Photo: Air Traffic Controllers at the Washington ARTCC, 25 June 2017 (FAA photo)
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Does that seem like a provocative question? For those of us who fly domestically and internationally, the diplomatic answer is that U.S. controllers and pilots are different. If that is better or worse is the question I am asking. Why bother asking? If you are a pilot new to international operations, knowing the difference can be helpful. To explore the question, allow me to present an inflight emergency in California, another in the U.K., reaction from a U.K. controller, an American controller, and an open invitation to any other controllers for their reaction.
On January 14, 2020, Delta Flight 89, departing Los Angeles International Airport (KLAX), California experienced a compressor stall. The crew stopped their climb and came back for an uneventful landing. They made the news, however, because they dumped fuel over populated areas at an altitude too low for the fuel to disperse.
Watch: Delta N860DA, 14 Jan 2020, from VAS Aviation. Here are just a few snippets:
"...emergency at this time. We need to return to LAX for ... engine compressor stall."
"Delta 89 heavy, roger, and I'm gonna need fuel onboard and souls. And amend your altitude, maintain 8,000 feet, expect left vectors back to return to Los Angeles."
"...bring you back to LAX immediately or do you need to hold to burn fuel. You tell me what you need to do."
"Okay, Delta 89, we're gonna go ahead. We've got the engine. We've got a compressor stall. We got it back under control. We're gonna come back to LAX. We're not critical. We're gonna slow to 280 knots and why don't you put us on a downwind at 8,000 feet and keep us out of terrain."
"Okay so you don't need to hold to dump fuel or anything like that?"
"Did you want the equipment rolled?"
"Delta 89 Heavy, negative, not at ... yeah, roll the equipment."
I am not here to second guess the fuel dump. The only times I've had to dump fuel was over water. I am more interested in the language used by both the pilots and the controllers. In the Air Force we tended to speak in a very sterile language designed to convey the message in as standardized a way as possible. There was jargon, to be sure, but that was usually limited to between military flights and controllers. We often criticized others for being sloppy and "unpilot like" on the radio. I did find it useful, however, to sometimes add "Here's what I want to do" to the message. The idea is to get your message sent and understood.
Over the years I've had to declare an emergency 18 times and I like to think we sounded professional, calm, and under control each time. But I didn't have the misfortune of having every radio transmission being recorded ready for YouTube to replay it.
Photo: ThompsonFly Boeing 757, G-BYAW, at Corfu, Kerkira, Greece (LGKR), June 2012, (Matt Birch, http://visualapproachimages.com)
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The aircraft suffered a bird strike on takeoff. The aircraft returned safely.
Watch: ThompsonFly G-BYAW, 29 Apr 2007.
"May day, May day, May day. Thompson 263 Hotel engine failure we are continuing northwesterly and inbound towards Wallasey."
"Thompson 263 Hotel roger, all runways available for landing, winds zero seven zero degrees at five knots.""
"Thompson 263 Hotel, what we are doing is heading in a northwesterly direction and we'd like to establish on the inbound radial zero eight four towards Wallasey at three and a half thousand feet and then we will advise you of our intentions."
The language appears to be more precise than the U.S. example but you need to listen to the recordings to really understand why one example seems less professional than the other. I will not comment further other than to say I asked a U.K. controller for his thoughts, those follow.
I've know this British air traffic controller for a number of years and respect his judgment. Here is his reaction:
I recognised two of the three ATC guys in the Manchester clip, as I used to work there 1999-2005 in both the tower and the TRACON. It was an ATC "sub-centre" below FL195 in the local area (separate from London control over the rest of the UK), and had approach and tower control for EGCC as well. (The TRACON facility has since been relocated to the Scottish centre at Prestwick). It was a smaller, very professional unit with some slick operators and a good deal of camaraderie and a good social group, particularly if you played a lot of soccer like me. My 6 years there were the best of my career in ATC by some distance. The play by play you hear is typical of their professionalism and grace under pressure, and that group bonding must help in such a situation. I would say it is also typical of the UK mentality, combined with excellent emergency training and in the case of the guys in the clip, some knowledge of what is going on in the cockpit too. UK ATC emergency training is one thing we do well and for several years now, we always have commercial and corporate pilot participation to give feedback and a view from flightcrew perspective - one of the best ideas our training dept ever came up with.
As to the US, well where to start? I have experienced dozens of fam-flights in US airspace (as well as elsewhere in the world), and two things stand out. The first is how busy it is, and secondly how bad the RT is. I think the main problem is that much of the US traffic is domestic - much larger percentage-wise than in any EU airspace. Therefore the slang, the fast paced delivery and the local lingo (eg - "roll the equipment”) becomes a learnt and accepted behaviour, and takes anyone unfamiliar with it by surprise. I also feel that the speed of the R/T delivery is too fast and mostly inappropriate. It isn't really necessary to talk so quickly - it just opens up opportunity for mistakes and misunderstanding. It almost seems as though the controller and pilots are competing to see who can say the most in the shortest time, and some of the read-backs are appalling or non-existant. Overall it is very poor, although there are exceptions of course.
