Shaky Emergencies and Cranky Air Traffic Controllers


Hey Air Traffic Control, I think I might have a big problem but I’m not declaring an emergency. Standby for further information. In today’s show we are going to discuss aircraft problems that fall into gray areas. We’ll discuss how to break through the fog of indecision and determine whether you need to declare an emergency.

A radar vector direct to a navigation fix, offered by ATC, is a good deal. I’ll explain why. More importantly, we’ll examine when and how to ask your controller for a vector direct.

Have you ever had an air traffic controller bark at you like an angry, um, air traffic controller? You may not be the cause of the outburst but that doesn’t make you feel any better. We’ll consider what to do when a cranky air traffic controller unloads on you.

All this, plus your Question of the Week. Crank ‘er up, Cranky.

Show Notes:

  1. Some aircraft problems create a clear and present danger. The need to declare an emergency with ATC when your aircraft is on fire, for example, is obvious.
  2. Some aircraft problems while not immediately life threatening, have the potential to end catastrophically.
  3. If you catch yourself trying to rationalize your way out of declaring an emergency, that should be a big red warning flag.
  4. Just because you are able to compensate for an aircraft problem at cruise altitude, that does not guarantee you will be able to compensate when you get near the ground for landing.
  5. Think a problem through to it’s logical conclusion. If there is potential for events to go out of control, declare an emergency.
  6. Even if later analysis shows you overreacted to a problem, declaring an emergency is alway justified to maintain a margin of safety.
  7. A radar vector direct to a navigation fix is a good deal. It creates a shortcut in your route of flight, saving time and fuel.
  8. ATC will offer a vector direct if able.
  9. Even if ATC does not offer a vector direct, you may request one.
  10. Example. “Washington Center, Cessna 9130D, request a vector direct Morgantown.”
  11. Be sure to say, “Request a vector direct,” not just “Request direct.”
  12. If you only request direct to a fix, ATC will assume you can navigate to the specified fix using your own navigation equipment.
  13. ATC will often ask you for your current heading before assigning a heading direct to a fix. This tells ATC how much wind-correction you are using to maintain a course.
  14. ATC will apply this wind-correction when giving you a new heading direct to the requested navigation fix.
  15. Air traffic controllers have personal problems and quirks of personality, just like any human being.
  16. Sometimes a controller has a bad day. The added stress may make the controller a little short-tempered.
  17. If a controller snaps at you, relax and try to ignore his tone.
  18. Comply with his clearance if it is safe and legal. Don’t argue with the controller simply because you didn’t like the way he said it.
  19. If you wish to register a complaint about a controller’s behavior, contact his supervisor by phone after landing.
  20. Maintaining your bearing on the radio is part of being a safe and competent pilot.
  21. A shout out to all those pilots and air traffic controller’s who have helped me out at Twitter.
  22. If you want to hear some great conversation about air traffic control and flying in general, check out my Twitter feed at
  23. Your Question of the Week:

    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. When you think you know that answer to that question, go to There you’ll find a complete answer to this week’s question, along with a full explanation of how that answer was derived.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Henrique April 9, 2015 at 2:47 am

Hello Jeff,

Thanks for yet another great show. I had never heard of vector direct. Hope to make use of it in the future, and introduce it during instruction.




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