Air Traffic Control
7 min read

A great chasm of misunderstanding exists between pilots and air traffic controllers.  This tidbit is no earth-shattering revelation. Every pilot who has ever pushed that little red button on top of the yoke and found himself stammering, stuttering, and quaking in fear when his tongue failed to express what his overloaded brain wanted to send out over the airways knew immediately that there was something special about what happens between 118 and 136 MHz.  To many pilots, the voices who respond, direct, clear, and sometimes scold them on those airways belong to mystical beings…not unlike the Wizard of Oz…pay no attention to the man behind the microphone.

Air Traffic Control

Friend or foe?

A great many misconceptions are held by pilots about controllers and vice-versa. When I began flying over a quarter century ago, I clearly remember being told by a seasoned aviator, who will remain nameless, that, “…air traffic controllers exist for one reason, and that is to take your license.”  A few hundred hours of PIC time and a great many years as an air traffic controller later, I’m now certain that not only are controllers not license-grabbers, but they (we) have absolutely no power to deprive anyone of his library card, let alone his treasured pilot’s license.

I would venture to guess that over ninety percent of active pilots harbor some similar misconception about controllers.  Before you begin to believe that I’m picking on pilots, we controllers are equally misguided in our beliefs about you (we) pilots.  Being both a pilot and a controller, I sometimes feel like a man without a country.  I’ve been told on more than one occasion by other controllers to, “Stop thinking like a pilot.”  Likewise, a brilliant CFII, for whom I have tremendous respect, firmly directed me to, “Stop thinking like a controller” while I was thoroughly screwing up a VOR-A approach from the left seat of my old 172.

Published approaches look so easy from in front of my trusty radar scope.  Likewise, clearing me exactly as I filed seems so simple from behind the windscreen of my aging Cessna.  Life truly is about perception.  When it comes to pilots and controllers, neither truly understands the other.  Moreover, very little is done to educate either about the other.  I’ve begun a quest to change all of that.

This article represents a major element in my quest to bridge that mighty chasm of misunderstanding between pilots and controllers and shed a bit of light on those mystical voices behind the microphones. Let’s take a look at some of the personalities, quirks, insanities, brilliance, and egos of those faceless, invisible voices in the sky who I call…Control Freaks.

Air traffic controllers are an odd lot. In fact, we take great pride in that.  We are, somehow, psychologically different than most of the other humans on our planet.  Of course I’m no psychologist, but I have had the privilege of working alongside hundreds of controllers in my career.  There may be no common thread that runs through all controllers, just as all pilots are unique, and sometimes colorful, characters.

Some controllers, certainly not all, harbor an irrational distrust of pilots based, almost always, in misunderstanding. I truly believe the same is true of some pilots who tend to distrust controllers because the two worlds are so drastically different. It would, on the surface, appear that pilots and controllers want the same things; namely, the safe, orderly and expeditious flow of air traffic.  Statistically, the safe part almost always happens.  The orderly and expeditious parts are sometimes fantasy.

It is overwhelmingly easy to sit in front of a radar scope, working two dozen or more aircraft, and criticize pilots for doing things that seem to make no sense at all. Conversely, the same is true from the pilot’s perspective. It is easy to hum along at ten thousand feet with our engine purring and the ETR ticking down on our GPS and criticize the controller who seems to be incessantly chattering in our headset spewing vectors or reroutes that don’t seem to make any sense at all. The reason for the similar perspectives is the lack of perspective.

Most controllers have no idea that the workload of a single pilot IFR cockpit is akin to carrying a watermelon, a cross-cut saw, and two hungry kittens simultaneously. Likewise the typical pilot has absolutely no concept of the overwhelming deluge of information the controller is digesting while keeping tons of aluminum from banging together in the sky. It is so easy to slip into single-sighted and single-sided thinking whether our seat is a comfortable chair in front of the radar scope or in the left seat of a magnificent flying machine.

Allow me, if you will, to paint a picture; a picture from a perspective you’ve most likely never considered.  Join me in a stroll through the approach control facility. Statistically, what you will see while walking through this darkened room is a 35-year old man with 2.2 children, an ex-wife or two, at least one mortgage, and no little plastic card in his wallet that reads, “Private Pilot.”  He will be sitting two to three feet from a black radar scope that is littered with constantly moving hieroglyphs. Dangling from his ear will be what looks like something you’d expect to see adorning a telephone operator. On his right will be a tilted bay full of dozens of little plastic stems holding slivers of paper on which is printed all manner of illegible gibberish.

Don’t get nervous. Deep inside the controller’s head resides an aeronautical Rosetta Stone that allows him to interpret the gibberish.

To his left is a panel full of digitized buttons connecting him to dozens of other ATC facilities and numerous powerful UHF and VHF transmitters and receivers. Above his radar scope is most likely some form of electronic weather dissemination device alongside a dozen or so paper notes taped to the console reminding him of everything from nav-aid outages to telephone numbers for the local sheriff and fire department. He will be a high school graduate and most likely a military veteran.

