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Authority And Command

The proper roles of the pilot-in-command and ATC are often blurred, especially in congested airspace.
12 IFR Refresher, October 1996
Had this flight crew fully
understood the traditional
relationship between ATC, the
pilot-in-command, and the
IAP itself, this accident
wouldnt have happened.
By Wally Roberts
Airlines Boeing 757 during descent and
approach to Cali, Colombia in Decem-
ber, 1995 was the result of the flight
crews misunderstanding of its and
ATCs role in the proper conduct of an
instrument approach procedure (see
Cascading Events, July IFRR). The
crew was having a problem program-
ming the last-minute IAP into the B-
757s glass cockpit area navigation
system and sought the help of ATC to
bypass the critical segments of the IAP.
The crew almost certainly thought ATC
could wave its magic wand, thus negat-
ing the critical early segments of this
mountain-laden IAP.
Had this flight crew fully understood
the traditional relationship between
ATC, the pilot-in-command, and the
IAP itself, this accident wouldnt have
happened. This flight crew wasnt com-
prised of a couple of dummies, rather
they were the prevalent end-product of
what could fairly be called an aberrant
U.S. ATC system and U.S. instrument
pilot training environment.
ATCs fundamental purpose
Air traffic services throughout the
world exist for one fundamental pur-
pose: to ensure adequate and safe sepa-
ration between IFR aircraft within con-
trolled airspace. There are three signifi-
cant secondary functions of ATC: (1)
provide airport and runway services to
all aircraft at airports with operating
control towers, (2) route IFR aircraft to
avoid controlled airspace that is re-
stricted or unusable because of military
or other special operations, and (3) pro-
vide pertinent information that will as-
sist the pilotsuch as traffic informa-
tion, significant weather advisories, and
other safety-related information deemed
appropriate by ATC policy makers.
An extension of secondary function
(1) is the limited separation and se-
quencing of VFR aircraft in the termi-
nal airspace that surrounds high-den-
sity (high-collision-risk) airports,
which we know as Class B and C air-
Single airplane example
A good example that sets forth the
fundamental of the relationship be-
tween ATC and the IFR aircraft is to
hypothesize there is only one airplane
flying IFR anywhere in the U.S. In this
admittedly extreme example would
there be any need for ATC at all? Not
really, provided someone was available
to help with timely weather informa-
tion. The pilot would be free to use any
published route and fly to the airport
of choice. The pilot could also elect to
forego published routes provided he/she
maintained at least the minimum en
route IFR altitude set forth by FAR
91.177(a)(2). Once at the destination,
descent below the minimum legal IFR
en route altitude would be made via any
published and available IAP, but the
pilot wouldnt be free to shortcut any
required segments of the IAP while
operating under IFR.
The single airplane example is
extreme, but it demonstrates the point
that the IFR pilot, not ATC, owns the
sky when traffic is not a factor. Lets
modify our hypothesis and say its 3:00
a.m. and there are several airplanes
widely separated within 300 miles of
airspace. Its still pretty much the pilots
call, with ATC approving pilot requests
while making certain no conflict will
develop with either the widely scattered
IFR traffic or restricted airspace.
Efficiency in the face of traffic
The foregoing principles apply to all
of the controlled airspace of the world
and is fairly well set forth in applicable
United Nation International Civil Avia-
tion (ICAO) agreements. The genesis
for these concepts was originated by the
early United States commercial air car-
rier operations of the 1920s and 1930s.
In those early days, the airlines ran the
air traffic control system in this coun-
As aviation commerce grew the gov-
ernment saw its way to take over both
the rules and operation of ATC. Gov-
ernment saw a compelling interest in
moving the maximum amount of IFR
traffic within the constraints of the ex-
isting systems. Thus evolved the con-
straints imposed by several IFR pilots
wanting their way and needing a ref-
eree to balance the needs of each pilot
against the entire group airborne (as
well as those chomping to become air-
borne) at any given time.
The fundamental ATC system
evolved prior to the advent of radar.
Separation was based on time/altitude/
distance standards applied on the basis
of pilot position reports and filed true
airspeed, with the pilots communicat-
ing with ATC through en route com-
munications relay stations. In most of
the worlds airspace this rudimentary
system is still the order of the day, of-
ten with ATC communications being
made through intermediaries. In some
parts of the world, there are domestic
ATC systems that have radar in spots,
with the voids not always being appar-
ent to the pilot. (This is even true of the
U.S. today at lower altitudes, particu-
larly in the high mountain country.)
Necessity and mothers invention
The development of radar was born
of pre-World War II necessity. Lurking
IFR Refresher, October 1996 13
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close in the background was the dream
of congested airspace air traffic man-
agers to have real-time surveillance of
IFR traffic, at least in busy terminal air-
We all know the rest of the story...or
do we? Here is where the waters got
muddied, in the interests of the safe,
expeditious, and efficient movement of
IFR traffic in high-density airspace.
