why? Because that person on the other end almost always has a bigger picture than you do, and this is their job: directing traffic. I wouldn’t think of shouting out the window at a traffic cop at an intersection! But what if someone in the back seat started choking? You’re darned right I would, and so should you. (I don’t know what I’d say exactly, although I’m sure words wouldn’t fail me. However, the details aren’t the point here.)

The justifiable exceptions enter this picture when you know something they don’t. That’s the crux of the matter. Fortunately, the more we fly, the better we get at mentally “integrating” the entire situation — ourselves, the aircraft, the flight environment, and those persons on the ground in whom we place our trust. Along with that, fortunately, also comes the realization that we have the freedom to offer alternatives, and even to decline instructions entirely. (But there obviously ought to be a reason, preferably not one precipitated by an urgent situation of your own making.) Here are a few examples. Tell me if at least one of them doesn’t sound familiar (or bring still more to mind):

  • You’ve just pulled into the run-up area at a towered airport. You’ve started the pre-takeoff checks. You had switched over to the tower frequency from ground, but you hadn’t had a chance to contact them yet. Halfway down the list, with your finger on the next item, you hear the tower call you, inquiring with a note of urgency if you are ready for departure. You look down final and considerably off into the distance, you see two airliners, one in trail behind the other. Flustered, you key the mike, make a quick glance at the carburetor heat and suction gauge as you taxi towards the runway, and stammer your affirmation as you line up and then shove in the throttle. It’s only when you remember to switch to the departure frequency when you realize that in addition to having forgotten to switch your transponder to altitude reporting mode (which is probably why they’re asking you to “ident“), you also forgot to turn on your strobes. Well hi ho, Homer.
  • You’re coming back from a cross-country flight (IFR) and you’re about 15 miles from your home airport. ATC asks you to climb and maintain five thousand. That would probably put you back into IMC, as you estimate the clouds are just a few hundred feet above you. But something else is what’s really bothering you. Going that high up, you’ll probably have to do a lawn dart “slam dunk” approach to lose altitude once you’re much closer in, as the airport elevation is only a few hundred feet. Don’t you just love surprises?
  • You’ve just landed on the runway at a large towered airport after a long VFR cross-country flight. You’ve now exited the runway and contacted ground when suddenly you hear a staccato: “42 Bravo, turn left taxiway Bravo Three, then right taxiway Charlie, second left taxiway Alpha…” followed by still more instructions, which you miss altogether. Why? You’re already more than a tad nonplussed, and your head is on a swivel looking for that first sign for taxiway Bravo anything, which you don’t see. You do see a profusion of yellow signs with black letters and black signs with yellow letters, but none of them are A, B, or C. Duh … which way did he go?

Those scenarios certainly sound familiar to me, because at one time, that befuddled pilot was me. In the first case, the tower controller may have simply been trying to save me a long hold to avoid wake turbulence. In the second case (which has happened many times since) it was likely to avoid conflicting traffic in our busy Washington area airspace. In the last one, well, I’ve long since learned to have airport diagrams handy, but before that I discovered that I could simply ask for a progressive taxi. I can remember one time at the Westchester County airport in White Plains, New York, when my less than authoritative voice prompted the controller to add a bit of non-standard phraseology after his instructions for me to follow the preceding aircraft (an airliner). His words were, and I quote: “Git along, lil’ doggie.” I forgave him of course, because I really did think that was funny. Funny, and in a way, sad.

It’s one thing to look back on a moment of ignominy and shake your head. It’s another thing entirely whenever someone puts himself (or herself) in harm’s way based on intimidation alone. The next time you’re in a situation where you’re feeling as though your back is to the wall, remember that being ill at ease isn’t failure. Failure is what could happen if you don’t communicate. If a controller is overestimating your experience or your aircraft’s ability (like asking you to keep up 130 knots on final into Boston’s Logan Airport — and don’t think I’m making this up, because it’s happened to me) the quickest way to spare you from getting in over your head is to tell him or her what you can’t do, or what you don’t understand. (If you’re really paranoid about recriminations, well, heck, fill out an ASRS form.)

THE BOTTOM LINE: I’ll risk sounding about as profound as Smokey the Bear here, but before going the way of blind compliance, bear in mind that you’re the one up in the air, figuratively if not literally. Until experience inevitably confers its broader knowledge and better judgment, just remember to exercise a pilot’s prerogative, and speak up. (You can’t read their minds, and they can’t read yours, either.) Yes, aviating and navigating come first, of course. But fortune favors the audacious. At least, it certainly doesn’t favor the timid. So don’t be shy; just tell ’em what you need.