Aviation In Canada

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Controllers and Airplanes

Being an aviation enthusiast, it really surprised me when I first entered the ATC world how few of the controllers around me, even those who had been working for 30 years, knew much about airplanes. Yes, experience had taught them a number of things. How long a take-off roll is generally needed by a Dash 8 or a B767, how well certain aircraft types could climb and which ones you couldn't count on for anything in terms of climbing, and that sort of thing. Many of them don't know and don't really care about the types of aircraft that are flying around the region.

I can see their point. How much does ATC really need to know? The pilot is there to know the airplane, to know what it can do, and what to do when something goes wrong. From an ATC standpoint, we can always ask if a pilot is capable of making a restriction we need and make a judgment call based on his answer. Professional interest keeps certain things in the back of the mind while working, like, "Last few times I asked this type of aircraft to expedite the climb I got a whopping 600 feet per minute, so I won't bother asking this one. I'll just vector him." Still, many controllers don't seem to know much about the aircraft types beyond the air traffic designator, which isn't always descriptive. A B737 on the flight plan is a Boeing 737-700. A DC10 is a DC-10. Many do reveal a lot. But a Beech 1900, regardless of it being a C or D, is B190. Often when passing traffic, some controllers will say, "traffic 10 o'clock, 6 miles, opposite direction 'bee one ninety' at 7,000." That's just one common example.

Obviously they've gotten to the point where their peers believe they are competent, since they reached "check-out level" for their unit. And I'm not saying all controllers have this low level of interest or knowledge. Many are quite knowledgeable. But it does leave questions in the minds of those who think about such things. All I'm saying is don't count on your controller to know your airplane. The majority of controllers, in my experience, strongly feel it is best for them to stay "out of the cockpit" -- that's where the pilot belongs. Communication is important if you're trying to tell ATC about a situation in your airplane. Remember the story I told last month about the pilot communicating "an engine failure" instead of "my engine has failed." Sadly, the controller didn't recognize the severity of the situation, given his ignorance of the aircraft type involved, the pilot's choice of words and exaggerated calm.