Stocked away on the overloaded bookshelves of his mind is a collection of hundreds of thousands of pages of laws, regulations, separation minima, intimate knowledge of dozens, if not hundreds of instrument approaches, hundreds of radio frequencies, and oh yeah, there’s precipitation on the radar and he left his windows down. On that hieroglyph-speckled scope in front of him are perhaps 20 or more little symbols with data tags dragging behind them providing call sign, altitude, ground speed, and aircraft type.  His job is to keep each hieroglyph safely separated from every other.  For his toil, the average controller will earn between $90,000 and $125,000 annually. Wow! Controllers really make that much? Before envy sets in, consider this.

Henceforth, we will refer to the hieroglyph as aircraft.  Aboard each aircraft is at least one, and sometimes hundreds of living souls.

We controllers try to stay focused and psychologically removed from the fact that we will have more human lives in our hands in one eight-hour shift than the typical surgeon has in his entire career. With a slip of the tongue or momentary loss of concentration, hundreds of human lives can momentarily attempt to occupy the same point in space as hundreds of other souls. This, under the laws of physics, never ends well.  When all of those souls find their way out of their human vessels and on to their great reward, the world of that controller who momentarily lost his focus or simply misspoke comes crashing down around him. When the investigation is over, the controller will spend the rest of his guilt-ridden life behind bars. Very few professionals, regardless of their tax bracket, ever endure that degree of stress.

If you’ve never actually visited an operating approach control, tower, or center facility, please take the time to do so.  It will not only open your eyes to a misunderstood world, but you just might make some new friends, especially if you show up with donuts or pizzas. Trust me; it never hurts to have a friend on the other end of the radio.

Dan Mason
Latest posts by Dan Mason (see all)
15 replies
  1. Luis Keesling
    Luis Keesling says:

    I’m a helicopter pilot and don’t fly IFR so my communications with ATC facilities is way less than fixed wing crews, none the less the subject of the post caught my attention.

    At first I thought “I don’t have had any problems with any ATC, In fact I like them” but I went back in time and remembered some times in which either I have been angry or scared at them (you).

    Sometimes I have been requesting a clearance and wait and wait because the ATC just forgot my call, other times I couldn’t follow some instruction because I could see the ATC was making a mistake and could not follow it. Usually I try to keep informed who ever is on the other side of my intentions and actions but sometimes it’s just not possible. And worst of all being on the radio with a fresh out of the box controller who will push the PTT and just won’t let go and I can hear “Hhhmmmmm… Aaahhhhh…. Mmmmm…”. But I’ve done the same and I’ve heard other pilots doing it, and I’m not talking about low timers, bur commercial airline pilots with well over 6000 logged hours. But you go through everything that needs to be communicated and as soon as you press the red button is like a reset button, lips just won’t say whatever your brain was thinking and can’t recall.

    Usually pilots will make mistakes and I’m sure ATC is just like “what the hell?” but will try to decipher all that an go on as if that was just clear as water.

    Where I fly we can either file a flight plan on the radio, over the phone or go to the airport offices and write it down by ourselves and hand it over, on several of those occasions I’ve bumped with familiar voices but strange faces and from then on that ATC voice has a face, I might even chitchat or say hi and from then on I feel much more comfortable on the radio knowing the guy on the other side.

  2. Mark Sickle
    Mark Sickle says:

    I have to agree with the tone and message presented here. I am a Private Pilot, and I am a retired Air Traffic Controller. I always prided myself in my work as an ATC. I worked hard to “service” pilots and not to turn them in for infractions. I think being a pilot definitely made me a better air traffic controller because I could put myself in the cockpit and understand what the pilot was experiencing.

    I definitely agree that pilots should make every attempt at visiting an ATC facility. Our job is misunderstood by a large number of pilots.

  3. Leo Breckenridge
    Leo Breckenridge says:

    Great article Dan. I am a CFII, and ATC has patiently and professionally kept me and my students safe for nearly 45 years. Great job guys! Are there a few jerks at ATC- sure, but only a very few. There are a lot more arrogant jerks pressing the red button in the planes. Let’s learn to work together and appreciate the difficult jobs we have; both our lives depend on it.

  4. Mark Sickle
    Mark Sickle says:

    Leo – I will admit to having worked with a few jerks (fellow ATC’ers) in 30+ years. I think for the most part the pilots I had the pleasure to work with were very helpful and professional. For the most part the pilots usually bent over backwards to accommodate my requests. KUDOS! I loved working with 98% of the pilots.

  5. Ray Laughinghouse
    Ray Laughinghouse says:

    It seems that the FAA management might actually foster some of the mistrust between controllers and pilots. In the seventies we had a program called the Safety Improvement Report (SIR) which a controller could file when he saw a safety issue with a pilot or any aviation function.

    The SIR would be passed to the old General Aviation District Office (GADO) who would then contact the pilot and discuss the event. In most cases the pilot was simply put on notice and the SIR went into his file for a period of time and if no other reports were made the initial report was removed.

    As a controller this made it easy for me to file an SIR if I saw something that could be dangerous however sometime the the late 70s or early 80s the FAA decided that any SIR was probably a violation and cancelled the program and instructed controllers to file a violation report instead, a much more serious report.

    After this very few reports were made particularly since the investigation required a transcript of the controllers taped communications for thirty minutes before and five minutes after the event reported.

    Ray ATC retired

  6. Emmons Patzer
    Emmons Patzer says:

    I received my private 30+ years ago. Stopped flying when I had kids to feed, and started back about a year and a half ago. I agree with the comments to visit the tower and control facilities; that was great and I felt very welcome. I love my local team of controllers who have been extraordinarily helpful.

    I also have another suggestion for anyone who feels uncomfortable talking with ATC. My 30 year gap found me able to instantly remember how to handle the plane, be amazed at how much easier the avionics are today, but stumbling on effective communication with the radio. I did the AOPA communication course, but practice is better than just knowledge. So I put ATC Live in my computer web browser, had the computer broadcast the ATC Live sound to a bluetooth telephone headset I coupled, and walked around the house talking into the air in reply to all the ATC controller instructions I was hearing. That made all the difference in the world. I still do it every once and awhile just for fun if I haven’t being flying that week.

  7. Bob Morris
    Bob Morris says:

    I worked as a controller for 33 years, have a commercial and Instr. rating. I don’t believe I ever used a sarcastic tone nor do I believe there is anyplace for it. Most controllers I worked with and pilots were polite and stuck to busness.

  8. Peter Temesvary
    Peter Temesvary says:

    Dan, great article, although I feel like I was left hanging. This should be Chapter 1 of a much longer series!
    I agree with Leo that there is probably more arrogance on the part of the pilots than controllers. In travelling up and down the West Coast for the better part of 40 years I think the only “poor” service I got from ATC was when the controller was simply overworked (e.g. Long Beach or Burbank sectors at 4pm on a Friday). When VFR sometimes I feel they could be a little more proactive in pointing out traffic, but then again, it’s written in black and white that it’s not their job, so I can’t say a word.
    Ray, I love your suggestion, I listen to LiveATC all the time, but never thought of playing along. Brilliant!

  9. mike
    mike says:

    Just wanted to say thanks to all the controllers that have put up with me in my short flying time. With one exception for me controllers have always been patient,understanding,and there when I needed them. You do a great job guys and I know you’ll keep up the good work. I will do my best to be a better pilot and not add any more than I have to to your workload.

  10. Mark C.
    Mark C. says:

    As a student pilot nearly ready for the checkride, taking lessons out of a Class D airport, I’ve had a lot of recent experience with tower controllers and ATC, and I can’t say enough good about the people on the other end of the radio. Every one of them has been friendly, efficient, helpful, and professional, even when my obvious lack of experience has made their jobs a little more difficult. To all the controllers out there, I appreciate you a lot.

  11. Mike F
    Mike F says:

    Amen to all that. I’m a relatively low time private pilot, but have found controllers to be quite tolerant, helpful, and understanding.
    My main problem with controllers is when a few of them talk really fast … I have trouble getting it all.

  12. Greg Henkel
    Greg Henkel says:

    Great article! I was at ZID (Indianapolis ARTCC) for 31 years and, yes, controllers are a strange lot, but we do keep you safe! I grew about 10 miles from Sporty’s. All pilots should try to visit their nearest ATCT and ARTCC and talk to the controllers, if the FAA allows tours/visits ever again. Thank you!

  13. Paul Reed
    Paul Reed says:

    I have been flying for longer than I like to admit and have always been involved with controllers at all sorts of facilities. I learned to fly at an airport in VA that had a tower.

    I, uniformly, have a great deal of respect and admiration for about 99% of the controllers. Yep, just like in the pilot population, there are jerks behind the radar console. I have had to declare emergencies on one or two occasions and the controllers were uniformly fantastic: I’m still alive.

    Respect for those folks is always answered by respect for me and that makes the whole deal a pleasure. I have visited ARTCCs, large towers and small towers, so I have a fair appreciation for what goes on in them. I wouldn’t have those jobs, but I am glad that there are folks who do.

  14. Ken Walker
    Ken Walker says:

    I will never forget the first time I talked with an ATC facility. A friend and I were cruising along the New Jersey shore and had to contact Atlantic City Approach before heading back to hand over our rental at KOBI. My friend, who had gotten his PPL months ago asked me, who at the time had very little flying time and hadn’t even solo’ed, to make the call.

    It was bad.

    I stuttered, staggered and said “uhh..” more times than I can count. I thought for sure I was heading for a lashing from the controller, or a “say again please”. But she was kind, said things slow and took it easy in responding. I will never forget my first time on the radio, and I know it would’ve probably been much worse if the controller wasn’t so understanding and helpful. Now that I’m based out of KMIV, I talk to someone every time I go up and it’s definitely made talking on the radio an easier and far less scary thing to do.

    Controllers are there to help, but just like in anything there are good controllers and there are bad ones. A majority of controllers are great; but there are some that aren’t. From what I’ve experienced, you guys work hard, and for what it is, do a great job in keeping the peace; especially where I fly. Always keep in mind the work load they usually deal with, sometimes it’s at or above those a pilot handles.

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