Does ATC care if you see traffic on your iPad?

It was a beautiful Colorado morning beneath an enticing, sun-filled cobalt sky. Pikes Peak majestically cast us a nod of approval as Springs Tower cleared us for departure onto runway 13. The student pilot seated on the left side of our T-41C anxiously applied minimal power, crossed the hold line, and followed the yellow taxi line out to where it joined the centerline of the runway. In went the throttle, followed by the usual callout “airspeed alive,” and the Mescalero lifted off the runway and climbed easily away from the asphalt surface at 95 mph.

Shortly thereafter, the radio echoed a familiar voice into our headsets: “Cessna Six Six November, turn left heading one-zero-zero, contact Departure one two zero point six, good day!” The student complied with the requested heading change and following the call to Departure, we were cleared to the East Practice Area with a closing instruction to “resume own navigation and altitude.” A quick glance at ForeFlight revealed another few miles to go before we were clear of the Colorado Springs Class C airspace; then it was time to start working on fine tuning our planned air work.

Over the Christmas holidays, one of my students completely knocked me off my feet with an unexpected gift: a Stratux ADS-B receiver! Talk about surprises… As the airspace in what we refer to as the East Practice Area (about 10 miles east of the Colorado Springs Airport) is often filled with “multiple targets,” all working on various maneuvers and such, it does create a rather busy training environment. It turns out the Stratux receiver offers an additional layer of situational awareness with those targets being superimposed on ForeFlight’s sectional chart.

iPad traffic
ADS-B traffic is great, but does ATC care if you “see them on the iPad?”

Having said that, however, one must give credit where credit is due. The vigilant Colorado Springs Departure Controllers seemingly do not miss a trick when it comes to providing traffic separation. On a typical training flight those folks can be heard bellowing out a continual litany of traffic alerts to what appears to be just about every aircraft in the immediate vicinity. One needs to listen intently for their own tail number to be called, as an immediate response is expected, and required.

On many of those days it can be quite challenging to provide instruction with one’s student, as the incessant traffic alerts can occupy the vast majority of the available “verbal airspace.” Prior to the Stratux, amidst that constant barrage of traffic alerts, it was often difficult to locate the converging “bogie” reported by ATC, necessitating a response of “looking for traffic.” Since introducing Stratux to the cockpit however, locating reported traffic in the immediate vicinity of our position seems to be much easier now.

Having heard another aircraft advise ATC that he has “negative contact but has target on ADS-B” ultimately created the temptation within me to respond to ATC in similar parlance. On one such flight my student (on a Flight Review) took notice of that exchange with ATC, where visual contact was not made but the traffic was spotted by virtue of the ADS-B and hence stated to ATC as such. A couple of days following that flight an interesting email arrived from that student along with a document authored by Jeff Kanarish from ATCCommunication.com. In short, the article stated that ATC doesn’t care what you see on your iPad (ADS-B) or on board TCAS. The only thing they want to hear back from you is either “negative contact” or “traffic in sight.”

After noodling on this statement for a period of time, I came to realize that Mr. Kanarish is 100% absolutely correct; we should not be advising ATC of our ADS-B/TCAS observations. They see the sane thing we do, only in a more enhanced format. That short lived practice I borrowed from another pilot abruptly ended during the next foray into the East Practice Area.

But wait a minute; there’s got to be some middle ground here, right? There most certainly is. Inasmuch as Mr. Kararish’s article is totally on spot, I am convinced that it is entirely possible to utilize our portable ADS-B receivers to enhance flight safety and improve our situational awareness.

Here’s the bottom line to this scenario: keep you eyes and ears open and pay attention to ATC’s traffic advisories, and respond accordingly utilizing the correct Pilot-Controller phraseology. If you have ADS-B In capability, use it to leverage your situational awareness. ATC is a trusted and indispensable resource to our pilot community, a veritable partner and eye in the sky. Together we can make our skies and training environment a safer place.

16 Comments

  • Tom, spot on. I hear this often from my airline collegues…”yeah wee see ’em on the fishfinder”. But FAA Order JO 7110.65W, Air Traffic Control, contains no allowances for TCAS or ADS-B observations. The only information that will allow the controller to change anything in his/her procedures is the pilot’s confirmation of visual contact.

    I never have been very good at spotting traffic, which is why my life expectancy as a fighter pilot would have been around 24 hours. When I first got re-qualified in GA a few years ago, I was out on my first solo in 28 years. Sure enough, the controller called out traffic at 3000 feet. I responded in my usual airline manner, “Okay, we’re lookin’…” Hmmm…I’m at 3000 feet, too. . Oh, wait….this thing doesn’t have TCAS! Maybe I’d better turn…I was just starting to bank when the controller issued a heading change.

    • I operate in the IFR system, but a response stating that we have ads-b contact actually saves a lot of radio traffic for us.

  • Since I gotten ADS-B, I almost always have the traffic in sight before the call from ATC.
    Before, I seemed to be 50/50 on finding the traffic after the ATC call.

  • I am a member of the Western North Carolina Pilots Association. We meet, or did meet before COVID-19, each month at the Asheville Regional Airport, a class C facility. We offer “introductory flights” to our air traffic controllers, both to thank them for all that they offer us, and to familiarize them with general aviation aircraft. Several brave ATC folks have accepted our invitation. The flights have offered a mutual teaching/learning experience, and contributed to the camaraderie between our pilot community and the ATC community.

