Of course, you can, but it does not make for very productive operations because, you know, pilots sort of need to be in their airplanes and ATC are much better at controlling when in their towers. 

Here is my question though – to all the CRM folk, human factors experts and general aviation safety people out there – could we start putting pilots and ATC into a ‘room’ together to get us all talking, training, CRM-ing together more?

And if so, what would that need to look like to be useful?

Pilots and ATC work directly together during the most critical phases of flight.

The pilot crew and the ATC team are the humans that are both right there at the beginning, middle and end, for every single flight, working to keep it safe. We have the same goals, we have a lot of the same challenges, we have some that differ but that we could help each other with. Our procedures interlink, our communications are paramount and key to it all – we work directly together during the most critical stages of the flight. 

An error from one side can often more work, or even a responsibility to catch it and mitigate it from the other. Yet despite this, pilots and ATC do the least training along side one another. Recommendations, procedures, insights from accidents and incidents come filtered through many levels before they are siphoned out to each group, and as a pilot I have never had an opportunity to regularly talk directly, ask questions, share feedback or learn from ATC.

Why is that? Should we change it? Can we change it?

What has KSFO shown us?

It was a recent incident at KSFO/San Francisco that got me thinking about this, and the more I thought about it, the more other incidents popped up where I thought “gosh, I wish I could talk to an ATC person and get their view on that?

Now, the San Fran incident has only just hit the usual grapevines, so there is no information on why, what, how it happened, but we do know from the live ATC recording that a flight into KSFO was directed twice, by ATC, to go-around. Not told twice during one approach, this was two separate approaches – two go-arounds – and both seemingly due to separation issues. 

That’s all we really know and this is discussion has no intention of digging into why, I think it just raises a good opportunity to start talking, together.

KSFO is a busy airport. The tower ATC have a tough and very challenging job, and they manage it incredibly well. I am talking parallel approaches, every size airplane flying every approach speed, heading in from all different directions, and of course dealing with us pilots vacating the runway at different paces, airplane engines with different spool up times for takeoff, not to mention what comes in from the other sectors, the language barriers and everything else in between.

A big nod to KSFO ATC, and in fact all ATC.

They are balancing a lot of different factors all the time, and they are doing it to keep operators safe and efficient. This is, of course, exactly what pilots are doing as well, but with different factors and challenges playing a part for us. Weather, aircraft issues, fatigue, time pressure, unfamiliarity with the airport… 

While ATC and pilot goals match up (basically, to keep it safe and hopefully to keep it efficient) the pressures on each side, and the methods required to achieve the goals do not necessarily, and occasionally even seem counter to one another. We each have our roles and responsibilities, and as a pilot I cannot be worrying about the ATC big picture and managing their job for them, just as they can’t do that for me. 

However, I think there is a good chance – a very good chance – that we could have a better understanding and clearer picture from each other. This was highlighted during a recent chat on MAYDA calls, where ATC and Pilots did share what their requirements and expectations were, and there were some key learning takeaways from both ‘sides’.

What are they thinking?

On the one end – the small, everything is safe, end – this might just be gaining more awareness of what is going on in the other’s heads.

For example, when I am wizzing around in a hold wishing I could land after a long haul flight, ATC are not holding me there because they are mean dragons guarding the runway from their citadel. When they tell me to slow down, or given me a long vector, it is not because they know it means I will have to drag more flap out.

And when ATC offer a visual to a crew who are finishing a 15 hour flight, do they know that some pilots (I know not everyone, but at times me) think “Oh no, can you just give me vectors onto the ILS, tell me when to descend and set me up for it because I’m tired and really don’t want to have to manage my own separation!”

How about when they clear an aircraft for an immediate takeoff, and we take ages?

I ask that one because I have been told off by more than one ATC for:

  • A too slow line up (I wasn’t very comfortable at the time with the oversteer on my aircraft)
  • A too slow takeoff (genuinely just the RR engines on a 380 took longer than ATC expected)
  • A too slug like runway crossing (the A380 again, we were on a slight uphill bit and it just wouldn’t start moving).

Coming back to the recent KSFO event and I have no idea and no plan to guess why it happened, but I do know that the crew didn’t want to go-around twice, that ATC didn’t want to send them around twice, and that there were very likely a whole load of mitigations ATC, the crew, and crew in other aircraft probably could have done to support one another if they had been a little more aware of what was needed.

An Example.