With the advent of radar, the controller
became proactive rather than reactive.
What used to be huge parcels of air-
space that had to be partitioned for time/
altitude/distance separation immedi-
ately became chopped into relatively
infinitesimal pieces. For the first time,
the available concrete at the busy air-
ports became the limiting factor for traf-
fic acceptance rates rather than avail-
able en route and terminal airspace.
Radar placed controllers into the
position of being able to micro-manage
separation and efficient movement of
IFR traffic by adjusting aircraft speed
and flight paths on the fly. Pilots, as well
as the system, were apparent benefi-
ciaries of this ATC eye-in-the-sky. Who
doesnt appreciate, turn left heading
060, proceed direct Skygirl VOR when
able. Or, descend to 3,000, fly head-
ing of 240 for a vector to the Skylawn
Runway 24 ILS final approach course.
Potentially deadly illusion
As ATC radar evolved and matured,
both pilots and controllers became so
used to it that the appearance the con-
troller was really flying the airplane
came into not only the lore of the land,
but even into the lore of the aviation
community. Good controllers soon
learned how to milk the maximum out
of the system through usually judicious
and expert use of their radar scopes.
But, from the outset, there have been
limits to what a controller can, and can-
not, do with radar separation techniques
and procedures. Thats a key point to
keep in mind: they are radar separation
techniques and procedures. They are not
replacements for the pilots primary
responsibility for both control and navi-
gation of the aircraft. This profound
principle is so easily lost in the noise
of constant ATC communications and
radar instructions, from pre-taxi clear-
ance contacts until engine shutdown.
Any instrument flight instructor
worth the job description has instilled
in his/her students from day-one the
critical principles of flying IFR, espe-
cially single-pilot IFR, in decreasing
order of importance: (1) aviate, (2) navi-
gate, and (3) communicate. Yet, the
pressures of the system seem to drive
(3) into at least a tie with (1).
Whats worse is that neither the pi-
lot nor the controller typically fully
understand the capabilities and limita-
tions of each other. ATC procedures are
a hodgepodge of years of collections of
time-tested techniques, procedures, and
legal imperatives, sometimes with an
eye to squeeze a bit more efficiency
out of the system. The result is a com-
plex handbook that is difficult for con-
trollers to fully understand, and effec-
tively impossible for most pilots to fully
Job descriptions very different
Pilots are trained to fly airplanes. In
the case of instrument-rated pilots, this
extends to being able to safely and com-
petently control and navigate the aircraft
(continued on next page)
14 IFR Refresher, October 1996
These back issues of IFR Refresher are available
If you dont have a complete file of IFR Refresher, you may have missed vital information and good reading.
August 1992Vol. 6, No. 8
Circling Approaches Revisited
September 1992Vol. 6, No. 9
Situational Awareness
October 1992Vol. 6, No. 10
Coping With Pitot-Static Failures
November 1992Vol. 6, No. 11
Instrument Competency
December 1992Vol. 6, No. 12
Holding Entries Simplified
January 1993Vol. 7, No. 1
Straight-in or Procedure Turn?
March 1993Vol. 7, No. 3
Human Performance Accidents
April 1993Vol. 7, No. 4
Where the Heck am I?
May 1993Vol. 7, No. 5
Planning a Zero-Zero Takeoff
June 1993Vol. 7, No. 6
Hazards of Night IFR
July 1993Vol. 7, No. 7
Approach Chart Checklist
August 1993Vol. 7, No. 8
Watching Weather Progress
September 1993-Vol. 7, No. 9
Non-Precision Approach Tactics
October 1993Vol. 7, No. 10
Which Way Should I Depart?
November 1993Vol. 7, No. 11
Logging Ground Time
December 1993Vol. 7, No. 12
How GPS Works
January 1994Vol. 8, No. 1
Flying With GPS
February 1994Vol. 8, No. 2
Egg-in-Hand Routine
GPS Overlay Approaches
Planning Your Next Approach
March 1994Vol. 8, No. 3
Are You IFR or VFR?
Radar Service Terminated
When the Glideslope Fails
April 1994Vol. 8, No. 4
Ensuring a Safe Departure
Flying the ILS with Style
May 1994Vol. 8, No. 5
Alternate of Choice
June 1994Vol. 8, No. 6
Cross-checking the Gauges
Lost Comm in Motion
July 1994Vol. 8, No. 7
When ATC Loses Track of You
When the Instruments Lie
August 1994Vol. 8, No. 8
Approach Transitions
Attitudes and Decision-Making
Pilot Attitude Profile
September 1994Vol. 8, No. 9
At The Bottom of the Approach
Initial Approach Fixes
October 1994Vol. 8, No. 10
Avoiding Spatial Disorientation
Weather Briefing Checklist
November 1994Vol. 8, No. 11
Keeping Your Cockpit Organized
Partial Panel Proficiency
December 1994Vol. 8, No. 12
Organizing Your Scan
Whos Responsibility is it?
