Answers to Questions in Radar Contact

Audio Edition #63 for 4 January 2017


When flying VFR, and using ATC’s radar advisory service, otherwise known as flight following, you are free to change altitudes at will. A controller will remind you altitude changes are at your discretion as long as you advise the controller before changing altitudes. Here’s your question. Under what circumstances can a controller restrict your altitude even though you are flying VFR?


ATC may require VFR aircraft to maintain specific altitudes to achieve vertical separation from other aircraft inside of Class B and Class C airspace. Additionally, ATC may restrict VFR aircraft to at-or-above and at-or-below altitudes, or to a block of altitudes to avoid defined airspace.

For example, “Cessna 30 Delta, maintain at or below 3,000 to remain clear of Class B airspace.”

Reference. Aeronautical Information Manual, Chapter 3, Section 2. Controlled Airspace, multiple pages.

Audio Edition #61 for 30 September 2016


You are currently sitting on the airport’s South Ramp near Taxiway R3 with your engine running. You have contacted Clearance Delivery and stated you received Information Zulu. Clearance assigned a transponder code for departure and told you to contact Milwaukee Control on 121.8 for taxi clearance. You’ve switched to 121.8 and listened for a minute to get a feel for how other aircraft are being routed for taxi. Unfortunately, the only aircraft that have talked on the frequency are airliners taxiing from the airline terminal. You are in a Cessna 172 on the South Ramp, so no help there.

“Milwaukee Ground, Cessna 9130 Delta, at the South Ramp, taxi.”

Here’s your taxi clearance:

“Cessna 9130 Delta, Milwaukee Ground, Runway 7L. Make the left turn onto Romeo, and hold short of Runway 7R on Romeo.”

Okay, got that on paper. Pretty easy so far, right? Here comes the rest.

“Cessna 9130 Delta, at Romeo cross 7R, then continue via a right on Alpha, Tango, Echo, left on Uniform, left on Victor and hold short of Taxiway Delta.”

My Shorthand Copy:

First Part: 7L lR /7R I can read this back as “Runway 7 Left. Left on Romeo. Hold short of 7 Right on Romeo.”

Second Part: x7R rA T E lU lV /D I can read this part back as “Cross 7 Right, then right Alpha, Tango, Echo, left on Uniform, left on Victor. Hold short of Delta.”

Audio Edition #58 for 21 June 2016


You are receiving VFR traffic advisories from Oakland Center. You are proceeding towards your destination of Stockton Metro Airport in California’s Central Valley. Stockton Metro is a tower-controlled airport inside Class D airspace. Here’s your first question: When would you expect your controller in Oakland Center to tell you contact Stockton Tower?

Answer: Oakland Center should tell you to switch to Stockton Tower about 10 miles from the airport. The radio exchange would sound like this:

“Cessna 9130 Delta, the Stockton Airport is at your 12 o’clock and 10 miles. Report the airport in sight.”

“Cessna 9130 Delta, airport in sight.”

“Cessna 9130 Delta, radar service terminated. Squawk 1200. Contact Stockton Tower on 120.3.”

“Cessna 9130 Delta, 120.3. Good day.”

Here’s your second question. What should you do if you are nearing the boundary of Class D, the controller hasn’t switched you to Stockton Tower, and a continuous stream of radio traffic prevents you from querying the controller?

Answer: Remain clear of Stockton’s Class D airspace until in radio contact with Stockton Tower. Here’s the relevant quote from the AIM.

3−2−5. Class D Airspace

3. Arrival or Through Flight Entry Requirements. Two−way radio communication must be established with the ATC facility providing ATC services prior to entry and thereafter maintain those communications while in the Class D airspace.

1. If the controller responds to a radio call with,“[aircraft callsign] standby,” radio communications have been established and the pilot can enter the Class D airspace.

As a technique, I recommend maneuvering (i.e. circling, or flying off-course) outside of Class D until you can get Oakland Center to acknowledge that you need to leave the frequency to contact Stockton Tower. I would not leave Oakland Center’s frequency without some acknowledgement from the controller.

Audio Edition #57 for 10 April 2016


You are preparing to depart VFR from Martha’s Vineyard Airport. It’s November 2 and the current local time is 05:30. Using the Airport Facility Directory listing for Martha’s Vineyard Airport that I’ve included below, describe the radio drill you would use to depart from Martha’s Vineyard, beginning from your parking position on the ramp through your departure from the traffic pattern heading northwest.



Prior to engine start, get the current local weather from Flight Service either by cell phone or by using the Bridgeport Radio Remote Communication Outlet (RCO) frequencies, as listed. (Bridgeport Radio receives on 122.1 and transmits on 114.5.) Don’t bother trying to get weather information via the airport’s ATIS frequency. All you’ll hear is a looped recording saying that Martha’s Vineyard Tower is closed and all aircraft should contact Bridgeport Radio for current weather and Boston Center for a pre-departure clearance if departing IFR.

Next, when ready to depart your parking space on the ramp, tune the Unicom frequency of 122.95 and attempt to contact the Unicom base station operator for an airport advisory. “Martha’s Vineyard Unicom, [your call sign] on the ramp at Martha’s Vineyard, with the numbers, request an airport advisory.”

It’s unlikely that anyone will answer you at 0-dark thirty. If some poor soul is actually manning the station at that hour, you would likely hear, “Aircraft calling Martha’s Vineyard, Martha’s Vineyard is using Runway 6 for landings and departures. There are no aircraft in the pattern.” No kidding! Who else would be up and flying at this hour?

Next, tune the CTAF frequency of 121.4 and transmit, “Martha’s Vineyard Traffic [your call sign] taxiing from [your location on the airport] to Runway 6, Martha’s Vineyard.”

After you taxi to Runway 6 and perform your engine runup, transmit, “Martha’s Vineyard Traffic, [your call sign], entering Runway 6, departing northwest, Martha’s Vineyard.” If you wanted to be more specific, you could modify that transmission to include your planned heading on departure, rounded to the nearest 10 degrees. For example, “Departing heading three one zero.”

The AIM recommends you maintain a listening watch on the CTAF frequency during departure until 10 miles from the airport. This guideline helps you stay alert for any traffic reporting inbound for the airport.

Audio Edition #56 for 27 February 2016


You are taxiing out to the runway for a practice session of touch-and-goes and low approaches. When you called for taxi, you said, “Rapscallian Ground, Piper 405 Echo Lima, ready to taxi from the North Ramp and we’ll remain in the pattern.” The ground controller acknowledges this and gives you taxi instructions.

Next, the tower controller says, “Piper 405 Echo Lima, Rapscallian Tower, make left traffic, Runway 7, cleared for takeoff.”

We know from our earlier discussion that you will require a separate clearance from Tower prior to each touch and go or low approach. Here’s your question. Given your initial clearance from Tower, after your first touch and go, will you need clearance from Tower to fly another circuit around the pattern?


You will need a new clearance from Rapscallian Tower to fly your next circuit around the traffic pattern.


The clearance you received prior to initial takeoff, “Make left traffic,” only authorizes you to make one left-hand circuit around the pattern. It is not authorization to make successive circuits.

The clearance that authorizes you to make successive circuits around the pattern without further approval from Tower is, “Make left closed traffic.” The word “closed” is Tower’s word of approval for a continuous circuit.

Audio Edition #55 for 17 January 2016


You are 20 miles from an uncontrolled airport, inbound for landing. You dial up the ASOS frequency for the airport and learn the surface winds are 340 at 10 knots. The airport has 1 north-south runway with a left-hand traffic pattern, so you are obviously going to land on runway 35.

Next, you tune the airport’s Unicom frequency and request an airport advisory. There is no answer. You report your position at 10 miles from the airport, “Town and Country Traffic, Cessna 9130 Delta, 10 miles southwest, inbound for landing.” There’s no response to this. The radio is completely silent and you are certain you have the correct frequency tuned. Given this situation, what do you do next?


Under most circumstances, you would continue inbound and enter the traffic pattern at the midfield downwind entry point for Runway 35. As you do this, you would self-announce on Unicom, “Town and Country Traffic, Cessna 9130 Delta, entering downwind, Runway 35, full stop, Town and Country.”

Here is what you would not transmit: “Town and Country Traffic, any traffic in the area, please advise.” The AIM specifically calls this transmission incorrect.

4−1−9. Traffic Advisory Practices at Airports Without Operating Control Towers

g. Self-Announce Position and/or Intentions

1. General.

Pilots stating, “Traffic in the area, please advise” is not a recognized Self−Announce Position and/or Intention phrase and should not be used under any condition.

You’ll occasionally hear pilots use this phrase as they approach an uncontrolled airport and the common traffic advisory frequency is silent. I’ve even heard the phrase used, on several occasions, on the television show “Airplane Repo”. Please don’t take radio instruction from pilots on reality TV!

Of course, you should visually clear for traffic in the pattern like your life depends on it. There is always the possibility another pilot is in the pattern who does not have, or refuses to use his communication radio.

Silence on the radio, while no guarantee an uncontrolled pattern is empty of aircraft, is not all that unusual. Many airports are free of traffic at random times of the day.

Occasionally, the person responsible for giving airport advisories on Unicom may be away from the radio. Or the radio used to provide airport advisories may be temporarily out of service. Press on, and keep your eyes and ears open.

Audio Edition #50 for 24 November 2015


You are flying a VFR cross-country using ATC’s radar service for flight following. Your call sign is Skyhawk 9130 Delta. Your current altitude is 4,500. The air traffic controller says, “Piper 571 Romeo Charlie and Skyhawk 9130 Delta, mutual traffic, twelve o’clock and one zero miles, opposite direction, a Cessna 172 at 4,500 and a PA-28 at 5,500.” You do not see the PA-28. Here are your questions.

Question 1: Should you respond as soon as the controller finishes his transmission?

Question 2: When you do respond, what would you say on the radio?

Question 3: What does the controller mean by “opposite direction”?

Question 4: If, after reporting you do not see the traffic, are you required to advise ATC if you see the PA-28 before it passes your position.


1. No. The controller pointed out traffic to you and another pilot in a single transmission. He addressed the pilot of the other aircraft first so that pilot should be allowed to reply first. Once the other pilot has finished transmitting whether or not he sees your aircraft, you may reply to ATC.

2. “Cessna 9130 Delta, negative contact.” This is the AIM-designated phrase when reported traffic is not in sight.

3. “Opposite direction” means the traffic pointed out by ATC is heading in a direction opposite your direction of travel.

4. No. You are only required to respond to ATC’s traffic advisory when first issued. You may report the traffic in sight when relevant, but that call is not required. In fact, if the traffic reported to you by ATC does not present a conflict to your flight path, it is likely your controller will advise you of the traffic one time. He will then turn his attention to other business, especially if he is busy.

Audio Edition #49 for 10 November 2015


You are number 1, holding short of Runway 6, the active runway, at Petersburg Airport. Petersburg is an uncontrolled airport. You plan to depart VFR and your initial heading will be approximately 330 degrees. Here is your question: What would your next self-announce radio transmission be on UNICOM? Note: I’m looking for the specific words you would say, and when would you make that transmission.


“Petersburg Traffic, Cessna 801TF, departing Runway 6. Departing the pattern to the northwest, Petersburg.” As an alternative, you may say, “Petersburg Traffic, Cessna 801TF, departing Runway 6, left turn heading 330.” Make either radio transmission prior to entering the runway for departure. Ref. AIM 4-1-9 h. 2. b. Outbound Phraseology.

Audio Edition #46 for 1 May 2015


The FAA’s NextGen program is on it’s way and it will eventually affect all pilots flying general aviation aircraft. A key feature of NextGen is the replacement of conventional air traffic control radar with equipment that monitors aircraft position, altitude and airspeed using a transmit and receive system called ADS-B. When fully implemented, almost all aircraft operating in the following airspace will be required to have ADS-B installed and operating. ADS-B Out will be required in the following airspace:

  • Class A, B, and C
  • Class E airspace areas at or above 10,000 ft MSL over the 48 states and DC, excluding airspace at and below 2,500 ft AGL
  • Airspace within 30 nautical miles (nm) at certain busy airports from the surface up to 10,000 feet MSL; airports listed in appendix D to part 91.
  • Above the ceiling and within the lateral boundaries of a Class B or Class C airspace area up to 10,000 feet MSL
  • Class E airspace over the Gulf of Mexico at and above 3,000 feet MSL within 12 nm of the coastline of the United States.

Here are your questions: By what date must almost all aircraft, operating in the airspace described above, have ADS-B Out installed and operational. What aircraft will be exempt from the requirement to have ADS-B Out.


All aircraft operating in the airspace (described above) must have ADS-B Out installed and operational by January 1, 2020.

According to CFR 91.225, the following aircraft are exempt: “Any aircraft that was not originally certificated with an electrical system, or that has not subsequently been certified with such a system installed, including balloons and gliders.”

The full details are described in CFR 91.225 and 91.227. I’ll have a complete discussion of NextGen in the next edition of Radar Contact.

Audio Edition #45 for 11 March 2015


Everyone knows that you are never required to file a flight plan or get in contact with ATC when flying VFR outside of controlled airspace. Actually there is an exception. Here’s your question: Name the one time you would be required to file a VFR flight plan and remain in contact with ATC, even outside of controlled airspace.


You must be on a VFR flight plan, and in contact with ATC when flying through a designated buffer zone around a Temporary Flight Restriction’s no-fly area. That’s a mouthful. Here’s what it means.

When the President of the United States is visiting a location outside of Washington, D.C. the FAA will establish a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) over the area where the President is visiting. A TFR may also be established over areas where other security sensitive activities are occurring. The TFR acts as a prohibited area. All aircraft not supporting the President or local security are prohibited from flying through the TFR.

Often a TFR will consist of an inner ring, called a no-fly zone, and an outer ring, called a buffer zone. Flight inside the buffer zone is permitted for aircraft arriving at and departing from airports within the ring. Transiting aircraft may be accepted on a workload permitting basis. All aircraft operating in the buffer zone, both IFR and VFR must be on a filed flight plan, squawk a discrete transponder code, and remain in radio contact with ATC.

Here is an excerpt from a recent TFR for a presidential visit to Atlanta.

“B. For operations within the airspace between the 10 nmr and 30 nmr area(s) listed above, known as the outer ring(s): All aircraft operating within the outer ring(s) listed above are limited to aircraft arriving or departing local airfields, and workload permitting, ATC may authorize transit operations. Aircraft may not loiter. All aircraft must be on an active IFR or VFR flight plan with a discrete code assigned by an air traffic control (ATC) facility. Aircraft must be squawking the discrete code prior to departure and at all times while in the TFR and must remain in two-way radio communications with ATC.”

