Use ATC to Save Your Life


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.

Update for 25 Nov 14 >The survey that asked pilots’ opinions about declaring an emergency is now closed. Almost 300 people voiced their opinion in the survey. I presented the statistics from this survey to the FAA for their response. You may hear what the FAA said in response to the survey’s results by listening to the Radar Contact Show #42, aired on 25 Nov 14. Here is a link to that show and the supporting article.

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.

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