January 1995Vol. 9, No. 1
How the Airlines Fly IFR
On Being PIC
February 1995Vol. 9, No. 2
Complying With ATC Instructions
Understanding TAF Reports
When IFR & VFR Traffic Mix
March 1995Vol. 9, No. 3
ABCs of an Arrival
Comments From Examiners
Lost Com Occurrences
April 1995Vol. 9, No. 4
Checking for Notams
Flying the Final Approach
Learning From Others
May 1995Vol. 9, No. 5
Completing the Missed
Departing IFR Safely
June 1995Vol. 9, No. 6
Establishing Visibility Minimums
Organizing Your IFR Training
July 1995Vol. 9, No. 7
GPS For Positional Awareness
Where To Miss The Approach
August 1995Vol. 9, No. 8
When are You a Non-radar Arrival?
Why Pilot-induced Accidents?
September 1995Vol. 9, No. 9
How to Beat the Weather
Threading the Needle Properly
October 1995Vol. 9, No. 10
Airway Operations
Basic Instruments & Partial Panel
November 1995Vol. 9, No. 11
Negotiating Clearances
Vectors Below the Hilltops
December 1995Vol. 9, No. 12
Peculiarities of Holding
Pilot Idiosyncrasies
January 1996Vol. 10, No. 1
Circling and the Visual Segment
Is There a Runway Out There?
February 1996Vol. 10, No. 2
En Route Arrival Clearances
Go/No-Go Decisions
March 1996Vol. 10, No. 3
Infamous NDB Approach
Lost Com: Lets Get Real
When You Cant Get In
April 1996Vol. 10, No. 4
Insidious Illusions
Low Visibility Operations
Whats Below MDAand DH?
May 1996Vol. 10, No. 5
Improving The Odds At Night
Safe Approach Procedures
Set In The Approach Mode
When Are You Established?
June 1996Vol. 10, No. 6
Approach Chart Rules!
Dont Do Anything Stupid
Look Out Below
Where Are You?
July 1996Vol. 10, No. 7
Cascading Events
How Far Would You Go?
Unairworthy With Towbar
When Its Time to Reverse Course
August 1996Vol. 10, No. 8
Configuration Changes
Lights, Camera, Action
Mission Pressure
Ramp Inspection
September 1996Vol. 10, No. 9
Altitude Deviations
Look-See Crash
Proficiency and Confidence
Takeoff Considerations
Plusevery issue has a different
and challenging IFR Quiz! See
form on reverse side to order.
Authority. . .
(continued from page 13)
solely by reference to instruments and
avionics. The instrument-rated pilot is
also expected to have sufficient under-
standing of the ATC system so as to be
able to comply with an IFR flight plan
and all reasonable ATC clearances and
The properly trained IFR domestic
airspace controller is required to be pro-
ficient in the use of radar separation
techniques and procedures, and to be
very familiar with the layout, con-
straints and limitations of the ATC
facilitys airspace. Most Center control-
lers that work low-altitude sectors also
get some fairly intensive training in non-
radar separation procedures for the many
pockets of non-radar terminal airspace.
This gets me to the ever-sensitive is-
sue between pilots and controllers: the
job description of ATC controllers
doesnt include knowing how to fly an
airplane. Most controllers these days
arent pilots. Those controllers who are
also pilots carry to their job a real plus.
Nonetheless, its not a part of the job
description, contrary to the many Hol-
lywood films that have the controller
saving the day when the pilot passes out
or succumbs to a heart attack. Of course
there have been some wonderful real-
world situations where controllers who
happened to also be pilots have made
some remarkable saves, well above and
beyond the call of duty, but its neither
to be expected nor counted on.
Terminal instrument procedures
I cant say often enough how de-
manding the training and skills that are
required of a proficient radar control-
ler. Nonetheless, they are skills directed
towards that safe and efficient separa-
tion of IFR airplanes. The navigation
services that a pilot should expect from
ATC are finite and limited, even in a
radar environment. Controllers are well-
trained in the use of radar, and its rela-
tionship to the en route structure. Their
training on instrument approach proce-
dures, however, is limited to the nature
of the IAPs routes, and the ability to
use radar to shortcut segments leading
to the FAF, where local conditions permit.