There is actually another occasion when a specialized VFR flight plan must be filed and a position report must be made to ATC by radio. When penetrating an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), you must file a DVFR flight plan and contact the appropriate ATC facility at a specified time prior to crossing the ADIZ boundary. See the Aeronautical Information Manual Section 6. National Security and Interception Procedures, for details.

Audio Edition #44 for 2 February 2015


You are flying in an uncontrolled airport traffic pattern. You have just turned onto the downwind leg when you hear another pilot transmit on the UNICOM frequency, “Inopportune Traffic, Phantom 396 Oscar Papa, downwind, Runway 15, Inopportune.”

You scan the downwind entry area and see nothing. You make a short clearing turn to the right and check your 6 o’clock position for an aircraft directly behind you. There is nothing there either. Then you notice an airplane rolling wings level onto the base leg for Runway 15. Here’s your question.

Given your awareness of the current situation, it is safe to continue flying on the downwind leg, or, should you break out of the traffic pattern and re-enter at the downwind entry point?


I hesitate to call this an answer because it is actually my opinion. The truth is, there is no single, correct answer. That said, here’s what I believe to be true.

In this circumstance, I would continue as planned on the downwind leg. I would not break out of the traffic pattern.

Here’s what we know. Someone has incorrectly reported his position on the downwind. It might be that pilot turning onto base leg ahead and it might not. If it is the guy ahead, we’re golden. Since there might be some other pilot lurking elsewhere in the pattern, I’m going into combat mode.

That means I’m putting my head on a swivel and clearing for traffic like my life depends on it. I won’t forget to fly the airplane first, but watching out for Mystery Man is my next highest priority. My thought process is, I expect to be attacked by that other guy from a blind spot so I’m not going allow myself a blind spot. If I make it around the pattern without my paranoia proved true, hooray, but that is just icing on the cake.

Having said all this, if you chose to break out of the pattern and re-enter once you’ve identified where everyone is with 100% certainty, good on you. Realize, when the location of another aircraft is in doubt, there really is no place guaranteed to be free of traffic. Even if you break out of the pattern, you may still mix it up with Mystery Man. Good luck.

Audio Edition #43 for 13 December 2014


You are VFR, approaching Class Bravo airspace over Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport. As you approach the southern entry point of the VFR Transition Route that passes through the Class B structure, you tune in Phoenix Approach’s radio frequency. The radio frequency is very busy and you cannot find a break in the radio traffic to announce your intentions to Phoenix Approach.

Your fuel on board is getting low. You know you need to press on northbound through the VFR Transition Route to have any chance of making it to your destination north of Phoenix with a comfortable margin of fuel remaining in the tank.

Here’s your question. Since the VFR Transition Route that passes through the Phoenix Class B Airspace is reserved specifically for VFR aircraft, and the parameters for flying that corridor are published on your terminal area chart, is it permissible to enter the route immediately and then advise Phoenix Approach of your intentions after you have entered the corridor?


It is not permissible to enter the VFR Transition Route without clearance from Phoenix Approach. Here is the quote from the AIM.

c. Class B Airspace VFR Transition Routes.

2. Until ATC authorization is received, pilots must remain clear of Class B airspace. On initial contact, pilots should advise ATC of their position, altitude, route name desired, and direction of flight. After a clearance is received, pilots must fly the route as depicted and, most importantly, adhere to ATC instructions.

This information is also repeated on the terminal area chart for Phoenix.

VFR transition route

You should orbit a landmark at an altitude outside of Class B, near the entry point for the desired transition route. In the example chart shown above, it would be a good idea to orbit either Stellar Airpark or Firebird Lake (charted landmarks) below 5,000 feet MSL.

Once you get in contact with ATC, the air traffic controller must specifically state, “You are cleared to enter the Class Bravo,” along with specific instructions about how to fly within the VFR corridor. After acknowledging your instructions from ATC, you may enter the transition route.

Side note: VFR Flyways are a completely different entity than a VFR Transition Route. A VFR Flyway is designated to route VFR traffic around Class Bravo airspace. The AIM says, they are “designed to help VFR pilots avoid major controlled traffic flows.” Unlike VFR Transition Routes, no ATC clearance is required to use a VFR Flyway.

Audio Edition #42 for 25 Nov 2014


You are approaching the runway at Savannah, Georgia. The tower controller says to you, “Runway 10, cleared to land. Your landing will be over a raised cable on the runway, 1,476 feet from the approach end.” Here are your questions: First, why is there a raised cable positioned on the runway? Second, based on this information, where should you plan to touch down on the runway?


The raised cable on the runway acts as an emergency stopping line a fighter jet can grab with its tailhook. It serves the same purpose as an arresting cable for stopping jets that land on an aircraft carrier. It prevents a fighter jet from rolling off of the end of the runway in the event of brake failure or inadequate braking power.

Normally, an arresting cable on an airport runway is recessed below the surface of the runway in a groove. The groove spans the width of the runway. When the pilot of a fighter jet has a problem stopping during landing or after a rejected takeoff, the pilot will transmit to the control tower, “Cable, cable, cable!”

When the tower controller hears this transmission, he will press a switch at his console that quickly raises the cable several inches above the runway surface. The pilot can lower the tailhook on the back of his jet. The tailhook grabs the arresting cable. The cable, connected to a braking system on either side of the runway, extends with resistance once the tailhook grabs on and the jet begins to pull. The resistance of the cable causes the jet to rapidly slow to a stop.

At a joint-use airport, such as Savannah International, runways are shared by civilian and military aircraft. The arresting cable will always be recessed in its groove unless it is immediately needed for an emergency. The cable will only remain above the runway surface, after an emergency stop, if the cable cannot be lowered due to a malfunction in the cable’s operating system.

While large aircraft have no problem rolling over a raised cable, you should not touch down on the runway prior to the cable’s location if you are flying a light- or medium-weight aircraft with relatively small wheels. Attempting to roll over a raised cable in a small aircraft may damage your tires or other parts of your landing gear. Plan to touch down beyond the cable’s position.

If you feel you will not have adequate runway available to land beyond the cable, go around and land on a different runway. Note that most runways with arresting cables are long because most land-based fighter jets require long runways.

Side note: Have you ever seen a fighter jet land? You’ll notice most fighter aircraft hold a very nose-high pitch attitude well after touching down on the runway. Fighter pilots hold this attitude to aerobrake with their aircraft’s wings. Aerobraking, directs the wing’s lift vector backwards (induced drag), causing the aircraft to slow with minimal use of wheel brakes. Most fighter jets have relatively weak wheel brakes given the weight of the aircraft. Aerobraking is an essential part of stopping after landing.

Additional Side note: Contrary to popular belief, an airline jet’s ground spoilers—the flaps that extend upward from the top of the wing at touchdown–provide very little stopping capability due to drag. The spoilers extend at touchdown not to slow the aircraft but to completely stall the wing’s lift. Ground spoilers spoil lift and place the full weight of the aircraft on its wheels. This allows immediate and full wheel braking without the possibility of the aircraft bouncing back into the air after touchdown.

Audio Edition #41 for 21 Sep 2014


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?


You can say, “Cessna 9130 Delta requests an avoidance vector for the traffic.” Salt Lake Center will reply with a heading to fly that steers you away from the oncoming traffic.

Even if you do not say anything, it is likely the controller will offer an avoidance vector to you. Realize this is only an offer. You are not required to follow the controller’s suggestion. When flying VFR, you are free to take your own action to avoid any traffic you believe might present a conflict.

If this were me in this situation, I’d ask for the vector. Why? A vector from ATC will not only help me fly clear of the conflict, it will also keep me from creating a conflict with other traffic that might be in the area. As an added benefit, ATC’s vector will also honor any terrain or obstacles in the area. A large part of Salt Lake Center’s airspace lies within areas of mountainous terrain.

Audio Edition #40 for 31 May 2014

“You are preparing to taxi at tower-controlled airport. You have contacted Ground Control for taxi instructions. The ground controller says, “Cessna 9130 Delta, Doryphore Ground, Runway 28. Taxi via Alpha, then right on Delta, left on Bravo, hold short of Runway 3 on Bravo 1.”

Here’s your challenge: Give me a read back of these taxi instruction that includes only the items the AIM says are required in your readback.


“Cessna 9130 D, Runway 28, hold short of Runway 3 on Bravo 1.”

Aeronautical Information Manual

4−3−18. Taxiing
a. General.

9. When taxi instructions are received from the controller, pilots should always read back:
(a) The runway assignment.
(b) Any clearance to enter a specific runway.
(c) Any instruction to hold short of a specific runway or line up and wait.

You are not required to read back an entire taxi route. However, if you do read back the entire set of instructions from Ground Control, you derive two benefits:

1. You give Ground Control an opportunity to listen to your understanding of the instructions and correct any error in understanding before that error translates into a mistake during taxi.
2. You are certain to include the required items if you read back everything.

To clarify, ATC only requires you to read back certain elements of taxi instructions. ATC certainly welcomes a full read back; and ATC will work with you to make sure you and the controller are in agreement.

Audio Edition #39 for 7 April 2014

You are flying VFR cross-country while using ATC for flight following. The enroute controller says to you, “Cessna 9130 Delta, for further flight following, contact Kansas City Center on 128.75.” You read back 128.75 and pause 3 seconds before making the frequency change. The controller does not correct your read back during those 3 seconds so you feel your read back was correct. Once you have the new frequency tuned in you hear ATC talking to another pilot. So you wait.

When it seems the current conversation is over, you start to press the push-to-talk button for your microphone so you can check in with the new controller. Before you can press the button, you hear another pilot start a conversation with the controller. This pilot is asking about flight conditions ahead. The controller tells the pilot he’ll check and to stand by.

Several seconds pass in radio silence and you assume the controller is offline to get the information the pilot asked for. While you patiently honor the radio silence, another pilot checks in on the frequency. ATC answers the new pilot.

More silence. You start to press the push-to-talk switch when ATC comes back online and gives a report of flight conditions to the pilot who asked for it. As soon as ATC finishes the report, the pilot makes a request for a change of altitudes. A back and forth conversation goes on between the pilot and ATC about the altitude change. By now you figure you have probably flown at least 15 or 20 miles into the next controller’s sector.

Here’s your question, and it is multiple choice. Should you:

    1. Press on course, hoping you will eventually get in touch with ATC; or


    1. Should you start orbiting your present location until you can talk to ATC; or


  1. Should you return to your last radio frequency and tell the previous controller you are unable to contact the next controller.


Press on course and wait patiently for the opportunity to speak to ATC.

At an air route traffic control center (ARTCC), the radar target for your aircraft is presented onscreen, tagged with a block of text that moves with the radar target. The datablock tells the controller who you are, what you are, and other pertinent data including your altitude. When your radar target and datablock nears the edge of the controller’s area of control, also known as his sector, the datablock begins to flash. The datablock picks up additional information that tells the controller which succeeding sector your aircraft is about to enter. The datablock also includes a flashing letter “H” that stands for “Handoff.” This tells the controller it is time to pass you to the controller in the adjacent sector.

Meanwhile, the controller of the next sector you are about to enter, sees the exact same radar target, flashing datablock and letter “H” representing your aircraft. When the next controller sees this information, he will move his radar screen’s cursor over your radar target and click. When he clicks on the target, the flashing “H” turns to an “O.” This signals the controller of the sector you are leaving that the new controller has accepted the handoff of your aircraft. At this point, you are told to switch to the radio frequency of the new controller.

Here is why this is important. Even if you cannot get in a word on the radio to your new controller because the radio frequency is too busy, the new controller knows you are there. As soon as he accepts the radar handoff, he takes responsibility for keeping you safe from traffic conflicts.

If you have not been able to contact him and he absolutely needs to get in touch with you, he will stop conversation with other aircraft and call you: “Cessna 9130 Delta, are you on the frequency?”

You: “Cessna 9130 Delta, affirmative. Five thousand, VFR.”

ATC: “Cessna 30 Delta, traffic 12 o’clock and one zero miles, opposite direction, slow moving, type and altitude unknown. Possibly a flock of birds.”

You: “Cessna 30 Delta, negative contact.”

Audio Edition #38 for 13 March 2014

You are practicing takeoffs and landings at a tower-controlled airport. While on downwind, you make this radio transmission:

“Cessna 30 Delta requests the option.” The tower controller replies, “Cessna 30 Delta, unable stop-and-go. Other options are approved.”

Here’s your question: Given tower’s response, are you permitted to make a full stop landing from your next approach?


If you found this question easy, good for you! You cracked open the playbook. The answer was waiting for you inside J.O. 7110.65. Here is the direct quote from Chapter 3, Section 8, Sequencing and Spacing Application, Phraseology:

1. The “Cleared for the Option” procedure will permit an instructor pilot/flight examiner/pilot the option to make a touch-and-go, low approach, missed approach, stop-and-go, or full stop landing. This procedure will only be used at those locations with an operational control tower and will be subject to ATC approval.

When a controller says, “Unable stop-and-go, other options are approved,” you can clearly see in the note above that one of the options is a full stop landing. In the situation I presented to you, you are absolutely permitted to make a full stop landing, if that is your choice.

Understanding air traffic control can be as simple as knowing what is in the ATC playbook.

Audio Edition #37 for 25 February 2014

Answers to Think Like a Tower Controller Quiz:

Disclaimer: The answers to this quiz are based on air traffic right-of-way rules and on my opinion only. They are not necessarily approved solutions taught to air traffic controllers in training.
Question 1. There is a Beech Baron just beginning the takeoff roll on Runway 29.
There is a Cessna 182 rolling out on a 1 mile final for Runway 26.
A Piper Warrior has been doing an engine runup at the hold short line for Runway 26.
You hear this on the radio: “Town and Country Tower, Piper 2826 Hotel is ready at Runway 26.”
What do you transmit to the Piper?

A. Piper 2826 Hotel, Town and Country Tower, Runway 26 cleared for takeoff. //Don’t say this unless you want to set up a collision between the Baron on takeoff roll and the Piper Warrior.

B. Piper 2826 Hotel, Town and Country Tower, Runway 26 line up and wait. //No. Same problem describe in A. except this time the landing Cessna will swap paint with the Piper Warrior.