If you have some read left in you I’m going to share an incident from 2017 involving an A380 heading into Moscow because it highlighted for me some areas where I think discussions could be had. If you don’t, head to the end.

This is the story, very seriously summarised – The crew got themselves into a bit of a pickle when they misidentified being ‘above the glide’ and lost their situational awareness and capacity. The (near) end result was hundreds of tonnes of airplane filled with hundreds of people descending down to just a few hundred feet (395’) before the EGPWS system issued alerts and the aircraft climbed away, attempted a second approach, finally landing off the third without incident.

There were a tremendous number of factors involved and a lot of key recommendations which came out of this. The report is well worth a read, although be warned it gets quite technical at times. The points I think that are really relevant to this are as follows:

  • One of the factors mentioned was the workload the Captain was managing, which was increased with the need to change frequencies, and respond to unexpected ATC clearances. 

The workload during an approach often mounts up for the pilot monitoring as they are having to both monitor the aircraft trajectory and pilot flying actions, as well as assist in configuring the aircraft, and handling radio calls. A lot of this occurs simultaneously, and sometimes with additional cabin PAs and checklists being required.

We cannot change this, and there is no ATC issue here. However, I have operated into places where I have:

  • Received unnecessary ATC calls during critical phases (changes to runway exit during the landing)
  • Where we have simply not had the capacity to respond immediately and this has caused issues for ATC
  • Where poor RT (from pilots) has blocked critical calls
  • One time where a misjudgement from my side on how much technical information ATC wanted to know led to them being unable to support me because I hadn’t given them the opportunity to.

So a better awareness between pilots and ATC of the challenges each side face, and the level of support required and expected is a conversation that I think could be well worth having on both a general level, and at specific aerodromes where more challenges are present.

  • The second factor was ATC’s attempted ‘intervention’. ATC queried the altitude and position of the aircraft, however, the information was not acted upon. The Crew initiated a go-around 20 seconds later. 

We discuss and practice a lot of crew intervention because it is not the ‘taking over’ which is actually always the most difficult aspect of this. If there is no time, and the situation is critical, it is very easy to make that firm “I have control!” call. The same applies for ATC when they order a “go-around” or an immediate heading change. We listen, we (generally) act. 

However, it is the grey areas ones which are harder, and we know these are harder in the flightdeck, and we practice it, think about it, talk about. We do not do that with ATC. 

How can ATC intervene?What does their ‘model’ look like for us? What level of responsibility should they have? And after a situation, how can they support us to get our heads ‘back in the game’ so to speak? 

These are not criticisms, they are not failings on either side, but they are questions I think we could all benefit from discussing. They are ones we have between pilots, I presume they are ones ATC have during their own training, but they are not ones we are having together.

Each side of the equation.

Our pilot training paradigms have changed a lot. We have seen competencies come in as we started to understand and focus more on human factors. We don’t train for specific events so much as look to build our robustness and resilience to help us with any event, andCRM has become a far more practical thing as well. The old focus on theoretical concepts has been replaced by real discussions and exercises.

We also see some airlines bringing the cabin crew and pilots together for CRM training, to help build the communication and the awareness of the roles and requirements either side of the flight deck door. 

But we haven’t extended that level of training to ATC and pilots and I will say it again: We work together directly during critical phases of flight and all the non-tech competencies we talk about and directly interlinked.

There has been an increase in these conversations.

  • A discussion was recently had on pilot and ATC requirements and expectations during Mayday calls
  • EINN/Shannon airport issued some incredibly useful guidance direct to pilots to support them in getting to grips with differences between US and European ops that were leading to some problems with level busts at the airport
  • NATS regularly release videos discussing ATC related topics, we all get to see the yearly stats from the NAT HLA.
  • There are some airports (KTEB/Teterboro being a prime example) which have Users Groups supporting direct discussion.

But there remains a large space where information is not shared, and questions and feedback is not direct, or not practical. 

And I know this is easier said than done – a lack of time, staff, resources and money means it is not viable to put the World’s pilots and ATC into training days together every year. But I can’t help thinking there are some solutions out there, some brilliant ideas which could be implemented?

There must be something better than the TRE putting on a silly voice, pressing the ‘another aircraft on the runway button’ at 200’ and saying ‘go-around’? Well, that one is probably good practice for KSFO…

What we really need, I think, is more direct training and more direct discussions to enable us to properly work together and I would love to see how we might, as an industry, look to do that.

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