I don't know what US controllers have by way of emergency training but maybe you can find out. The Delta incident sounded very ‘ad-lib' and without any apparent procedure, and didn't really inspire confidence compared to the Thompson incident. Emergency was mentioned, but no actual PAN or MAYDAY. The full RT timeline for the Delta was incomplete so its difficult to compare directly on that basis, but I didn't hear the Delta say he was dumping fuel for example, and two different controllers asked him for SOB and fuel remaining, which wasn't necessary if there was any proper co-ordination behind the scenes.
US ATC projects a very casual image, and although there are surely consummate pros behind most microphones, it doesn't always set a high standard to the professionally trained ear at times. There was an RT exchange on the Internet not so long ago where a controller was letting his young son do the the RT in the tower - I think it was JFK. Over here you’d be out of a job and get yourself a criminal record and maybe a jail sentence with that kind of misdemeanor. I'm not sure what happened to him though.
I don't recall any real occasions when someone got “too chatty”, but if there is a world cup on and people ask for soccer or rugby scores, we try to oblidge if it isn't too busy. But it would be just the odd game - we wouldn't be reading out the scores for the whole league!
There are far worse places for ATC than the UK and the US - Africa for example - but across Europe, in my experience I think the standard is pretty good. There is definitely room for improvement in the US though.
I get a fair amount of email from air traffic controllers around the world. Here is one from a U.S. controller reacting to this story:
I am not normally one to comment on items that I read online, but your article about radio discipline struck a chord.
My background: FAA air traffic controller for 34 years, with the last 11 in management; private pilot certificate with instrument rating, both of which obtained before joining the FAA. Since mandatory retirement three years ago at age 56 (don't get me started), I have had the privilege of working as a contract instructor at my last facility.
In my judgment, radio discipline in the FAA has been on the decline for the past decade or so, and for the following broad and related reasons:
1. Turnover. Virtually all of the controllers hired after the PATCO strike are gone, and as a result FAA has lost a lot of institutional knowledge, passion, and discipline. In general, the younger controllers have talent, but it takes a long while for talent to mature into expertise.
2. Training A. FAA does a good job teaching the fundamentals of radio discipline at the Academy in KOKC as well as during initial facility training. When the new employee gets to the floor, however, radio discipline is hit-or-miss, depending on the supervisor, the OJT instructors, and the level of "drift" from phraseology standards that is tolerated by the team.
3. Training B. FAA spends a significant amount of time and resources making certified controllers out of trainees, but spends almost no time or resources improving controller skills and abilities after certification. It's entirely up to the individual controller to improve. (Many do, but not all.)
4. Training C. FAA doesn't hire controllers for their ability to teach; regardless, all controllers are sent to an OJT class after they have been certified for 12 months. This is true even if those controllers have no interest in teaching. After a three-day class, FAA sends them back to their facilities with the expectation that they are now able and willing to provide OJT. Would you rather be trained by someone that is experienced and wants to teach, or by someone that is inexperienced or has been assigned to teach?
5. Pay. We have too many controllers and supervisors in it for what they can get out of it (paycheck and benefits), and too few in it because they enjoy aviation at some level. This has been an increasing problem since 1998 when FAA agreed to negotiate pay with NATCA, and subsequently lost control of its personnel costs. It's hard to motivate someone to improve when they see no tangible reason to do so.
6. ATSAP. The Air Traffic Safety Action Program, modeled on the ASAP program used by the airlines, has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, the agreement between FAA and NATCA, and the way the agreement is being interpreted, makes it almost impossible for management to address repeated poor performance. ATSAP was not intended to be a "get-out-of-jail-free" card, yet has turned into exactly that. This makes some controllers believe that they are untouchable.
7. Attitude. If one is a "taker" instead of a "giver" at their place of employment, if there is no internal motivation for improvement, and if there is no external accountability for performance, then it should not be surprising to see radio discipline (to use only one example) on the decline.
Some other observations:
-- The level of radio discipline at a given facility tends to be inversely proportional to the level of traffic at that facility.
-- Controller training on emergency situations is one step above non-existent. It's been that way my entire career.
-- The FAA has made some baby steps toward a recurrent training program, but has a long way to go before it will be effective.
I had the distinct advantage early on of encountering instructors and supervisors that expected quality performance. This has paid off many times over the years, not just in emergency situations but particularly during the multiple times in my career that I had to testify to my actions in a legal forum. It's very difficult to defend performance that is not "by the book" before a hostile lawyer.
I hope I don't come across sounding like a curmudgeon. I can't think of anything else I would have rather done with my life than be an air traffic controller. An outstanding vocation!
I think my R/T is better than most but could be better still. Most U.S. pilots that I've played these two examples to react the same way: we think we need to step up our game. I am very interested in hearing the reaction for other U.S. and non-U.S. controllers. If you would like to share, just hit to contact page above. I'll remove any identifying clues from your email before I publish. Thank you ahead of time, you will be helping the rest of us out.
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