C. Piper 2826 Hotel, Town and Country Tower, Runway 26 hold short. //Yes. The Baron takes off. The Cessna lands next. The Piper safely waits behind the hold short line.

D. Piper 2826 Hotel, Town and Country Tower, standby. //Saying standby is never the correct response to an aircraft holding short of a runway. ATC regulations require tower controllers to reiterate “hold short” to any aircraft behind a hold short line if there is no intention to let that airplane move beyond the hold short line.

Question 2. The Cessna 182 mentioned in the first question has just completed a touch-and-go on Runway 26.
As the Cessna passes the intersection of Runways 26 and 29, you clear a King Air for takeoff on Runway 29 with an instruction to fly runway heading. You hear this from the Cessna 182: “Cessna 609 Alpha Zulu request right traffic.” Your reply to the Cessna is:

A. Cessna 609 Alpha Zulu, right traffic approved. //No. As the King Air lifts off of Runway 29, the airplane will be to the right of the Cessna 182 lifting off of Runway 26. Approving right traffic for the Cessna sends that aircraft directly towards the King Air.

B. Cessna 609 Alpha Zulu, maintain runway heading and depart the pattern to the west. // Nope. The Cessna wants to remain in the pattern for more touch-and-goes. Don’t tell him to depart the pattern.

C. Cessna 609 Alpha Zulu, make left traffic. //Yes. Turn the Cessna away from the King Air climbing out off of the Cessna’s right side.

D. Cessna 609 Alpha Zulu, make a left 360. //I hope you didn’t pick this one. Telling an airplane that is just lifting off of a runway to make a 360-degree turn is not safe.

Question 3. A Super Cub holding short of Runway 26 says: “Super Cub 334 Foxtrot Charlie ready at Runway 26. We’d like to remain in the pattern for touch-and-goes.” Before you can respond, an aircraft checks in with this radio call: “Town and Country Tower, Diamond 498 Echo India is 6 miles north of the airport inbound for touch-and-goes.” Since the Super Cub called you first, what do you say to the Super Cub holding short of Runway 26?

A. Super Cub 334 Foxtrot Charlie, Town and Country Tower, hold short of the runway for landing traffic. //No. The mission of ATC is to provide for the safe and expeditious flow of air traffic. Telling the Super Cub to hold short because another airplane is 6 miles north of the airport is not expeditious air traffic control.

B. Super Cub 334 Foxtrot Charlie, Town and Country Tower, make left traffic, Runway 26, cleared for takeoff. //Yes, with a good reason. You have an airplane inbound from the north. Telling the Super Cub to make left traffic sends the Super Cub to the south, away from the inbound traffic. You could send the Super Cub around the pattern to the north, but you may need to deconflict the two airplanes if they approach each other on the downwind leg.

C. Super Cub 334 Foxtrot Charlie, Town and Country Tower, make right traffic, Runway 26, cleared for takeoff. //Probably not, with a good reason. The inbound aircraft is approaching from the north. Sending the Super Cub around the pattern to the north may cause a conflict with the inbound aircraft. Yes, there are plenty of ways to keep the 2 airplanes separated if a conflict develops, but the easiest solution is to not set up a conflict in the first place.

D. Super Cub 334 Foxtrot Charlie, Town and Country Tower, cross Runway 26, continue taxiing for Runway 29. //No. Enough said.

Question 4. The Super Cub mentioned in the previous question is on downwind for Runway 26 abeam the midpoint of the runway. You hear, “Airliner 723, 7-mile straight-in for Runway 29.” As you clear the Boeing 737 to land, you can see that the timing of the pattern for the Super Cub will put him on short final approach for Runway 26 about the same time the airliner, a Boeing 737, is landing on Runway 29. What do you say to the Super Cub to prevent a conflict with the airliner at the intersection of the 2 runways? Note: This airport does not have a Land and Hold Short program (LAHSO).

A. Super Cub 4 Foxtrot Charlie, depart the pattern to the south and enter the downwind for Runway 29. //No. While this may work, there are too many ways for the pilot of the Super Cub to interpret what you want. Some of those ways may cause a conflict between the Super Cub and the airliner.

B. Super Cub 4 Foxtrot Charlie, I need you to s-turn for spacing. //No. S-turns are a spacing maneuver reserved for final approach.

C. Super Cub 4 Foxtrot Charlie, turn base now. Runway 26, cleared touch-and-go. //No. The Super Cub is on downwind at midfield. Telling him to turn base now will no give him room to line up on a safe final approach leg.

D. Super Cub 4 Foxtrot Charlie, continue on the downwind, I’ll call your base. //Yes. This delays the Super Cub’s turn towards the runway for landing while keeping the aircraft safely within the confines of the airport traffic pattern. Some may argue, why not tell the airliner to s-turn for spacing. This has a low probability of working. The difference in ground speed between the Boeing 737 and the Super Cub are so radically different, a few S-turns by the airliner will likely not create enough lag to place it behind the Super Cub, even if you tell the Super Cub to make a short approach.

Question 5. A few minutes ago a Cessna 172 reported north of the airport inbound for landing. You told the Cessna 172: “Cessna 275 Mike Lima, report a right base leg for Runway 26.” You have a Piper Tomahawk on a left downwind for Runway 26. As the Tomahawk approaches left base for Runway 26, you hear “Cessna 275 Mike Lima, right base, Runway 26.” It appears the flight paths of the Cessna and the Piper will meet on final approach unless you create some separation between the 2 aircraft. You transmit:

A. Tomahawk 6621 Oscar, make a right 360. Traffic is a Cessna 172 on a right base for Runway 26. //No. While this will work as a spacing maneuver, the Tomahawk is already established in the pattern and has the right-of-way over the Cessna entering the pattern. All else being equal, the Tomahawk should not have to yield to the Cessna.

B. Tomahawk 6621 Oscar, you’re number 2. Continue on the downwind, I’ll call your base. //No. Same reasoning used to say why Answer A was incorrect.

C. Cessna 275 Mike Lima, make a left 360. Traffic is a Piper Tomahawk turning base for Runway 26. //Yes. The Tomahawk was already established in the pattern and should be considered number 1 for the runway if there is no other compelling reason to put the Cessna ahead of the Tomahawk. Having the Cessna yield via a left 360 is safe and fair.

D. Cessna 275 Mike Lima, number 2 following a Piper Tomahawk on a left base. Cleared to land, Runway 26. //No. This clearance puts the pilot of the Cessna in the terrible situation of having to create his own spacing when already established in a virtual tie with the Tomahawk.

Question 6. You have a Piper Malibu on a 2-mile final for Runway 29. You also have a Cessna 152 turning from base leg onto a 3/4-mile final approach for Runway 29. You are concerned that the faster Malibu is going to close the gap with the slower Cessna 152. What do you say to prevent the spacing between the 2 aircraft from becoming too close?

A. Cessna 225 Papa Juliett, keep your speed up as much as practical. Runway 29 cleared to land. //No. It’s far too late to tell the Cessna on short final to speed up. Doing so will only cause the Cessna to try and land from an unstable, fast approach.

B. Malibu 135 Golf Alpha, make a right 360 for spacing. //No, with a good reason. At 2 miles from the runway on a normal 3-degree glidepath, the Malibu is probably 600 feet above airport elevation, fully configured for landing. Asking the Malibu pilot to make a level 360-degree turn at this altitude is not advisable and the Malibu pilot would probably reject the clearance anyways for safety’s sake. IFR purists might say pilots make circling approaches at this altitude all the time, but there are no circling approaches that require a pilot to make a level, continuous 360-degree turn.

C. Malibu 135 Golf Alpha, you are 40 knots faster than the Cessna ahead. S-turns for spacing are approved. //Yes. This is the best option. If S-turns do not solve the spacing problem, you can always direct the Malibu to go around.

D. Cessna 225 Papa Juliett, go around for spacing. //No. This is the wrong aircraft to send around. He is lower in the pattern and number 1 for the runway. He has the right-of-way.

Question 7. You have a Mooney M20 on takeoff roll on Runway 26. You also have a Beech Bonanza rolling out on a 1-mile final for Runway 26. You hear, “Mooney 970 Whiskey Yankee, aborting for a blown tire. I’ll be stopping on the runway.” After acknowledging the Mooney, what do you say to the Bonanza?

A. Bonanza 886 Delta Victor, turn a right base for Runway 29. Runway 29 cleared to land. //No. At 1 mile, the Bonanza is probably only 300 feet above the ground. Asking the pilot to maneuver and regroup to land on another runway from this altitude is unsafe.

B. Bonanza 886 Delta Victor, make a right 360. Expect landing clearance after your 360. //No. Do I really need to explain why this is not the correct answer? Don’t answer that!

C. Bonanza 886 Delta Victor, cancel your landing clearance. Go around. //Yes. There is no way another airplane is going to land on Runway 26 until the Mooney is out of the way and the runway has been swept clear of blown tire debris.

D. Bonanza 886 Delta Victor, it appears the Mooney will be stopping near the end of the runway. Are you able to land Runway 26 and hold short of the intersection with Runway 29? //No, without any further explanation . . . and you know why.

How did you do? Did you have fun with this? I sure hope so. If these questions left you with more questions than answers, please write to me at and we’ll hash it out. Oh, and by the way, my book Radio Mastery for VFR Pilots Workbook at has “Think Like a Controller” questions at the end of every section. Check it out.

Audio Edition #36 for 14 January 2014
You have just accidentally landed at the wrong airport and the airport where you landed is a controlled airport. In a telephone conversation after the incident, the tower supervisor tells you he will be filing a report with the FAA. You decide to file your own report on the incident using NASA’s Aviation Safety and Reporting System.

Here’s your question: How may your report influence the FAA’s decision to impose a civil penalty or a suspension of your pilot license as result of this incident?


Unless you deliberately and willfully violate a federal aviation regulation, or you have a history of violating federal regulations, filing a report with NASA’s ASRS should prevent the FAA from pursuing a civil penalty or suspending your pilot license. This is known as immunity. You must submit your report within 10 day of the incident for the FAA to take it into consideration.

Here is the direct quote from the ASRS website (Advisory Circular 00-46E;

Item C. Enforcement Restrictions. The FAA considers the filing of a report with NASA concerning an incident or occurrence involving a violation of 49 U.S.C. subtitle VII or the 14 CFR to be indicative of a constructive attitude. Such an attitude will tend to prevent future violations. Accordingly, although a finding of violation may be made, neither a civil penalty nor certificate suspension will be imposed if:

1. The violation was inadvertent and not deliberate;

2. The violation did not involve a criminal offense, accident, or action under 49 U.S.C. § 44709, which discloses a lack of qualification or competency, which is wholly excluded from this policy;

3. The person has not been found in any prior FAA enforcement action to have committed a violation of 49 U.S.C. subtitle VII, or any regulation promulgated there for a period of 5 years prior to the date of occurrence; and

4. The person proves that, within 10 days after the violation, or date when the person became aware or should have been aware of the violation, he or she completed and delivered or mailed a written report of the incident or occurrence to NASA.

(Jeff’s Note: Makes sure you keep a printed copy of your submitted report. The date/time stamp on the report, added by ASRS when the report is entered into the system, will prove you submitted a report within 10 days of the incident.)

Audio Edition #35 for 5 January 2014

You are approaching a tower-controlled airport. You are 10 miles south of the airport. The airport is using Runway 27 for takeoffs and landings. The tower controller tells you to make straight-in for Runway 27 and report 3 miles. Here’s your question:

Given your position 10 miles south of the airport, which of the following does the tower controller expect you to do?

A. Enter the downwind followed by a base leg that leads you to a 3-mile final approach, or,
B. Fly directly to a base leg entry so as to end up on a 3-mile final approach, or,
C. Turn to the northeast now and then maneuver to join a 3-mile final approach, or
D. Fly directly towards the threshold of Runway 27 and report 3 miles out.


The correct answer is C.


From the Pilot/Controller Glossary of the AIM:

“Entry into the traffic pattern by interception of the extended runway centerline (final approach course) without executing any other portion of the traffic pattern.”

Take Tower’s words: “straight-in” and mentally substitute the words, “final approach” and you will never be confused again.

Your Question of the Week:

Audio Edition #34 for 20 November 2013

Your Question of the Week:

You are approaching your destination airport within very busy Class C airspace. Approach control is giving you radar vectors for sequencing to a straight-in final approach at your destination. You have already taken several heading changes from approach and you are still not headed directly for the airport. Suddenly, your number 2 communication radio, which is tuned to the emergency frequency 121.5 produces this transmission, “Pan, pan, pan. Any aircraft, this is Piper 927CX on Guard. I’m lost and I need assistance.” Here’s your question.

Knowing that you are in a very busy section of airspace and taking extensive vectoring from ATC, what should you do about the radio transmission on the emergency frequency?


It would be presumptuous to say there is one definitively correct answer to this question. Instead I’ll present a couple of choices and let you decide which one feels like the better solution.

The first choice would be to turn down the volume of the number 2 comm radio so it does not distract you as you work your way around a very busy section of airspace. Currently, your hands are full flying, navigating and communicating with ATC. Of your two communication radios, in this situation, the number 1 radio has the highest priority. Trying to help the pilot on the emergency frequency might distract you from critical transmissions on the number 1 radio.

Consider this. It is extremely likely that another pilot operating in less busy circumstances will answer the lost pilot’s radio call.

For example, airline pilots also monitor the emergency frequency. At any given moment dozens of airliners are flying straight and level, on autopilot, on high altitude jet airways where there is little else to do except monitor the radio. Any airline pilot droning at high altitude will jump at the chance to help a pilot in distress. In short, your first choice is to let someone else who is less busy work with the pilot in distress.

Your second choice addresses the moral issue of ignoring a pilot in need. Perhaps you think it would be a dereliction of duty to ignore the lost pilot. I would still argue that your circumstances do not make it safe for you to get too wrapped up in communicating to the pilot in distress while operating in a busy traffic pattern. If you feel you absolutely must get involved, then your best course of action would be to report the problem to ATC and let them handle it.

Likely, when you inform the approach controller of the other pilot’s predicament, the approach controller will be too busy to communicate directly with the pilot in distress. He will quickly pass the information along to his supervisor. The supervisor will then work through his communication channels to get the pilot some help.