    The most common revelation to the ATC in the right seat has to do with traffic.
    ATC….“Traffic, 2 o’clock, 3 miles.”
    “I don’t see it, do you?” we say to each other.
    9KL….“Negative contact” ( to let ATC know that I know the proper phraseology), or usually ”looking” or “no joy” ( To let ATC know that I don’t always do it by the book).
    Blue skies, calm air, a few clouds, a day you can see forever.

    Most pilots I know mirror my personal experience, being able to see traffic reported by ATC less than 50% of the time. So now my “student” knows the truth, and likely will keep an even more watchful eye on GA pilots in the vicinity of traffic. I will reiterate Tom Slovonik’s comments: “ATC is a trusted and indispensable resource to our pilot community, a veritable partner and eye in the sky. TOGETHER we can make our skies and training environment a safer place.”

    I would suggest that each of us who has been blessed with the opportunity to fly invite our fellow skyfarers in the tower to share our joie de voler. You might even make a new pilot, tempted by the prescient words which Leonardo da Vinci may or may not have said,

    “Once you have tasted flight,
    you will forever turn your eyes to the sky,
    for there you have been,
    and there you will always long to be.”

    G Ruffin Benton III MD, Sr AME
    Cirrus SR22

  • I completely agree with Tom. I shiver every time I hear the response of “we have them on ADSB” or “the fish finder.” To me, this is a response of a “child of the Magenta line.” A VFR pilot’s eyes need to be outside the cockpit at least 90% of the time, not inside staring at the MFD. In flight, I do use ADSB on my iPad to give me better resolution on the traffic’s location as it can tell me if the traffic will pass behind me. Great article, Tom. (Full disclosure: I personally know Tom as we have flown together and taught together at the same flight training center. )

    Dave Novotny, CFII
    2019 AOPA Instructor of the Year , Mountain and Northwest

  • It is correct that currently the only response that ATC expects is whether or not you have the traffic visually. It is perhaps time for ATC to modernize their thinking. I would think that a response of, “I have the traffic”, meaning either visually or on screen would suffice. The underlying meaning would still be the same; ie, the responsibility for separation from that traffic is now shifted to the pilot. This could have the effect of reducing the current back and forth chatter until the target is visually acquired.

    • I’m bad at spotting traffic. I love ADSB-In. But, it’s certainly not magic.

      There is no way that I would substitute what I see on a screen for out the window. If I don’t see it out the window, to match what I see on the screen, I take evasive action.

      We had two near misses at a nearby airport, caused mostly by pilots looking at their screen. I was in one of the planes when a pilot took-off too close in trail in a faster airplane and came within 40ft of us while looking at his screen. We banked 60 degrees to roll out of his way. Thank goodness my student saw him out of the corner of his eye and that we were turning or we would likely all be dead.

      Also, a still large percentage of aircraft still don’t have ADSB out. So those pilots staring at their screens for safety are causing increased risk to themselves.

  • If I hear a pilot use the term “fish finder”, I know he/she is either ignorant or unprofessional ( or a cocky fighter pilot).

  • The phrasing was developed when there were only two options. In sight or not. Maybe I is time for some new phrases. Like “ not in sight- tracking “

  • I say (tail #) ‘looking’ or in the case of more than one airplane in sight (this happens, especially near a busy airport !) I give a short description ‘taildragger in sight’ or ‘Cherokee in sight’ ; else ‘(tail#) has traffic’ for one airplane. Sometimes the controller mentions only one of the aircraft nearby.

  • I agree with one caveat. If I don’t tell them that I have ads-b contact, they keep giving me updates on their position until I have them in sight. If I make that call, they don’t worry about it. It seems to me that it saves radio traffic to tell them that we have ads-b contact. BTW this is in cruise or arrival, practice areas would probably be different.

  • I remember hearing (and by emulation of my now departed old mentors, using) the terms, “Tally Ho” or “No Joy” as a response. Much more dashing and suave than “Traffic in Sight” or “Negative Contact.”

    Now, if you’ll excuse me old boy, I have to pick up my silk scarf and leather jacket at the cleaners.

    (Hey, has anyone seen my RayBans and my pack of Camel non filters?)

  • So, ATC doesn’t care. And I’m an advocate of standard phraseology and using the minimum words for comm. But tracking is better than “no joy – no clue” (I’d never say that on the radio – but intercom or on the ground is another story). Perhaps a middle ground response to an unseen traffic call, but tracking on the iPad ADSB would be “negative traffic, tracking, Cherokee 79T”. Instead of saying “looking for traffic” (which is non-standard) this communicates that I have heard them, have more info than just their call, but I still don’t have a visual on the traffic. And that is what we all want and need.

    Oh, just yesterday, while flying with a student, ATC was very helpful calling out traffic as we descended into an uncontrolled airfield. And then on our way home, they got busy and we had 2 unreported planes, over & under w/in 1000’, that we had no advisory’s by ATC. No sweat w/ ForeFlight & ADSB. A year ago it would have been “yikes! Where did he come from” if we’d even seen both of them at all. Especially the one below. I still do little wing waggle just to say a non-verbal “hello.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *