Use ATC to Save Your Life

by JeffKanarish


Daher-Socata TBM-850. Source:

Earlier this month, a single-engine turboprop aircraft crashed into the ocean near Jamaica. Early indications are the airplane’s cabin pressurization system failed and the pilot lost consciousness due to hypoxia. The plane continued flying on autopilot until fuel ran out and the engine quit.

Could ATC have helped prevent this accident? The answer is probably, if the pilot had said one word. In this episode of Radar Contact, I’ll tell you the one word the ill-fated pilot never said.

Also in this show, you will hear the results of the Landing Clearance Quiz, posted last month at Some of your fellow pilots gave surprising answers. I’ll tell you what they said.

All that, plus Your Question of the Week. Let’s light the blowers and launch!

Show Notes:

  1. On Sept 5, 2014, a TBM-900, which is a single-engine turboprop capable of flying at altitudes in the low 30-thousands, crashed into the ocean near Jamaica.
  2. Early indications are the cabin pressurization system failed and the pilot lost consciousness due to hypoxia.
  3. At 28,000 feet cabin pressure altitude, a pilot would have 2-3 minutes to remain effective at the controls before oxygen starvation would cause incapacitation.
  4. The Federal Regulations say a pilot must not operate an aircraft above 14,000 feet unless the pilot is using supplemental oxygen. The TBM-900 has supplemental oxygen available for flight crew and passengers.
  5. We don’t know if the airplane’s supplemental oxygen system was working or if the pilot used it.
  6. The pilot requested a descent to Flight Level 180 (18,000 feet) but ATC could initially approve an descent to 25,000 due to conflicting traffic at 24,000 feet.
  7. ATC eventually approved a descent to FL 200 (20,000 feet) but by the time this happened, it appeared the pilot had lost consciousness.
  8. We cannot say for sure why the pilot only requested FL 180 and not 10,000 feet. What is certain, he was not able to descend immediately due to conflicting traffic.
  9. If the pilot had said one word–“emergency”–ATC would have cleared other traffic out of his way and approved an immediate descent.
  10. Not only did the pilot not declare an emergency, he was circumspect about his problem. Air traffic controllers understand exactly what it means to lose cabin pressurization.
  11. The pilot said he had “An indication that was not correct in the plane.” Why not tell ATC the exact nature of the problem? We don’t know the answer to that question.
  12. Why didn’t the pilot declare an emergency with ATC? We’ll never know. I have my opinion but I’d rather hear your opinion.

Please take the following 2-question quiz

Voice your opinion on emergencies. Your answers will be completely anonymous, so please answer honestly. There is a very important reason why I need your opinion. I’ll tell you why in the next edition of Radar Contact, after I collect the results.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Results of the Tower Sequencing and Separation Quiz

(Important! If you have not taken the quiz and would like to, skip this section and try the quiz first. It is posted below in the article “Pop Quiz: All About Landing Clearance.”) :

Questions 1, 2, and 3: These all asked basically the same question: With an aircraft landing ahead of you, when may Tower give you clearance to land behind the landing traffic. 40% of pilots understood Tower may clear you to land as soon as the controller determines adequate separate will exist between you and the landing aircraft ahead by the time you cross the runway threshold. The majority incorrectly thought the aircraft landing ahead of you must land and clear the runway before Tower would clear you to land.

Question 4: 83% of pilots correctly understood a “Make closed traffic” clearance from Tower does not include clearance to land. Good job!

Question 5: Surprisingly, 47% thought they must not descend below traffic pattern altitude until Tower gives them clearance to land. The correct procedure is: Descend from traffic pattern altitude to establish a normal, safe glidepath. Complete the landing when given clearance to land. If landing clearance is not received or is denied, go around.

Questions 6, 7, and 10: Is Tower allowed to clear an aircraft to land or make a low approach when another aircraft is lined up and waiting on the runway; or, is Tower allowed to clear an aircraft to line up and wait with another aircraft cleared to land on the runway? The answer is no to both questions. About 48% gave the correct answer to both questions.