Keeping a sterile cockpit while operating in busy airspace is a critical safety issue. Don’t allow yourself to become distracted from flying, navigating and communicating when low to the ground and surrounded by a lot of air traffic. Do what you need to do to resolve a high priority issue, but never forget your highest priorities, which are aviate first, navigate second, and then communicate. If you are in a situation that demands careful monitoring of and responding to ATC, eliminate anything extraneous that might prevent you from meeting that obligation.

Questions about these choices? Leave a comment below or write to me at

Audio Edition #33 for 6 October 2013

Your Question of the Week:

You have just completed your engine run-up near the runway at an uncontrolled airport. You are holding short of the only runway for Hometown Airport. This airport has a published left traffic pattern for Runway Two and you are facing the left downwind as you prepare to enter the runway. Just as you are about to advance the throttle of your aircraft to take the runway you hear someone key his microphone and say on Unicom, “Hometown traffic, Aerostar 304 Uniform Mike, base leg, Runway Two, Hometown.” You scan the base leg and see nothing. You check the final approach path and see nothing. You check the downwind leg and see nothing. Here’s your question. Remembering there is only one runway at this airport, what would you do at this point?


Don’t move from your spot holding short of the runway for at least 2 minutes after you hear the Aerostar’s position report.


When the Aeronautical Information Manual says you should not solicit airport traffic information from other pilots using the phrase “Any aircraft in the area, please advise,” the agency is saying you should not rely on other pilots to give you information about airport operations. There is a reason you should take that warning to heart. While all pilots are required to make timely and accurate position reports in an uncontrolled pattern, not all pilots make timely and accurate position reports.

In this case, when the pilot of the Aerostar announced his position on base leg for Runway Two, he was not on the published base leg for the runway. If he is not on base leg, where exactly is he? You have visually cleared base leg, final, and the downwind, and he is not there. He is not where he thinks he is.

He could be on base leg for landing in the opposite direction, in this case, Runway 20, instead of Runway 2. You should be able to see him if that is the case. He could be so disoriented that he has wound up on base leg for a runway at another airport. Don’t laugh. It happens all of the time.

Here is what I would do in this situation. After making sure the parking brake was set on my aircraft, I’d turn around as far as possible in my seat. I would try to visually clear the right base leg for the runway even though this airport uses left traffic for Runway 2.

Even if, despite your best efforts, you cannot spot the Aerostar, that does not guarantee he isn’t about to land on your runway. He might be approaching the runway from your blind spot. I’d still wait 2 or 3 minutes until I entered the runway for departure. That would give the pilot of the Aerostar enough time to complete his approach and landing, (or go-around,) at whatever runway he thinks he is landing on. Give him ample time to get out of your way before you take the runway.

A last word on the subject: While position reports from pilots operating in an uncontrolled airport pattern should help you build situational awareness, visually clearing for traffic is always mandatory. Visual clearing works in concert with auditory clearing to produce the most reliable data about airport traffic; and remember, some pilots may be operating in your traffic pattern without an onboard radio. Clear like your life depends on it.

Update to this answer: A reader suggested this alternative. Consider contacting the pilot of the Aerostar and say something to the effect of, “Aerostar 304 Uniform Mike, this is [your callsign]. I’m holding short of Runway Two at Hometown Airport and I don’t have you in sight. Verify your runway and airport.” Your radio call to the other pilot might alert him he is attempting to land on the wrong runway or the wrong airport.

I like this suggestion because the transmission you make to the other pilot is an advisory, not a directive. The whole point of making radio transmissions on Unicom is to update other pilots with information about your flight. In this case, you make a position report, “I’m holding short of Runway 2 at Hometown,” along with an advisory, “I don’t have you in sight.”

Audio Edition #32 for 12 September 2013

Your Question of the Week:

You are flying VFR cross-country while talking to ATC for flight following. Earlier, you had filed a VFR flight plan. You listed your aircraft with a suffix of slant Alpha, meaning your aircraft has a transponder with Mode C and you also have DME in your navigation suite. About halfway to your destination, you notice the DME display on your instrument panel goes blank. You try tuning in different VORTACs in your area, and although you receive radial information off each VORTAC the DME display remains blank. You are absolutely certain your DME system has gone inoperative. Here’s your question: Given your filed flight plan and the fact that you are flying VFR, are you required to notify ATC that your DME has become inoperative?


No, you are not required to notify ATC that your DME has become inoperative when flying VFR.

Explanation: VFR flight requires a very minimal list of equipment as specified in CFR 91.205 “Powered civil aircraft with standard category U.S. airworthiness certificates: Instrument and equipment requirements.” DME is not one of those requirements. Additionally, when using Basic Radar Service for VFR aircraft in any class of airspace, ATC will not give you instructions based on DME ATC may give you information based on distance: “You are 6 miles from the airport. Contact Tower now on 118.5,” but this has nothing to do with DME.

Even if you filed a VFR flight plan with a suffix indicating your aircraft is equipped with DME, the information on that flight plan is only used by Flight Service (FSS) to keep track of your flight. It is also used by FSS if your flight requires search and rescue.

The information on your VFR flight plan does not reach the desk of any air traffic controller, under normal circumstances. This is why, when initially contacting ATC for VFR flight following, the controller has no prior knowledge of your existence. You have to give the controller a complete description of your position, aircraft type, and destination to initiate flight following.

According to CFR 91.205, paragraph (e), the only time a pilot has to report DME failure to ATC is when he or she is flying IFR above Flight Level 240.

Audio Edition #31 for 30 July 2013

Question of the Week

You are departing VFR from a Class Charlie airport. Before you taxied out to the active runway, the clearance delivery controller in the airport tower gave you a discrete transponder code to squawk and a frequency to contact departure control.

You have lifted off of the runway and you are climbing away from the airport. The last thing the tower controller said to you was: “Cleared for takeoff.” You are now 7 miles from the airport, well beyond the boundary of the tower’s airspace, and you have not heard anything further from the tower controller. What, if anything, should you say on the radio?


“Chestnut 372 Victor Charlie would like to switch to Departure,” or, “Would you like Chestnut 372 Victor Charlie to change to Departure’s frequency?”

Explanation: Sometimes busy controllers will overlook or forget about aircraft that are proceeding under their own navigation and do not require careful monitoring. If you find yourself in a position where you feel as though ATC has forgotten about you, speak up and ask for direction. If you know exactly what you should be doing next, such as switching to Departure Control’s frequency, a polite statement of your intentions will advise the controller and let you proceed as stated.

Normally, when departing from an airport within Class Charlie airspace, the tower controller will tell you to switch to the departure controller’s frequency shortly after you take off. Occasionally, the tower controller will keep you on his frequency to give you a turn once you are airborne. If this is the case, the controller will usually alert you by saying, “I’ll have a turn for you in the air. Cleared for takeoff.” In either case, if you have not been told to switch to Departure Control shortly after takeoff, ask the tower to make the switch.

Audio Edition #30 for 09 July 2013

Question of the Week

You are on a 7-mile final approach to Runway 22 at a tower-controlled airport. The airport’s ATIS broadcast said Land and Hold Short Operations (LAHSO) are in effect for Runway 22. You are flying a large aircraft that requires a minimum runway length of 4,700 feet for landing. Runway 22 is longer than 4,700 feet. The tower controller says to you, “November 338 Golf Lima, Runway 22, cleared to land. Hold short of Taxiway Charlie.”

You knew there was a LAHSO program published for this runway because you read about it in your preflight planning session. You also learned in your preflight study that the available landing distance on Runway 22 from the threshold to the intersection of Taxiway Charlie is 4,400 feet.

Here’s your question. What is the radio transmission you would make in reply to Tower’s clearance?


“November 338 Golf Lima, Runway 22, cleared to land. Unable land and hold short of Taxiway Charlie.”

Explanation: In this case, the LAHSO clearance would require you to stop your aircraft in 4,400 feet which is less than the minimum runway length of 4,700 feet required for your aircraft. As an aside, published minimum runway lengths for some aircraft include a safety margin of additional stopping distance. Your aircraft may actually be able to stop in less than 4,700 feet but for safety’s sake, always follow the directions in your aircraft’s operating manual.

If you are unable to comply with a land and hold short clearance from Tower, you should tell the controller immediately and obtain an amended clearance. You do not have to wait for Tower to give you a LAHSO clearance before refusing that clearance. The AIM encourages you to tell the controller you will be unable LAHSO on initial contact before receiving your landing clearance.

Audio Edition #29 for 23 June 2013

Question of the Week

You are flying VFR in a Terminal Radar Service Area. You are inbound to the primary airport inside the TRSA and you are taking radar vectors from air traffic control. The approach controller advises you that you are seven miles in trail of another aircraft, who is also inbound to the airport. ATC calls that airplane you are following and says, “Descend and maintain 4,000.” Here’s your question: Given the radio transmission you just heard from ATC, is the airplane you are following operating VFR, operating IFR, or is it impossible to tell.


It is impossible to tell whether the aircraft you are following inside of the TRSA is operating under VFR or under IFR.

Explanation: Normally, per Part 91, VFR aircraft cruise at hemispheric altitudes plus 500 feet. When flying VFR on an easterly heading, pilots should plan to cruise an odd altitude, plus 500. For example, on a heading of 090-degrees, a VFR aircraft could cruise at 5,500 feet MSL. When flying westerly headings a VFR pilot selects an even cruising altitude plus 500 feet, such as 6,500 feet MSL. IFR aircraft normally fly at whole altitudes. When cruising east for example, an IFR pilot may choose to fly at 7,000; when flying west that pilot may choose 8,000.

Given these rules, you would think the airplane you are following is on an IFR flight plan because he was assigned a whole altitude. Had the aircraft been flying VFR, you would think the controller would have told the pilot to descend and maintain either 3,500 or 4,500.

Inside of a TRSA, an air traffic controller may assign whole altitudes—2,000, 3,000, 4,000, etc. to pilots flying IFR and pilots flying VFR. Whole altitudes will be assigned as necessary to maintain the minimum vertical separation between aircraft whose flight paths cross. Further, altitudes may be assigned to aircraft that are not appropriate for the aircraft’s direction of flight.

The reference for this is not in the Aeronautical Information Manual. You would need to dig into the Air Traffic Controller Manual J.O 7110.65, which is available online as a free .pdf download. Here’s the paragraph and sub-section from the ATC Manual:

“7-7-5 c. When necessary to assign an altitude for separation purposes to VFR aircraft contrary to 14 CFR Section 91.159, advise the aircraft to resume altitudes appropriate for the direction of flight when the altitude assignment is no longer needed for separation or when leaving the TRSA.”

Audio Edition #28 for 29 May 2013

Question of the Week

You are flying in a tower-controlled airport pattern. You have just rolled out on a 2-mile final approach to Runway 26. Just as you do this, you hear Tower say to another airplane, “Cessna 9130 Delta, Runway 26, line up and wait.” As you look ahead to the runway, you see a Cessna 172 roll out onto the runway, turn the corner, point down the length of the runway and stop.

You are now on about a mile and quarter final when you hear Tower clear that airplane for takeoff. That airplane begins its takeoff roll. You are on a three-quarter mile final when you hear the pilot of that other airplane say, “Cessna 9130 Delta is aborting. I’ll be stopping on the runway.”

Here’s your questions. First, what do you expect Tower to say to you after acknowledging that other pilot? Second, what do you say in reply; and then what do you do?


1. After acknowledging the radio call from the pilot making the aborted takeoff, Tower will say your call sign and then either, “Cancel your landing clearance,” or, “Go around.” Tower will then add the reason for the clearance, such as, “Traffic will be stopping on the runway.” Tower may or may not instruct you to offset to one side of the runway to avoid overflying the aircraft or emergency vehicles on the runway.

2. Your reply in this situation should be, your call sign, plus “Going around.” If Tower gives you additional instructions, such as, “Fly runway heading,” or, “Do not overfly the runway,” you should repeat those instructions as well.”

3. First, maintain aircraft control. Initiate your go-around. When you have your airplane safely climbing away from the ground and you have begun to execute any special instructions issued by Tower, only then make your reply to Tower on the radio. Never sacrifice aircraft control, or delay your go-around maneuver in order to make a radio call.

Audio Edition #27 for 30 April 2013

Question of the Week

You are flying across southern Mississippi, talking to Houston Center. You are using Houston Center for VFR flight following. You notice the frequency has been dead silent for the last five minutes, so you decide to check in with Houston to make sure you are still in radio contact. You say, “Cessna 9130Delta, radio check.” There is no answer, so you try again, this time reducing the radio’s frequency squelch until you hear static: “Cessna 9130 Delta, radio check.” Again, no reply from Houston.

You can see your radio is powered, the transmit light illuminates when you press the transmit button, and you can hear the sidetone of your own voice in your headset when you transmit. The radio and your headset connection is good. You have apparently flown out of radio range of the controller you had been talking to. What you need now is a new radio frequency for ATC that works for your location.

You remember that I told you you can look up the frequency for enroute centers on a low altitude enroute chart, but the only chart you have in the cockpit is a sectional chart. The sectional does not show frequencies for enroute centers. Here’s your question: What can you do to determine a good frequency for Houston Center for your location?

There are a few creative solutions to this problem, but the best, least effort answer is to contact the nearest flight service station (FSS). When you get in touch with a flight service specialist on the radio, you may ask him or her for the radio frequency of an enroute center that serves the area where you are currently flying.

There are two important elements to this solution. First, you have to find the frequency and identity of an FSS in your area. If you have a sectional chart, you can find an FSS name and frequency right on the chart. Look for the label for any VORTAC, VOR or a Remote Communication Outlet (RCO) nearest your location. Above the label for any of these facilities, you will see one or more frequencies in bold blue type. Those are frequencies you may use to transmit to FSS. The name of the FSS will be in brackets below the label.

In the example I have for you below, the label for the Gulfport VORTAC shows Greenwood Radio (in brackets) serves this area. Greenwood Radio receives (R) transmissions on 122.1. You may listen to Greenwood Radio by tuning the Gulfport VORTAC in your navigation radio and listening on the VORTAC’s frequency of 109.0.

Greenwood Radio

The second element to the solution is to know your approximate location before you contact FSS. The specialist has a long list of enroute center frequencies available for your use. The FSS specialist will choose a frequency from that list based upon your location. You can tell the specialist your location by radial and DME from a VORTAC, or you may tell him your approximate location relative to a town, airport, or other prominent spot on your chart.

