Rate My Controller!

I am sitting in my office, recording grades. Dr. Cass Howell comes walking by the open door and stops. We start talking about life. Get a couple of old naval aviators together and of course, the talk always turns to flying. In this case, we started talking about The Wounded Warrior Project, air traffic controllers, and first missions.

In an effort to gather information and data about how well controllers are doing their jobs throughout the nation, and as a means of recording great controlling and problems with certain facilities, Dr. Howell has created a site through Embry-Riddle to gather operational information. It is absolutely free, does not require registration, and is very similar to the online NASA forms with which many pilots are familiar.

He looked at me and said, “Hey! You should write about Rate My Controller in your blog.” Check out the site at http://www.ratemycontroller.com for more information and to enter data. Then we started reminiscing about events with controllers. Later, I thought about an event with a controller that put me “on guard” for the rest of my career and made me realize a few things.

First, and most importantly, controllers are humans like everyone else. One of my best friends, Larry, is a controller. But like all of us, they are capable of making mistakes. Most of us in aviation like the challenge of the business in that we are not allowed to make mistakes. When a pilot or controller makes a mistake, the potential for disaster is high. The difference? When the pilot makes the mistake, he or she might not be going home ever again. If the controller makes the mistake, the controller will have to live the rest of her or his life with the guilt of consequence.

The relationship between pilots and controllers is a very special one. Controllers are there to facilitate the flow of traffic and keep airplanes from touching, in the air or on the ground. Controllers and pilots have a certain amount of respect for the other, but sometimes, the mutual admiration can deteriorate because of working tension, weather, fatigue, or a myriad of other factors. Sometimes, we just get tired and we are not on top of our game. And it happens on both sides of the radio, which is why we have to watch out for one another.

However, there are occasions where the operational cohesiveness goes down the tube. Such was a case early in my career when I was IFR on the way to Ft. Myers, FL.

I was IFR at 6000 feet and had already learned how to give my passengers an easy ride by requesting descents at pilot’s discretion. I made the request of the center controller and he cleared me to 4000 at PD, which I dutifully wrote on my kneeboard card in my IFR shorthand. As I leisurely descended, at about 4500 he cleared me to 2000 at my discretion, which again, I wrote on my kneeboard.

A little while later, I sensed trouble.

“Six one Mike, I show you at 3200 feet!” I did not like the tone of the controller’s voice.

“Yes, sir. Passing 3200 for 2000,” I answered.

“Well, I assigned you 4000!” he tersely retorted. Oh, I didn’t like this at all and the hair on the back of my neck started standing on edge.

“Sir, you cleared me to two. I have it written in my clearance notes.” He didn’t like that answer and I really didn’t feel like getting into a urinary contest with a controller over the freq. There was a pregnant pause on the frequency, as if everyone in the air was listening to our little drama.

“Okay. I cleared you to four. But go ahead and descend and maintain two thousand.” I am glad he did not say, “Do you have a pencil? Copy this number and give us a call…”

For as bad an encounter as that one was, I also have to tell you I have dealt with far more controllers who were good and even exceptional at controlling and helping pilots. There is one flight in particular that stands out in my mind. I think the statute of limitations has expired, so I can tell the story.

I flew to Lakeland for a fly-in of antique airplanes (yes, my airplane and I are both antiques). I did all the pre-flight planning required of Part 91.103 – checked everything I needed for the flight to LAL. Determined the runways in use, their lengths, the weather to include DA and all, and then picked up all the NOTAMS. There was nothing out of the ordinary to affect the flight.

When I arrived in Lakeland, my friend Phil asked if I could run him over to Al Whitted so he could pick up the mag he had in the shop over there. “It’ll save me about an hour and a half of driving on the way home,” he explained. So I said sure, let’s go.

Now, I learned how to fly in the Tampa area, so in my mind, I was in a “local” area. What this means is that I did no flight planning to Whitted. I had just landed and knew what the weather was like all the way across Tampa Bay. Imagine my surprise when I picked up ATIS and checked in with the tower “ten southeast for landing.”

The tower controller responded with directions to enter right base for runway six. Then he added, “And you are familiar with the NOTAM for that runway, right?”

Dang! Again, there was that pregnant pause. Only this time, I knew I was fully in the wrong and he had me dead to rights for a violation. I looked at Phil, hopping he might know what the deal was with the NOTAM. No such luck.

And then the controller threw me a lifeline.

“Yes sir, you know, it is the NOTAM about the last 1500 feet of the runway being unusable.”

“Oh, that NOTAM.” I transmitted. I thanked the controller, read back my clearance to land, and had the thought that I need to buy this guy a beer someday. No question in my mind that he was a controller who was also a pilot.

Back then, there was no http://www.ratemycontroller.com for the reporting of great controlling. In fact, there was nothing called the Internet. Otherwise, I would have gone a long way out of my way to record the kudos for my controller that day.

I would still like to buy him a beer.


©2013 J. Clark

(Hi Larry!)

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2 Responses to Rate My Controller!

  1. Harrison says:

    I thought I made a mistake once, but I was wrong. Controllers definitely deserve more credit and have pulled my bacon from the fire many times.

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