Question 8: Excellent work by 90% of quiz-takers. They understood Tower may only clear 2 aircraft to land simultaneously on intersecting runways if 1 of the 2 pilots agree to land and hold short of the runway intersection (LAHSO).

Question 9: This open-ended question was about reasons why Tower may not clear you to land at the same point in the traffic pattern where other pilots received clearance to land. It was designed to get you thinking about all of the situations and rules that restrict when Tower may give you landing clearance. Pilots gave 20 different reasons why Tower may withhold landing clearance until a later point in the traffic pattern. All of the reasons given were correct.

Your Question of the Week:

You are flying VFR cross-country in uncontrolled airspace. Your current altitude is 4,500 feet. You are in contact with Salt Lake Center for flight following. The controller says to you, “Cessna 9130 Delta, traffic 12 o’clock and 8 miles, opposite direction, Mode C indicates 4,000, climbing, unverified.”

You do not see the traffic, so you report, “Cessna 9130 Delta, negative contact.” A minute later, Salt Lake Center says, “Cessna 9130 Delta, previously reported traffic now 12 o’clock and 5 miles, opposite direction, same altitude, unverified, and he appears to have leveled off.” You still don’t see the traffic.

Here’s your question, given the traffic’s current position, same but unverified altitude, and heading, what can you say to ATC now to help your situation?

When you think you know the answer to that question, go to There you will find a complete answer to the question along with a complete explanation of how that answer was derived.

We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Hey, we’re already there!

If you are just starting your career or avocation as a pilot, you are probably thinking about the basics of radio communication. Specifically, you would be happy to fire off a radio transmission without getting tongue-tied: Town and Country Tower, Cessna 9130 Delta, seven west of the airport inbound for touch-and-goes with Kilo.

How nice it would be to hear and digest everything ATC says to you too: Cessna 9130 Delta, Town and Country Tower, report entering a left downwind for Runway One Eight.

Having a grip on the basics would be great, right? Let’s not bother with advanced topics in radio work until we have the basics nailed. I suppose that’s correct if you and I could agree on the dividing line between advanced radio work and basic radio work.

Fuzzy Thinking

From where I sit, the dividing line between basic and advanced radio work is so fuzzy that I would argue it doesn’t exist. Everything you are learning right now, as a new pilot contributes to what you will say and do in the future as an experienced pilot.

For example, if today I were to say to you, let’s talk about radio discipline, you might groan, “C’mon Jeff. Radio discipline is about sticking to the script for radio transmissions. How can I stick to the script if I can’t even remember what I need to say? Can we please just stick to the radio transmissions I need to make to ATC in an airport traffic pattern?”

Actually, a seemingly advanced topic such as radio discipline, is tied into your basic radio work whether you are aware of it or not. I suppose this might make more sense if we defined radio discipline. Would it be okay with you if we backed into the topic with a couple of illustrations of radio indiscipline? (Yes indiscipline is a word. I looked it up.)

Go Around

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, June 11, 2014. Delta 630, a Boeing 777 was on final approach. When the aircraft was approximately 1,000 feet above airport elevation, this happened:

Atlanta Tower “Delta 630 go around.”

Delta 630 begins a go-around/rejected landing.

Atlanta Tower: “I’m kidding Delta 630. Delta 630, you’re clear to land.”

Delta 630: “You sent us around. Delta 630 on the go.”

Here’s a link to the recording of this incident presented by a local news TV station. Please try to ignore the reporters’ histrionics and misunderstanding of this radio exchange.

Settle Down Captain Happy

Here’s another example, also in Atlanta. This time, a pilot seizes the moment to put his foot in it. (Note: this radio rebroadcast was posted by someone else on YouTube. There are are few errors in the captioned transcript, but the radio exchange is recorded accurately.)

These are extreme examples of radio indiscipline. I wouldn’t expect you, as a new pilot, to go so far off the map as the pilot and the air traffic controller did in the preceding examples. Extreme as they are, you get the idea what we mean by radio indiscipline, or lack of radio discipline if you’re still worried about my choice of words.