Audio Edition #26 for 8 April 2013

Question of the Week


Radio Exchange Number 1:

ATC: “Cessna 9130 Delta, descend and maintain 3,000.”
Pilot: “Cessna 9130 Delta, on down to 3.” Incorrect

Why: AIM 4−2−9. Altitudes and Flight Levels
“a. Up to but not including 18,000 feet MSL, state the separate digits of the thousands plus the hundreds if appropriate.
1. 12,000 . . . . . one two thousand”

Radio Exchange Number 2:

ATC: “Cessna 9130 Delta, contact Hoover Tower, 119.0.”
Pilot: “Nineteen nothing. Cessna 9130 Delta.” Incorrect

Why: AIM 4−2−8. Figures
“d. All other numbers must be transmitted by pronouncing each digit.
10 ……….. one zero
e. When a radio frequency contains a decimal point, the decimal point is spoken as “POINT.”

Radio Exchange Number 3:

ATC: “Cessna 9130 Delta, turn right heading 040.”
Pilot: “Cessna 30 Delta, right heading 040.” Incorrect

Why: AIM 4-2-4 Aircraft Call Signs.
2. “ATC specialists may initiate abbreviated call signs of other aircraft by using the prefix and the last three digits/letters of the aircraft identification after communications are established. The pilot may use the abbreviated call sign in subsequent contacts with the ATC specialist.” In this case, ATC did not initiate the use of an abbreviated call sign. The pilot incorrectly used his an abbreviated call sign when ATC had not done so first.

Radio Exchange Number 4:

ATC: “Cessna 30 Delta, traffic 12 o’clock and 8 miles, opposite direction, a BE-58 at 7,000.”
Pilot: “Cessna 30 Delta is looking for the traffic.” Incorrect

Why: AIM Pilot/Controller Glossary.
“NEGATIVE CONTACT− Used by pilots to inform ATC that:
a. Previously issued traffic is not in sight.”

Radio Exchange Number 5:

ATC: “Cessna 30 Delta, fly runway heading, Runway 26, cleared for takeoff.”
Pilot: “Cessna 30 Delta, fly runway heading and we’re rolling.” Incorrect

Why: AIM Pilot/Controller Glossary.
“CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF− ATC authorization for an aircraft to depart.”
Also, AIM Chapter 4 Section 2 Radio Communication Phraseology and Techniques.
“Jargon, chatter, and “CB” slang have no place in ATC communications.”

Radio Exchange Number 6:

ATC: “Cessna 9130 Delta, Runway 26, taxi via Alpha and Bravo. Hold short of Runway 3.”
Pilot: “Cessna 9130 Delta, Runway 26, hold short of Runway 3.” Correct

Why: AIM 4-3-18 Taxing.
9. When taxi instructions are received from the controller, pilots should always read back:
(a) The runway assignment.
(b) Any clearance to enter a specific runway.
(c) Any instruction to hold short of a specific runway or line up and wait.
Jeff’s note: There is no requirement to read back taxi routing unless you want the ground controller to check your understanding of the route. I always read back the entire route to ATC.

Radio Exchange Number 7:

Pilot: “Cleveland Center, Cessna 9130 Delta, out of 1,700 for 3,500, VFR.”
ATC: “Cessna 9130 Delta, Cleveland Center, roger. Climbing to 3,500. Maintain VFR.” Incorrect

Why: This one is kind of nit-picky. The pilot said, “out of 1,700 for 3,500, VFR.”
AIM 5-3-1 2.(a)
“When operating in a radar environment: On initial contact, the pilot should inform the controller of the aircraft’s assigned altitude preceded by the words “level,” or “climbing to,” or “descending to,” as appropriate; and the aircraft’s present vacating altitude, if applicable.”

Radio Exchange 8:

ATC: “Cessna 30 Delta, for further flight following, contact Albuquerque Center on 135.25. Good day.”
Pilot: “Cessna 30 Delta, switching. Good day.” Correct

Why: There is no requirement in the AIM to repeat frequencies. A pilot only has to indicate to ATC that he will execute the frequency change.

Radio Exchange 9:

ATC: “Cessna 30 Delta, left closed traffic approved.”
Pilot: “Cessna 30 Delta, left closed traffic.”
ATC: “Cessna 30 Delta, cleared touch and go.”
Pilot: “Cessna 30 Delta, cleared touch and go.”
Sound of landing and then taking off.
Pilot: “Cessna 30 Delta request left traffic.” Incorrect

Why: AIM Pilot/Controller Glossary.
“CLOSED TRAFFIC− Successive operations involving takeoffs and landings or low approaches where the aircraft does not exit the traffic pattern.”
Tower authorized the pilot to make “left closed traffic.” The pilot should not have requested left traffic after his touch-and-go because he was already authorized to continue making left traffic circuits.

Radio Exchange 10:

ATC: “Cessna 30 Delta, your traffic to follow is a PA-28, 1 o’clock and 4 miles, 1000 feet below you. Report that traffic or the airport in sight.”
Pilot: “Cessna 30 Delta has got both.” Incorrect

Why: AIM Pilot/Controller Glossary.
“TRAFFIC IN SIGHT− Used by pilots to inform a controller that previously issued traffic is in sight.”
There is no specific phrase in the Pilot/Controller Glossary to state an airport is in sight, but the phrase “traffic in sight” is also applied to airports. The correct response here, if the pilot sees both the traffic and the airport is: “Airport and traffic in sight.” Saying “We’ve got both” has the potential to be misunderstood.

Audio Edition #25 for 19 March 2013

Question of the Week


To provide traffic advisories and alerts, ATC has to know 3 important pieces of information about your aircraft.

First, ATC needs to know who you are. This is your call sign, of course. Second, an air traffic controller needs to know where you are. Your position includes your aircraft’s location over the ground and your aircraft’s altitude. Third, ATC needs to know where you are going so the controller can project ahead to see if your flight path might conflict with another airplane’s flight path.

Once your aircraft is in radar contact, your aircraft’s identity and location will be updated each time the controller’s radar sweeps across your aircraft and interrogates your transponder. Your flight path is also tracked by radar so ATC can project where you are headed. Mode C on your transponder updates your altitude. When you switch from one controller to the next, your transponder ensures the new controller receives all of the same information provided to the previous controller. Here comes your question: If radar updates your aircraft’s identity, location and flight path, and your transponder’s Mode C reports your altitude to ATC, why does ATC require you check in with each new controller by stating your current altitude?


(Answer revised as of 14:45 EDT, 3-19-13)

When already established in radar contact with ATC, you do not have to state your current position over the ground when checking in with a new controller. Your current position is continuously displayed and updated by ATC’s radar system as long as you remain in radar contact. You do have to check in with your current altitude even though the new controller has your current altitude displaying on his radar display. Here’s why.

Your transponder’s Mode C system always transmits altitude based on the standard altimeter setting of 29.92 (1013 Millibars in most countries outside of the U.S). Mode C has no idea what the local altimeter setting is where you are flying. Fortunately, when ATC’s radar system receives your transponder’s Mode C altitude readout, ATC’s system compensates for the difference between 29.92 and the current local altimeter setting before it displays your aircraft’s altitude on the controller’s radar screen. If you do not have the current local altimeter dialed into your cockpit’s altimeter, then you may be looking at one altitude readout in your cockpit and the controller may be looking at a different altitude readout for your aircraft on his radar display. Since ATC often separates aircraft using vertical spacing between aircraft, it is critical that both you and the controller agree on your current altitude.

If the altitude confirmation you give on the radio when you check in differs by more than 300 feet from what the controller sees on his radar display, the controller is going to first give you the local altimeter setting. If that does not fix the problem, he will note the error in Mode C reporting and may ask you to switch off Mode C on your transponder.

Audio Edition #24 for 26 February 2013

Question of the Week

You are flying in the traffic pattern at a tower-controlled airport. As you turn to crosswind the tower controller says to you, Grumman 6 Hotel Mike, “As you roll out of your turn, traffic will be a Cessna 172 at your 11 o’clock and 3 miles, entering the downwind. Report that traffic in sight.” As you roll wings level on the crosswind leg, you see a Cessna 172 at your 1:30 position at a distance that appears to be greater than 3 miles. The wind at your altitude is calm. Here’s the question: “What do you say to Tower?”


We pilots, being mission oriented, strive to succeed. When flying, we want to be safe, and get to where we need to go in the most efficient manner possible. Sometimes, this need to strive causes us to try and make a square peg fit into a round hole.

In this case, Tower has pointed out traffic, a Cessna at our 11 o’clock position and 3 miles. We see a Cessna ahead, but it is not where Tower says it should be. Since what defines the 11 o’clock position is somewhat subjective, and it’s fairly hard to judge exact distances from the cockpit by eyeball alone, it might be that airplane you are seeing at 1:30 is the traffic Tower is pointing out. Further, you don’t see anything at 11 o’clock. That traffic at 1:30 has got to be the one Tower is pointing out to you!

Then again, there is at least 30 degrees of heading difference between 11 o’clock and 1:30. The fact you don’t see anything at 11 o’clock does not mean there isn’t another airplane there. The airplane might be there but your eyeballs aren’t picking it up.

Let’s assume you tell Tower you have traffic in sight when in fact you are looking at another airplane not identified by Tower. Think about where you are in the traffic pattern. You are on crosswind, about 2 miles flying distance from the general area where other airplanes will enter the downwind leg from outside of the traffic pattern. If that other airplane is where Tower says it is, it’s about 2 miles from the downwind entry point. You and the unseen airplane might be on a collision course if you continue as planned.

You have only 2 safe responses in this situation, and they both involve admitting to yourself you are not sure what you see. Transmit, “Grumman 6 Hotel Mike, negative contact,” and Tower will give you a clearance to keep you and the Cessna separated. Or, transmit, “Grumman 6 Hotel Mike has a Cessna in sight at 1 to 2 o’clock and more than 3 miles.” Tower will answer either, “Grumman 6 Hotel Mike, that is your traffic,” or “Grumman 6 Hotel Mike, that is not your traffic,” and then Tower will tell the other aircraft: “Cessna 57 Oscar, make a right three-sixty for sequence behind a Grumman Tiger turning onto the downwind.”

Here’s the takeaway. No matter how much you would like to accommodate Tower and report traffic in sight, don’t try to make a square peg fit into a round hole. If the traffic reported to you is not exactly where it is supposed to be, tell ATC you don’t have the traffic in sight, or tell ATC what you do see to get further clarification. That is the safest, and in my mind, only course of action.

Audio Edition #23 for 9 February 2013

Question of the Week

You are flying VFR in Class C airspace, receiving radar sequencing and separation from Approach Control. The approach controller says to you: “Maintain 4,500. Traffic you’re following is a Beech King Air, one o’clock and five miles, northbound, 5,000.” You see the traffic and say to Approach Control, “Traffic in sight.” The approach controller tells you to follow that traffic to the airport. You then fall in line, five miles behind the King Air.

A minute later, you hear Approach Control say, “King Air 53 X-ray, descend and maintain 3,000.” The airplane you are following acknowledges that radio call and begins a descent.

Here’s the question: Since you were told to follow the King Air, should you also descend to 3,000 feet?


In Class C airspace, ATC may assign altitudes and headings to VFR pilots who participate in radar sequencing and separation. Even though you are flying VFR and could normally select any VFR altitude to fly at your own discretion, when participating in Class C radar service, you are obligated to maintain the altitude assigned to you by ATC.

When told to follow another aircraft that you have reported in sight, you should follow that aircraft’s path only and ignore clearances given to that aircraft. In this case, you were told to maintain 4,500 and follow the King Air to the airport. Follow the King Air’s path and maintain your assigned altitude.

Here’s a direct quote from the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) that applies to this situation. (The capitalization shown in this quote is reproduced from the AIM):

“When a flight is positioned behind a preceding aircraft and the pilot reports having that aircraft in sight, the pilot will be instructed to follow the preceding aircraft. THE ATC INSTRUCTION TO FOLLOW THE PRECEDING AIRCRAFT DOES NOT AUTHORIZE THE PILOT TO COMPLY WITH ANY ATC CLEARANCE OR INSTRUCTION ISSUED TO THE PRECEDING AIRCRAFT.” (4-1-18. Terminal Radar Services for VFR Aircraft.)

Audio Edition #22 for 17 January 2013

Question of the Week

You are taxiing out to Runway 8 Left at Pueblo Memorial Airport in Colorado. You are currently taxiing on Taxiway Alpha and Ground has told you to hold short of Runway 35, which crosses Alpha. Ground tells you to then monitor Tower’s frequency. Presumably, Tower is going to tell you when you may cross Runway 35 and continue to the end of 8 Left.

You make the switch to tower’s frequency, and just as you do, your aircraft’s engine starts running rough. You quickly switch your ignition from both to left magneto only and the engine still sounds rough. You try the right magneto and the engine starts to cough like it’s about to quit. As this happens, Tower comes on the radio and says, “Cessna 9130 Delta, Pueblo Tower, traffic is on a 2-mile final. Without delay, cross Runway 35. ” What do you do now, and what do you say in reply to Tower?


This question is more about airmanship than it is about radio work. In this situation, you have just been told by Tower to taxi across a runway with traffic only 2 miles out from landing on that runway. Not only that, the tower controller has told you to taxi without delay. He wants you to start moving right now because if you hesitate and then start crossing the runway, there might be a conflict between you and the landing aircraft.

Given the state of your aircraft’s engine, are you 100% certain that when you shove the throttle forward to taxi without delay, your engine is going to cooperate? If you do start to move across the runway and the engine quits, you are going to block the runway.

There is no absolutely correct answer, but the safe answer to this question would be: don’t move. Hold your position short of the runway and tell tower, “Cessna 9130D will need to hold short. I’m having engine trouble.” This solution removes any possibility of creating an “imminent situation” with the landing traffic. The worst thing that happens if you don’t move is you block the taxiway, but that is simply an inconvenience, not a danger to others.

There is one other consideration in this scenario. Why would Tower ask you to taxi across a runway with traffic on only a 2-mile final. You will find, as you fly to other airports, some tower operations are more efficient in their handling of ground traffic than others. Generally, the busier the airport, the more motivated the tower controllers are to keep traffic moving on the ground. Some tower controllers wouldn’t even consider taxiing aircraft across a runway with traffic on a 2-mile final. Other controllers in busy towers might aggressively move airplanes across runways to prevent a traffic jam on the ground.

Audio Edition #21 for 02 January 2013

Questions of the Week

You have just called for your taxi clearance at the Valdosta Regional Airport in Valdosta, Georgia. Your airplane needs a minimum runway length of 4,000 feet for takeoff.

The airport is using Runway 17 for arrivals and departures. Runway 17 is 8,002 feet long. Runway 22 is also available for departures. The airport’s NOTAMs say the last 2,000 feet of Runway 22 is closed for repaving with 3,598 available for takeoffs and landings.
(Take a look at the airport diagram.)


Valdosta Ground says to you, “Piper 948 Romeo Victor, Valdosta Ground. Runway 17, taxi via Hotel, then right on Alpha.” As you advance the throttle of your aircraft to begin taxiing you glance at the cockpit’s clock. The currently local time is 5:45 am. The sun will not be up for another hour and a half. There is no moon. Once you are under way, the only lights you see are the taxiway lights and the lighted airport signs showing taxiways and runways.

You reach the end of Taxiway A and perform an engine runup. Now you are ready to depart. You make the radio call, “Valdosta Tower, Piper 948 Romeo Victor is ready.” The tower controller replies, “Piper 948 Romeo Victor, fly runway heading, Runway 17, cleared for takeoff.”

Here’s the question, and it is a two-part question:

First, what specific heading does Valdosta Tower expect you to fly after takeoff?

Second, how can this heading prevent you from crashing during takeoff from the Valdosta Regional Airport on this pitch black morning? Hint: The answer has nothing to do with obstacles or traffic off the departure end of the runway.


You may find the specific heading Valdosta Tower expects you to fly after liftoff by looking at the airport diagram. Take a look at the heading for Runway 17. It’s printed near the runway threshold and has a little arrow next to it to help you associate the heading with the runway. In this case, the runway heading is 175.6 degrees magnetic.

If you fly a heading of 175 degrees, (or 176 degrees if you round up,) on your heading indicator, you will fly runway heading.

In August of 2006, Comair 5191 crashed off of the departure end of Runway 26 at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport. The reason the commuter jet crashed is because it ran out of runway during its takeoff roll before it could lift off of the ground. Runway 26 was only 3,400 feet long at the time of the crash.

The Tower controller had assigned Comair 5191 to depart on Runway 22, which had 7,003 feet of runway available for takeoff. In the pre-dawn darkness, both the pilot and co-pilot of the flight followed the airport’s taxiway lights to the wrong runway. The tower controller did not notice the mistake and cleared the pilots to take off.

As the pilots turned their jet onto the runway, they could have compared the heading shown on their instrument panel’s heading indicators to the runway heading for the assigned runway. When they saw the mismatched headings, it would have alerted them that they were about to depart on the wrong runway.

You can see from the airport diagram for the Valdosta Airport that Runways 17 and 22 begin from the same location at the end of Taxiway Alpha. It wouldn’t be hard to see how a pilot might rush the entry onto the runway and accidentally line up on Runway 22 instead of Runway 17. Even if you mis-read the airport signs, or taxi over the runway identifier painted on the pavement without noticing it, you can still avoid taking off on the wrong runway. If you perform a last-chance check by comparing your heading indication to the runway heading for your assigned runway, you will ensure you are about to roll down the correct runway. A last chance comparison of headings will keep you from departing on Runway 22, a runway that is 402 feet too short for your aircraft.

In the aftermath of the crash at Lexington, the technique of comparing runway heading to the heading indicator before takeoff has become a standard procedure for most airlines.

Audio Edition #20 for 19 December 2012

Question of the Week:

You are about to taxi out to the runway at a tower-controlled airport. Tower is using Runway 36 for departures. After you tell the ground controller you are ready to taxi, the ground controller says to you, “Cessna 9130Delta, Runway 36 at intersection Mike. Taxi via Alpha and Mike.” Here’s the question, and it’s a two-part question.
First, what does the ground controller mean when he says, “Runway 36 at intersection Mike.”

Second, let’s say there are three taxiways that connect to Runway 36. Taxiways Lima, Mike and November. If Taxiway November intersects the beginning of the runway, also known as the approach end, and Taxiways Mike and Lima connect to runway at points further down the runway. Without looking at any printed material how could you tell exactly how much runway would be available for takeoff if you started your takeoff roll beginning abeam Taxiway Mike or Taxiway Lima.


When a controller states the runway you will be using for departure, and adds the name of an intersection, that means you should plan on performing your takeoff roll, beginning from the point where you enter the runway at the named intersection. In the example given, your roll would begin on Runway 36 at the point where you enter the runway at Taxiway Mike. If the controller intends to have you use the full length of the runway, he will not include the name of an intersecting taxiway when saying the departure runway.

If you are told to expect a departure from a taxiway intersection that is not at the beginning of the runway, you may ask either the ground controller or the tower controller for the runway distance available for takeoff from the named intersection. For example, when told to expect a Taxiway Mike intersection departure, you can simply say, “Ground, say the distance available for a departure from Mike.” The ground controller will give you the runway distance available from Taxiway Mike down to the foot: “Runway remaining from Mike will be 7,355 feet.”

I’ll have complete coverage on how to handle runway intersection takeoffs, including all the radio phraseology, in the next edition of Radar Contact.

Audio Edition #19 for 1 December 2012

Question of the Week:

You are 10 miles outside of Class D airspace. You are planning to enter the airport traffic pattern for landing. You switch to the control tower’s frequency, but just as you are about to transmit, you hear the noise of an aircraft interior playing continuously through your aircraft’s speaker. It sounds like someone is holding down the transmit key of his microphone. You wait a minute, but the problem continues and there’s no way of knowing how long it is going to last. You really need to land at this airport, preferring not to divert elsewhere. What do you do?


You need to get in touch with Tower, but the tower frequency is jammed. The solution is to move to another ATC frequency that works and use the controller on the working frequency as a communication relay to the tower controller. The controller acting as a relay will most likely not offer instructions for landing at the airport. The relay controller will be able to contact the tower controller and get an alternate plan of communication established.

Who you contact to act as a relay depends on where you are flying. Most airport towers have two positions. The local controller mans the radio used to control traffic in the airport traffic pattern and traffic on the airport runways. Pilots refer to the local controller as “Tower.” The ground controller is the other primary position in the tower. Since the ground controller usually stands right next to the local controller in the tower, he makes a pretty good relay.

If Tower’s frequency is jammed, I suggest switching to Ground’s frequency and tell the controller there is a stuck mic on Tower’s frequency. Ask Ground what to do. All Ground needs to do to relay your problem to the local controller is turn towards the guy standing next to him and say, “Pilots are calling me with reports of a stuck mic on your frequency. What do you want me to tell them to do.”

The local controller will probably tell Ground to relay an alternate frequency pilots should use to contact Tower. Although they aren’t always published, most airport towers have a secondary frequency they can use when the primary goes down for any reason.

If you happen to be working in Class C airspace with an approach controller, when Tower’s frequency becomes jammed your best bet is to switch back to Approach Control. Ask the approach controller for the revised communication plan with Tower.

In all cases, I would recommend remaining clear of the airport traffic pattern until you are able to make contact with Tower on some frequency. Since many other pilots will likely be in the same situation, you can expect the airspace just outside of Class D to start filling up with airplanes awaiting contact with Tower. Clear for other traffic as you work your way through the problem. A jammed radio frequency is insignificant compared with a midair collision. Remember your priorities and you will be fine.

Audio Edition #18 for 12 November 2012

Question of the Week

You are flying in your aircraft on downwind at a tower-controlled airport. Another airplane checks in on the radio with tower and reports a 5-mile final for the runway on which you will be landing. Tower clears that aircraft to land, and then says to you, “Continue on the downwind. I’ll call your base.” Put on your air traffic controllers cap and try to think like ATC. Does Tower need you to fly a longer distance on downwind, or does Tower want you to spend more time on downwind? Obviously, the problem with this trick question is, if you spend more time on downwind, you will fly a longer distance. Thinking about what the Tower controller needs, should you maintain your normal downwind leg airspeed and fly a longer distance, or should you slow to your slowest practical airspeed and try to fly as little distance as possible as you extend your time on downwind?


As I said, when Tower tells you to “Continue on the downwind,” if you spend extra time on downwind you can’t help but fly extra distance. Take a closer look at the question and examine it from a controller’s perspective.

Tower has an aircraft on a 5-mile final. The controller wants to place your aircraft on final approach behind that aircraft. Does that mean he wants you to fly out to a point abeam that 5-mile final approach point before turning you to a base leg? No, it does not mean that at all.

Tower needs you to remain on downwind long enough for the airplane, presently on a 5-mile final, to fly inbound and pass you as you fly outbound on the downwind. The tower controller would prefer to have your aircraft and the other aircraft pass each other closer, rather than further from the approach end of the runway. Here’s why.

The edge of Class D airspace, the airspace controlled by Tower, normally extends out to only 5 nautical miles from the center of the airport. (There are exceptions.) That is not a lot of real estate to contain airplanes flying around at airspeeds in the 100 to 200-knot range. Allow me to be a bit ridiculous for a moment when I say, in most cases, when Tower tells you to continue on the downwind, he would be happiest if you could just hover in place on the downwind leg. While hovering is not possible, he certainly doesn’t want you to go screaming along the downwind, just under Mach 1, and stretch out your traffic pattern to the edge of Class D. If you were to fly out to the edge of the Class D, then the airplane following you may have to fly out there as well, stretching the traffic pattern even more. The next airplane to follow would have to fly out even further, and so on, until the traffic pattern has stretched out to the next county. Not good.

When Tower says, “Continue on the downwind, I’ll call your base,” he needs you to delay your turn to base. You can give him time to put another airplane in front of you. The best way to delay is to slow to a point where you can safely crawl on downwind without flying any more distance than necessary. Slow to your slowest practical airspeed, all else being equal. If, by listening to the radio you know there is another airplane following close behind you on downwind, advise Tower you will be slowing to your lowest maneuvering airspeed: “Cessna 9130 Delta will continue on the downwind, reducing to 75 knots.” That will alert the pilot behind you to also slow and maintain adequate separation from you.

Audio Edition #17 for 30 October 2012

Question of the Week

You are flying a VFR cross-country to visit a friend in a neighboring state. There are numerous puffy clouds at your cruising altitude of 5,500, but they are widely spaced. Maintaining VFR cloud clearances between these puffies only takes an occasional small heading change. You are currently under radar contact with Minneapolis Center for VFR flight following. The air traffic controller says to you, “Cessna 9130 Delta, VFR traffic 12 o’clock and 10 miles, opposite direction, Mode C indicates climbing through 4,000, unverified.”

You look straight ahead and slightly low and see nothing. You reply, “Cessna 9130 Delta, searching.” After a minute, the controller says, “Cessna 9130 Delta, previous traffic now 12 o’clock and 5 miles, opposite direction, climbing through 5,000 unverified.” You still don’t see anything so you say, “Cessna 9130 Delta, negative contact.” To which the controller says, “Cessna 9130 Delta, for traffic avoidance, suggest you turn right, heading zero four zero.” You look right and see a large puffy cloud at your 2 o’clock position and a half-mile. You figure the heading ATC just gave you will put your aircraft within 1,000 feet of that cloud. But you also consider you have traffic heading directly towards you at possibly your altitude. What do you do in response to ATC’s traffic avoidance heading?


First, consider the Part 91 rules for VFR cloud clearances when flying below 10,000 feet MSL. We use the meme “152”: 1000 feet above, 500 feet below, and 2000 feet horizontally from cloud. ATC’s traffic avoidance heading of 040 will put your aircraft within 1000 feet horizontally of a cloud, and that is not allowed.

When using VFR flight following service with ATC, you are still required to maintain at or above VFR weather minimums as spelled out in CFR 91.155. This is why ATC will always say, upon initial radio contact with you, “Maintain VFR.” It’s a reminder that nothing ATC says should compel you to violate VFR weather minimums. It’s also why a traffic avoidance heading given by ATC begins with the word “Suggest.”

When ATC says, “Suggest a heading of 040,” the controller is saying, “Here’s a heading that will avoid traffic, but that heading is not mandatory.” As pilot in command, conducting a VFR flight, you are free to follow another course of action to avoid traffic.

In this case, ATC’s heading of 040 may avoid traffic but it will also put your aircraft closer to cloud than allowed by regulation. You should either turn a different direction, or change altitude to avoid the traffic. Pick a course of action and then advise ATC. For example, “Cessna 9130 Delta is turning left 60 degrees to avoid traffic and clouds.” The controller will probably come back: “Cessna 9130 Delta, 60 left looks like a good heading.” You don’t need ATC’s concurrence. It’s nice to have, but with traffic bearing down on you, pick a safe course of action and then act.

Audio Edition #16 for 5 August 2012

Question of the Week

You are flying VFR over Central New Mexico, while talking to Albuquerque Center. You are currently in radar contact with Albuquerque, and you are flying along a Victor Airway just above the airway’s minimum obstruction clearance altitude. As you pass through a gap between the mountains, the controller at Albuquerque Center says, “Radar contact lost. Report over the Silver City VOR.”

Here’s the question, and it is a two-parter: First, has Albuquerque Center terminated radar service for your flight? Second, what would you say to the air traffic controller as you crossed over the Silver City VOR?


When you are established in ATC’s flight following program, and the controller loses radar contact with your aircraft, that does not mean radar service has been terminated. Here is how the Aeronautical Information Manual’s Pilot/Controller glossary defines the phrase:

RADAR CONTACT LOST- Used by ATC to inform a pilot that radar data used to determine the aircraft’s position is no longer being received, or is no longer reliable and radar service is no longer being provided. The loss may be attributed to several factors including the aircraft merging with weather or ground clutter, the aircraft operating below radar line of sight coverage, the aircraft entering an area of poor radar return, failure of the aircraft transponder, or failure of the ground radar equipment.

Almost always, ATC will continue to provide you with traffic advisories and safety alerts to the best of the controller’s ability, even without the use of radar. The controller should be able to continue service based upon your position reports.

“Radar contact lost” is usually a temporary condition. The controller expects to regain radar contact with your aircraft at some future point. If you are out of radar range and not expected to return, or if you are leaving the controller’s sector with no radar handoff to the next controller in your future, the controller will say, “Radar service terminated.”

With radar contact lost, you may give a position report to the controller by stating the following:

(a) Identification: Chestnut 493 Yankee Victor

(b) Position: Over the Silver City VOR

(c) Time: At 1523 Zulu.