Choice of words is really what radio discipline is all about. It’s a decision to stick to the accepted standards of radio transmissions no matter the circumstances.

The Script

Where’s the script? Most of it is in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). The AIM’s Pilot/Controller Glossary has the words. Chapter 4 Section 2. Radio Communications Phraseology and Techniques has most of the phrases and syntax. I also have laid it out in a digestible format in my book “Radio Mastery for VFR Pilots” and in the “Radio Mastery for VFR Pilots Workbook.”

In the very first paragraph of AIM Chapter 4, Section 2, there’s this: “Since concise phraseology may not always be adequate, use whatever words are necessary to get your message across.” My friend, this sentence is not a license to:

1. Crack jokes on the radio.
2. Lose your temper on the radio.
3. Make an extended speech on the radio.
4. Express yourself sarcastically on the radio.
5. Lapse into casual conversation on the radio.
6. Omit, abbreviate, or substitute slang for essential and required elements during a radio transmission.

Looking at the list above, which of those items do you think pilots are most vulnerable to doing? (Hint: In a multiple choice quiz, the longest answer is always the correct answer.)

Numba 6

As you are learning the basics of radio phraseology, you are going to hear other seemingly more experienced pilots commit error #6 on the radio.

ATC: Cessna 9130 Delta, report entering a right base, Runway Two Seven.

Pilot: We’ll report entering a right base, Runway Two Seven, 30 Delta.

What’s the error here? Actually, there are 2. The pilot abbreviated his call sign without ATC doing so first; and the pilot dropped “Cessna” from his call sign. Is this a serious example of lack of radio discipline? I can’t tell, can you?

How about this?

ATC: Cessna 30 Delta, descend and maintain three thousand.”

Pilot: On down to three, Cessna 30 Delta.

How did this pilot slip? He got his call sign right. According to the AIM, his readback should’ve been, “Descending to three thousand, Cessna 30 Delta.”


What do you think, serious error or not? Who knows, right? As long as the pilot descends to 3000 feet MSL as directed and does not cross flight paths with another aircraft, he’s good to go.

Maybe the question regarding lack of radio discipline shouldn’t be, is it a serious breach? Maybe the question should be, is it or is it not radio discipline?

Here’s why that question is critical. Whenever you hear a pilot go off-script, whether in a subtle or a patently obvious way, there is no way to tell with 100% certainty what the pilot intends to do. You won’t know the outcome until the flight maneuver connected to the radio transmission is complete. The airplane either makes it safely to its next point in space as directed by ATC or it doesn’t.

Air traffic controllers face this same uncertainty when they hear pilots make read backs that are non-standard. Is the pilot going to do as directed? Probably, but pilots have and will continue to bust through assigned altitudes, turn to the wrong heading, line up for the wrong runway, etc.

ATC is supposed to hear errors in a readback and make corrections before a misunderstanding results in a deviation from a clearance. Guessing what the pilot meant in his transmission produces lousy results. The large number of incidents in the Aviation Safety Reporting System that were caused by pilot readback/ATC hearback errors proves this point.

Into the Unknown

A lack of radio discipline is an adventure into the unknown. Is that how you want to conduct your flight? I sure as heck want my flight to remain well within my control and as predictable as possible. Why mess that up with even a subtle, seemingly harmless trip outside the bounds of standard radio phraseology?

As you struggle through the early phases of learning radio work you are also setting your own standard for radio discipline. What you learn now is likely what you’ll hang onto for the rest of your flying career. The degree to which you stick to the standards and choose to ignore poor examples created by other pilots will determine who you are as a pilot 5, 10, or, even 40 years from now.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below or write to me at


Note to loyal readers: It has been a while since I posted a new edition of the Radar Contact Show. I’m spending most of my non-flying hours working on the Aircraft Radio Simulator. Believe it or not this long-form article took 1/8 the time to produce than 1 episode of Radar Contact. I’ll have a new show in the works as soon as I can wedge it into the production schedule for the Aircraft Radio Simulator. Jeff

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