(d) Altitude or flight level (include actual altitude or flight level when operating on a clearance specifying VFR␣on␣top): 4,500

(e) Type of flight plan (not required in IFR position reports made directly to ARTCCs or approach control): VFR

(f) ETA and name of next reporting point (not usually required under VFR.)

(g) The name only of the next succeeding
reporting point along the route of flight (not usually required under VFR.)

(h) Pertinent remarks.

If the controller does not regain radar contact after your position report, he will give the next point to report passing.

Audio Edition #15 for 19 July 2012

Question of the Week

You are flying towards an airport with a control tower that is contained by Class D airspace. However, the Class D airspace that defines the control tower’s area of control is overlapped by Class C airspace.

A good example of this is the New Smyrna Airport on the east coast of Central Florida. The north, east, and west side of the New Smyrna’s Class D airspace is overlapped by the Class C airspace surrounding Daytona Beach International Airport.

When your intended destination airport is in Class D airspace, which is overlapped by Class C airspace, will ATC provide you with Class C radar service, that is sequencing, traffic advisories, and safety alerts, when your airplane is inside of the secondary airport’s Class D airspace?


Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM)

3-2-4 Class C Airspace
f. Secondary Airports

1. In some locations Class C airspace may overlie the Class D surface area of a secondary airport. In order to allow that control tower to provide service to aircraft, portions of the overlapping Class C airspace may be procedurally excluded when the secondary airport tower is in operation. Aircraft operating in these procedurally excluded areas will only be provided airport traffic control services when in communication with the secondary airport tower.

2. Aircraft proceeding inbound to a satellite airport will be terminated at a sufficient distance to allow time to change to the appropriate tower or advisory frequency. Class C services to these aircraft will be discontinued when the aircraft is instructed to contact the tower or change to advisory frequency.


So, the short answer is no. When you are inside of Class D airspace, radar service for operations in Class C airspace may be excluded. (Personally, I don’t know of any exceptions.) When transitioning from Class C to Class D service, radar service will be terminated prior to an aircraft entering Class D airspace.

Audio Edition #14 for 4 July 2012

Question of the Week

You are inbound for landing in your Cessna 172. When you tuned in the ATIS frequency, you heard, “Simultaneous operations on intersecting runways are in effect.” Tower has told you to enter a 2-mile left base leg for Runway 36. The intersecting runway, Runway 9, crosses your runway at exactly it’s halfway point.

You report entering a 2-mile left base and tower clears you to land, adding “Traffic is a Learjet 35 on a 3-mile final for Runway 9.” You don’t see the Learjet. At this point, should you request a right 360, request a re-entry for downwind, or continue your approach for your full stop landing?


This is one of those questions I wish I had on my college chemistry course tests. It’s the kind where any of the answers you give is correct. However, one answer suits ATC’s purposes better than the other two.

From a pilot’s perspective, if you are not comfortable with the spacing between your airplane and another airplane you cannot see, or even one you can see, you always have the option to discontinue your approach. If this is the case, you may request a 360-degree circle, away from the direction of traffic, to improve spacing. You may also request to break out of the traffic pattern and re-enter at downwind to start over.

Now, look at this situation from ATC’s perspective. You are flying a Cessna 172 with a pattern airspeed of around 70 to 80 knots indicated on base leg. That’s just a little over one mile traveled per minute. From base leg, you would typically travel about 1 mile to reach your final approach leg. Tower asked you to enter a 2 mile base leg, which means, set yourself up to roll out on final, beginning two miles from the runway. Since we don’t fly square corners in Cessnas, we’ll assume by the time you roll out on final, you’ll probably be 1.5 miles from the approach end of the runway.

Let’s add it up. One mile to travel from your base leg entry to final. After rolling out, you’ll travel another 1.5 miles. That means you’ll cover 2.5 miles distance over the ground, at about 1.17 miles per minute. It will take you about 2 minutes and 10 seconds to reach the end of the runway, no wind.

The Learjet has reported a 3-mile final, so it seems you actually are about .5 miles closer to landing than the Learjet. Consider that a Learjet is flying final approach at a speed likely faster than 120 knots indicated, or at least 2 miles per minute. Starting from a 3-mile final, the Learjet is going to take, at the most, 1.5 minutes to reach the approach end of the runway.

The Learjet is going to land and cross through the intersection of the two runways at least 40 seconds ahead of you. I say at least, because a Learjet decelerates much more slowly after landing than a single-engine Cessna.

I would venture to say the Learjet would not only not be a conflict for your landing. It is likely the Learjet will have landed and already be on the taxi in to the airport ramp before you even cross the runway’s threshold for landing.

When the tower controller cleared you to land, he factored in the Learjet’s distance and speed to the runway and could see the Learjet would arrive and clear the intersection of the two runways well before your arrival.

All that said, do what you need to do, as pilot in command of your aircraft to feel safe. ATC might ask you why you want to do a 360, but will generally approve your request.

Audio Edition #13 for 16 June 2012

Question of the Week

You are entering downwind in an airport traffic pattern. Tower says you are number 3 in the sequence for landing. Your airplane develops engine trouble and you need to get on the ground right now. You declare an emergency and get priority to land in front of all other traffic in the pattern.

After landing, the tower supervisor wants you to deliver a written report to her explaining why you needed landing priority.

The questions:

1. Does the request for a written report indicate you are in trouble with the FAA?
2. How long do you have to get the written report in the tower supervisor’s hands?


A request for written report by an FAA representative when you have been given traffic priority due to an emergency does not indicate you have done anything wrong. Many times, the FAA will request a report from a pilot to help them get a full picture of what happened when they complete their own paperwork. Your viewpoint may fill in any gaps in the tower controller’s report.

Rant follows. . .

Many pilots shy away from declaring emergencies because they are fearful of the scrutiny their actions will receive by the FAA after the incident is over. My thought is, why be afraid if what you did was in the best interest of flight safety? The FAA is not there to hammer you for being safe. The notion that declaring an emergency will automatically start an FAA firestorm is a dangerous myth. It stops some pilots from declaring an emergency when they should.

I wish pilots and flight instructors who spread this myth would take some time to learn about the FAA investigation process. Maybe then they would shut the heck up and stop scaring other pilots from rightfully declaring emergencies.

If your situation requires priority handling by ATC, declare that emergency. In fact, look at it from the opposite angle. If you fail to declare an emergency when it is needed, and your situation worsens, the FAA is going to take a dim view of your decision to not declare an emergency.

–End Rant–

As for how long you have to file your report with the tower supervisor? Forty-eight hours from the time the request is made by the supervisor.

CFR 91.123 para (d) Each pilot in command who (though not deviating from a rule of this subpart) is given priority by ATC in an emergency, shall submit a detailed report of that emergency within 48 hours to the manager of that ATC facility, if requested by ATC.

My recommendation is to fill out a NASA Report any time you declare an emergency, whether or not the FAA requests documentation. Filling out a report, right away, will help you recall details later, if you need them. A NASA Report also adds to the collective knowledge of pilots and government agencies, which may improve safety.

Audio Edition #12 for 15 May 2012

Question of the Week

Your call sign is Piper 5378 Yankee. You are flying VFR over the western United States in the late evening. The controller says to you, “Piper 78 Yankee, change to my frequency, 128.7.” You acknowledge this radio call and then tune your radio to the new frequency.

What is the radio call you would make to check in on the new frequency?


When you check in on the new frequency, your radio call would be “Piper 5378 Yankee on 128.7.”


This is not a trick question, but it is a tricky question to answer. There are two factors in play here. First, the controller used your abbreviated call sign, which means you may respond using your abbreviated call sign. Second, the controller said, “Change to my frequency,” which means you will be talking to the same controller on the new frequency. The controller is working more than one radar sector, and you are apparently leaving the radio antenna coverage of one sector and moving into the radio coverage of his other sector.

Earlier in the show, I said the AIM says you must use your full call sign on initial check-in. In this case, you will be talking to the same controller, who already used your abbreviated call sign. So, are you actually performing an initial check-in on the new frequency? I would argue, yes. Initial check-in refers to a new frequency, not a new controller. Here’s why.

Controllers move to abbreviated call signs only when they know there are no other aircraft on the frequency with similar sounding call signs. When you move to a new frequency, there will be a new set of airplanes sharing the new frequency. You don’t know when moving to a new frequency, whether there are similar sounding call signs working that frequency.

It’s up to the controller to inventory the call signs on the new frequency and set the rule for full or abbreviated call signs. Therefore, until the controller uses your abbreviated call sign on the new frequency, you should check in with, and make all subsequent radio calls with your full call sign until the controller says otherwise.

Audio Edition #11 for 29 April 2012

Question of the Week

You are currently using VFR flight following service from ATC. You have been assigned a transponder code of 1-5-1-0. After handoff to the next ATC sector, the controller says, “Reset your transponder. Squawk 6-5-0-1.”

First, why would a controller assign a new transponder code to your airplane?

Second, what is your primary concern when switching your transponder code from 1-5-1-0 to 6-5-0-1?


When a controller assigns an airplane a transponder code, the code is generated by the controller’s computer system. In practice, the system is never supposed to produce duplicate codes. That is, if one aircraft, somewhere in the system has been assigned the code 1-5-1-0, the computer will not assigned any other aircraft 1-5-1-0 until that code has been dropped from the system. This typically happens when a pilot closes out his flight plan, or his existing flight plan is not activated before its expiration time.

However, like all computer systems, it’s “Garbage in, garbage out.” Sometimes, for one of many reasons, a second aircraft enters the ATC system with the same transponder code. A controller will get a prompt from the system to change the transponder code of one of the aircraft. Changing the squawk code removes the duplication.

If you are asked to change your transponder code, the Aeronautical Information Manual cautions you to avoid passing through any of the special codes that might set off a general alarm at all ATC radar rooms near your aircraft. These codes include 7700, 7600, and 7500. You can see, if you switch 1-5-1-0 to 6-5-0-1, you could momentarily pass through the code 7-5-0-0 if you unwittingly changed the third and first digits before switching the fourth digit. Of course, 7500 is the discrete code that signals, “I’m being hijacked.”

This is one example of a setup to fail. There are others, so give it some thought before you spin the transponder digits. Some flight instructors suggest putting the transponder into its standby mode before making any changes to the squawk. That’s just a technique. It’s never required.

Audio Edition #10 for 7 April 2012

Question of the Week:

You are about to take off. You intend to stay in the airport traffic pattern for touch and goes. The tower controller, says, “Pattern Stomper 528 Delta Whiskey, make left closed traffic. Cleared for takeoff.” While on the departure leg, after your initial takeoff, the tower controller says, “Pattern Stomper 528 Delta Whiskey, continue on the upwind leg. I’ll call your turn to crosswind.” Here’s the two-parter:

1. What is the difference between the departure leg and the upwind leg of a traffic pattern?
2. Was the tower controller phrasing correct when he said, “Continue on the upwind leg?”

Answer: An airplane on the upwind leg is at traffic pattern altitude, parallel to the runway, heading in the same direction as the landing direction. An airplane on departure leg is climbing off of the runway, at least 300 feet below traffic pattern altitude, and no further than about 1/2 mile from the departure end of the runway.

An aircraft on departure leg may be told by tower to “Continue on the upwind, I’ll call your turn.” This means, after reaching traffic pattern altitude, continue straight ahead until the controller says otherwise. This is a legal phrase, because once an aircraft on departure leg climbs straight ahead to within 300 feet of traffic pattern altitude, the aircraft has met the criteria to be on the upwind leg.

Audio Edition #7 for 26 January 2012

Today’s Question: Braking Advisories. . . More like breaking your neck advisories.

It’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere. At many airports around the world, winter means snow and ice on taxiways and runways. Let’s say, today you tune in the frequency of the Airport Terminal Information Service (ATIS) for your destination airport and you hear:

“Brainard Airport information Yankee, one five five three zulu weather, ceiling four thousand five hundred overcast, visibility six miles in light snow, wind zero one zero at one zero knots, altimeter three zero, zero one. Runway 2 in use. Landing and departing Runway 2. Notices to airmen. Runway 2 patchy packed snow and ice to one-quarter inch. Use caution for patchy snow and ice to one quarter inch on all taxiways. Blowing snow on all paved surfaces. Braking action advisories are in effect. Advise the controller on initial contact that you have received information Yankee.”

Question: When “Braking advisories are in effect,” what do you expect to hear from the Brainard Tower controller before you land? What are you expected to say to the Brainard Tower controller after landing?

Answer: The Aeronautical Information Manual says: “When tower controllers have received runway braking action reports which include the terms poor or nil, or whenever weather conditions are conducive to deteriorating or rapidly changing runway braking conditions, the tower will include on the ATIS broadcast the statement, “BRAKING ACTION ADVISORIES ARE IN EFFECT.”

The tower controller will give you a braking action report before you land if braking action advisories are in effect. If the controller fails to give you a braking action report, ask for one. Even if braking action advisories are not in effect, and you are concerned about the runway condition, ask for a report from the controller. Simply say, “Tower, Ice Skater 4351 Bravo, say the braking conditions.”

The braking action report is based on reports from other pilots that have landed before you. That means, you have an obligation to provide the controller with your braking experience after you land. Here’s what the tower controller needs to hear from you:

    1. How hard it was to slow your airplane on the runway.
      • Generally, if you had no problem slowing to taxi speed or to a stop, you can report the braking action as, “Good.”
      • If your airplane lost traction momentarily as you slowed—you felt the tires slipping for very brief periods, call the braking “Fair.”
      • If you felt it was difficult to slow, and the airplane did quite a bit of slipping, call the braking action, “Poor.”
      • If you felt you had little or no control of the airplane after landing, call the braking action, “Nil.”


    2. Where the braking action was affected. For example, if the first half of the runway seemed to have good braking action, but the second half had fair braking action, you would say “First half good, second half fair.”


  1. Your airplane type. This is important because a slippery runway affects a Cessna 172 much differently from a Boeing 737. Obviously, the heavier Boeing has more inertia, requiring harder braking in most situations. The Boeing 737 also has an anti-skid system built into its brakes that helps safely slow the airplane on slippery runways. So a B-737 pilot might say a runway with patchy snow and ice has fair braking action, while a pilot of a Cessna might say the braking action on the same runway has poor braking action. Keep this in mind when you get a braking action from the tower controller. Listen up for the type of aircraft that was involved in the latest report, and factor that into your own decision to land.

Audio Edition #6 for 4 January 2012
Today’s Question:
There you are, flying along in flight when you hear ATC tell another pilot “Cleared to cruise seven thousand.” What is ATC allowing that pilot to do?

Answer: A clearance to cruise is authorization to fly at any altitude between the minimum IFR altitude, such as a published minimum enroute altitude (MEA), and the maximum altitude stated in the clearance. For example, a pilot is flying on a charted airway with an MEA of 4000 feet. The controller tells her, “Cleared to cruise seven thousand.” She is authorized to fly at any altitude between 4000 and 7000 feet.

From the AIM Pilot/Controller Glossary: “The pilot may level off at any intermediate altitude within this block of airspace. Climb/descent within the block is to be made at the discretion of the pilot. However, once the pilot starts descent and verbally reports leaving an altitude in the block, he/she may not return to that altitude without additional ATC clearance.”

A controller may also issue a cruise clearance all the way to a destination airport, allowing the pilot to adjust her altitude as necessary until arriving at the beginning of her approach to the airport.

Why would anyone want authorization to cruise? There are many reasons: finding the altitude with the smoothest flight conditions; changing altitude for fuel savings; avoiding icing; etc.

Cruising in IFR flight is very similar to making altitude changes VFR. In both IFR cruise and VFR flight, you are authorized to adjust altitude as necessary. A pilot cruising IFR can only operate between a specific minimum and maximum altitude; and, once the pilot begins a descent, she cannot climb back up without a new clearance from ATC. Under VFR, you are free to climb or descend as you wish, as long as you keep ATC updated and you don’t smash into anything on the ground.

Audio Edition #5 for 16 December 2011
Today’s question is a 2-parter.
Part 1: What is a common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF)?
Part 2: If the CTAF is not manned, meaning, when you call on the frequency and no one answers you, what are you expected to do?

Answer to Part 1: A CTAF is a radio frequency used to provide airport information when the airport’s tower is closed. You may find the frequency on a airport’s taxi chart or instrument approach chart. A CTAF is normally manned by a specialist at a flight service station. When contacted, the FSS specialist will give you an airport advisory.

AIM Chapter 4. “Airport advisory service includes wind direction and velocity, favored or designated runway, altimeter setting, known airborne and ground traffic, NOTAMs, airport taxi routes, airport traffic pattern information, and instrument approach procedures.”

The specialist will only provide advisories. He or she will not control traffic at the airport. When the CTAF is in effect, you are responsible for staying safely separated from other aircraft. You are also responsible for your own navigation into and out of the airport.

You should check in with the person manning CTAF approximately 10 miles out from the airport when inbound for landing. When starting out on the ground, contact the specialist before taxi. Give your aircraft call sign, position, and intentions. Example: “Grand Rapids Radio, Archer 560 Victor Uniform, ten miles southeast of Grand Rapids, inbound for landing.”

Once the FSS specialist gives you an update on the airport, announce your positions at key points around the airport traffic pattern. Continue announcing your position until you have landed and taxied clear of the landing runway. If departing, begin announcing when you start to taxi, and continue announcing until you are clear of the airport’s traffic pattern.

Answer to Part 2: If the CTAF is not manned, you can get weather and other information from ATC at a nearby airport, or from ATIS or AWOS. Announce your position at key points around the airport, as you would on any UNICOM frequency. The AIM says you should never ask other pilots in aircraft around the airport for traffic or airport weather information.

Audio Edition #4 for 29 November 2011

There you are, flying just outside of the edge of Raleigh-Durham’s (RDU) Class C airspace. Fuel is running low and you would like to land at RDU sooner, rather than later. You get on the radio and call the approach controller at RDU:

“Raleigh approach, Bad Luck 4228 Charlie, twenty-five miles southwest, landing Raleigh-Durham, VFR.”

Raleigh Approach says, “Bad Luck 4228 Charlie, Raleigh Approach, standby.”

The Question: Should you wait outside of Class C airspace until the controller clears you to enter, or can you enter right now and fly towards RDU?

The Answer: Enter Class C right now and fly towards the airport. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) says: “Class C service requires pilots to establish two‐way radio communications before entering Class C airspace. If the controller responds to a radio call with, “(a/c call sign) standby,” radio communications have been established and the pilot can enter Class C airspace.” (AIM 7-8-4)

If the air traffic controller needs you to hold outside of Class C, he will specifically tell you to, “Remain outside of Class C and standby.” If he doesn’t say “Remain outside,” then come on in, the airspace is fine.

This guidance only applies to Class C airspace. Check the AIM for guidance on entering Class D and Class B airspace when VFR.

Audio Edition #3 for 7 November 2011

If you fly an aircraft with 2 VHF communication radios, you may not use Comm Radio #2 very often. Sometimes Radio #2 is useful for listening to ATIS or contacting Flight Service, while still working with ATC on Radio #1. But, if you are not currently using Radio #2 for any specific reason, what frequency should you tune into Radio #2 and why?

The Answer: It turns out there is no specific requirement to tune anything into Radio #2 unless you are flying over the open ocean or in certain special use airspace. You can even turn Radio #2 off if you wish. However, there is a recommendation for Radio #2.

The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) recommends keeping Radio #2 tuned to 121.5, the universal emergency frequency, if you are not using it for anything else. Here is why the AIM recommends this:

“6-5-2 Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT)

d. Inflight Monitoring and Reporting.
1. Pilots are encouraged to monitor 121.5 MHz and/or 243.0 MHz while inflight to assist in identifying possible emergency ELT transmissions.”

The AIM goes on to say, pilots should report hearing the emergency tone from any ELT to any available air traffic facility–ATC or flight service. ELT sends an alarm tone on 121.5 when a plane carrying the ELT crashes. There are other reasons for an ELT to go off, but that’s not our concern. If we hear an ELT, we are supposed to report it.

That’s a good start. Here are even better reasons to tune Radio #2 to 121.5:

      1. The military and other defense agencies broadcast warnings on 121.5 (also called “Guard,”) whenever a pilot approaches restricted or prohibited airspace. If you get disoriented and blunder towards a restricted area, wouldn’t it be nice to get a warning on Guard before the fighter jets or missiles come up to intercept your airplane?
      2. If you were talking to ATC and they can’t reach you on your current frequency for whatever reason, the first thing the air traffic controller will try to do is make contact with you on 121.5: “Wrongway 8774 Charlie, if you hear Potomac Approach on Guard, contact Potomac Approach on 127.3.”
      3. If you have a real emergency, I mean one where you are completely Tango Uniform, wouldn’t it be nice to have the emergency frequency tuned in and ready to go when you need to call for help? The last thing you want when your head is spinning and the plane is about to flip over is the need re-tune a radio to the emergency frequency. It really is the last thing you need. The first thing you need is to fly the airplane and save your own rear end!



Audio Edition #2 for 13 October 2011

Miami Area Map showing Dolphin VOR and Virginia Key VOR

You are flying VF and R in Central Florida, under radar contact with Miami Center. You would like to fly direct to the Virginia Key VOR near the City of Miami, but you are too far away for your VOR receiver to pick up the navigation signal from Virginia Key. You call Miami Center: “Miami Center, Cessna 9217 Yankee, request a vector direct to the Virginia Key VOR.”

You expect Miami Center to reply with a heading for you to fly direct to Virginia Key. Instead, this is what you hear:

“November 6-5-4 Kilo Romeo, say your heading for Dolphin VOR.”

“November 6-5-4 Kilo Romeo is heading 185.”

“Miami Center copies.” Then, to you, “Cessna 9217 Yankee, for direct to Virginia Key, fly heading 195.”

The Question: Considering Dolphin and Virginia Key are two different VORs, why did Miami Center ask for N654KR’s heading to Dolphin before issuing you a heading to Virginia Key?

Here’s a clue. The answer to this question is directly related to the first story I told in the audio show about looking for traffic at 12 o’clock but actually finding that traffic at your one to two o’clock position.

The Answer: Notice that Dolphin and Virginia Key are pretty close together. It is likely that N654KR is also pretty close to your airplane, and probably at or very near your altitude. That means N654KR is flying in the same winds aloft as your aircraft. When Miami Center asked the other pilot for his heading to Dolphin, he was comparing the answer the pilot gave–heading 185–to the ground track of that aircraft. In this case, the air traffic controller noticed the radar blip for N654KR was tracking a heading of 175 degrees over the ground as it flew direct to Dolphin. That means, the pilot had to hold a heading of 185 to track 175. The winds aloft were blowing from the west strong enough to require a 10-degree crab to the right as the airplane tracked 175.

The air traffic controller could plot your course to the Virginia Key as 185 degrees, but, based on what the other pilot told him, he knew you would also require a 10-degree crab to the right to fly that 185-degree course. So, he told you to fly a heading of 195 degrees.

Enroute controllers and approach controllers will ask pilots in aircraft with inertial or GPS navigation systems to give them a wind read out from the pilots’ navigation display. The controller will then “plug” the reported winds aloft into their radar’s computer system. The system can then produce a wind-corrected heading when the air traffic controller needs it. If there are no planes in the area with inertial or GPS systems, the controller may ask a pilot his heading, and then make a manual wind correction, for other aircraft, as needed.

Issue: 7 September 2011

There you are on a clear, beautiful day, holding short of the runway, the first of four aircraft in line for takeoff. Your radio is dead. You cannot turn around and return to your parking space via the taxiway because 3 other aircraft block that path. What do you do now? What do you expect the air traffic controller in the airport tower to do?

First, if you can, turn so the tower can see your landing light. Flash your landing light off and on several times. This signals that your radio is not working and you cannot transmit. Do not turn your aircraft if there is a chance of hitting other aircraft near you; or, if turning might put part of your aircraft over the runway hold short line.

If you cannot turn to aim your landing light at the tower, stay where you are and flash your navigation lights off and on several times. This accomplishes the same thing as flashing your landing light, though it may be harder for the controller to see the blinking nav lights during the day.

Even if you do nothing but sit there, the tower controller will try and call you. Once the controller fails to reach you by radio, he will figure out your radio is dead.

Now, you can expect the controller to give you light signals, using a high-intensity light gun hanging on a retractable line in the tower. In the table below, you can see the different types of light signals the controller can use to give you direction. This table comes straight out of the U.S. Federal Regulations. The light signals described in the ICAO Air Traffic Management manual (used in countries outside the U.S.) are the same.

CFR 91.125 ATC light signals.
Color and Type of Signal Meaning with Respect to Aircraft on the Surface Meaning with Respect to Aircraft in Flight
Steady Green Cleared for takeoff. Cleared to land.
Flashing Green Cleared to taxi. Return for landing (to be followed by steady green at proper time).
Steady Red Stop. Give way to other aircraft and continue circling.
Flashing Red Taxi clear of runway in use. Airport unsafe—do not land.
Flashing White Return to starting point on airport. Not applicable.
Alternating Red and Green Exercise extreme caution. Exercise extreme caution.

Here’s what you can expect the tower controller to do. After he makes sure no one is going to land, he will give you a flashing green light, meaning, cleared to taxi. At that point, you can taxi on to the runway and continue to the first available intersection. You can expect to see a flashing red light when the controller wants you to exit the runway, but if you don’t see any light, just turn off the runway as soon as possible. (Important: flashing red does not mean stop. It means clear the active runway, so don’t react, as most people would, by stopping on the runway.)

Next, you can expect to see a flashing white light from the tower, meaning, head back to your parking spot. Keep an eye on the tower at all times, because you might get a steady red light, meaning stop. If you do have to stop, watch for the flashing green light, meaning cleared to taxi. Get back to your parking spot and get that radio fixed!

Issue: 17 August 2011

Why didn’t Killjoy Tower clear everyone else out of the traffic pattern and give you priority to land after you declared “Minimum fuel?”

Declaring “Minimum fuel” is an advisory call to ATC. It is not an emergency that requires ATC to give you priority handling. According to the Aeronautical Information Manual, declaring “Minimum fuel” is a status that tells ATC “. . . your fuel supply has reached a state where, upon reaching destination, you cannot accept any undue delay.”

53 thoughts on “Answers to Questions in Radar Contact”

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  16. I enjoy your podcast. One thing you say does kind of bug me. What does “VF and R” mean? I guess it’s a cute way of saying VFR, but I don’t get the joke.

    I just started listening to a few back episodes of your podcast and heard this and “IF and R” a few times, and found those terms confusing. Especially with your latest episode talking about using correct terminology.

    Thanks, and keep up the good work!

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  19. Great stuff. I’m a low time pilot and your work will surely make me a safer and more proficient individual. You’re an asset to the young guys like myself. Thanks!

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    1. Aoife,

      You can be a pilot at any age and at any height. If you are talking about being a professional pilot, there are options for you. You may not be able to become an airline pilot if you cannot reach all of the switches in a cockpit from a sitting position. A simple reach test would tell you if that is possible.

      If you cannot work for an airline, you may still work for a corporate flying department that uses aircraft with small cockpits. For example, most Learjets. Beechcraft jets, and Cessna jets have small cockpits in which the switches are easily reachable for short people. Flying for a corporate operation can be fun and very well-paying. Even large companies, such as NetJets, which employs thousands of pilots, flies high-performance smaller jets with condensed cockpits.

      You can be a pilot. It won’t happen on its own. You have to make it happen. More questions? Write directly to me at

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  38. I’m a student pilot, and this blog has been quite an interesting read, but i do have one question about the Feb. 2 answer here. Would there be a problem with simply asking on the radio if the aircraft that had previously reported was turning base? Obviously it’s not a substitute for being observant, but it would help clear up whether there’s another aircraft that’s reported in the downwind that you don’t know about.
    I’m training out of a towered airport so my experience with uncontrolled patterns is pretty limited. It seems like communication there is mostly limited to people independently announcing their position and avoiding others (and sometimes getting into arguments when somebody does something they don’t like…), but is there anything wrong with the pilot in this scenario asking the call-sign who just reported if they’re now turning base?

    1. RB,

      With one exception, the AIM says nothing about communicating pilot to pilot in an uncontrolled traffic pattern. I cannot endorse the practice because I have nothing in writing to back it up. That said, I don’t see anything that says you should not ask another pilot to verify his location. The only statement the AIM says is not correct is, “Pilots stating, ‘Traffic in the area, please advise’ is not a recognized Self−Announce Position and/or Intention phrase and should not be used under any condition.” I think the AIM is saying, don’t ask another pilot in an uncontrolled pattern to give you an airport advisory. When in doubt, use your best judgement to build situational awareness and stay safe.

      Thank you for the good question. Cheers,


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