Nor are controllers trained on the pi-
lot/aircraft performance and obstacle-
clearance aspects of IFR departure pro-
cedures and SIDs. The controllers per-
spective is limited to the routes these
procedures follow as they relate to traf-
IFR Refresher, October 1996 15
fic separation. Traffic separation is the
controllers game. Obstacle clearance
and adherence to the system/aircraft
performance limitations of IAPs and
departure procedures is the pilots game.
Alas, these lines, too, get blurred at
many locations where the controller can
provide radar-vectored departure assis-
tance to the en route structure.
The wary pilot who knows all these
nuances is well-served by the time-sav-
ing departure vector, yet not lulled at a
mountain bowl airport with little or no
effective ATC radar coverage. A more
general principle about all radar vectors:
if there is an iota of doubt in your mind
that it is a radar vector, with its atten-
dant sharing by ATC in terrain clear-
ance responsibilities, dont accept it
without some serious questions.
Controller provided approach
There is also the special case where
some ATC terminal facilities can pro-
vide ASR (or even rarer these days)
PAR approaches. These are truly hybrid
IAPs that come the closest to giving the
appearance that the skilled controller is
flying the airplane. Think about it,
though: the ASR and PAR IAPs are
advanced forms of controller-provided
navigation. Also, these are services that
are best used only after a recent fair-
weather practice session for both the
pilot and the controller.
No denigration here
In my career of flying mostly domes-
tic U.S. airline routes I cannot remem-
ber how many times ATC has offered
additional services, such as advance
warning on severe lines of thunder-
storms, or information on turbulence,
or even a friendly, casual comment
about a football game. The controller
is a valuable partner when it is all work-
ing as its suppose to. When its work-
ing at its best, the controller provides
not only that essential separation ser-
vice, the additional services are replete.
When to draw the line
The pilot must be ever diligent about
when to draw the line as to what the
controller is permitted to do in naviga-
tion of the aircraft for sake of system
efficiency. The American Airlines trag-
edy at Cali demonstrated a flight crew
that had unreasonable expectations
about what a non-radar controller could,
or could not, do to change terminal in-
strument procedures. In this case the
controller, in the face of a language
limitation, tried several times to keep
the crew on the full IAP.
The American Airlines crew had un-
doubtedly been conditioned by the in-
numerable times U.S. ATC had, for in-
stance, taken it off a SID or STAR with
a vector, followed by a return-to-course
and resume own nav. Or, perhaps the
crew had been saved by ATC over the
years by a simple reroute to save hav-
ing to resolve a complex glass cockpit
routing-construction problem.
Without careful reflection upon the
limitations of ATCs role, its easy to
have all this high-density airspace ATC
intervention cause the potentially dan-
gerous appearance that controllers are
omnipotent soothsayers of all instru-
ment flight procedures. The soothsay-
ers reside in IAP design offices and
technical users groups. They arent
available by picking up the mic.
Its up to the pilot to faithfully fol-
low all published procedures, except-
ing only those vectored or direct
shortcuts that are consistent with the
published procedure, whether it be a
SID, airway, or IAP (IFR departure pro-
cedures never can have ATC shortcuts).
Its strictly up to you, the pilot, to know
what is correct and incorrect about the
use of airways, departure, and instru-
ment approach procedures, and thats
no simple task.
Pilot knowledge and cooperation
The ATC system works best when
pilots and controllers cooperate with
each other. When safety is obviously not
at stake, pilots are well advised to go
with the flow, and not be overly con-
cerned about what appears to be a
slightly inefficient clearance or instruc-
tion from ATC. The more confident you
are about your responsibilities vis--vis
the controllers, the easier it is to defer
to the controller when safety isnt a fac-
tor. Take it with a smile and consider it
money in the bank for that rainy day
when you have to fully exert your com-
mand authority to its fullest. In any case
its never worth angry words on the air.
When you see something going astray,
its far better to be friendly and inter-
estingly inquisitive, rather than combat-
ive and superior in attitude. Bad atti-
tudes are bad attitudes, whether from
pilots or controllers.
If you feel a need to argue save it for
a phone call or, if something really se-
rious needs to be resolved, say it in
writing. If you believe theres an im-
mediate safety issue involved take com-
mand of the situation objectively and
without bluster. In critical situations
declaring an emergency sooner, rather
than later, often bodes well for both the
pilot and the controller, assuming all
bases are covered.
Wally Roberts is a retired airline
captain, former chairman of the ALPA
TERPs Committee and an active CFII
in San Clemente, CA.
If you feel uncomfortable about your
technical command of the opera-
tional nuances of instrument flight
procedures, you arent alone. More
training and information is needed
in this arena. The FAA could do a
better job of keeping pilots fully
abreast of all the technical informa-
tion needed by pilots. Airline and
general aviation flight training de-
partments could do a better job as
In the U.S., ATC assumes responsibility for issuing off-route altitudes that assure safe
terrain clearance, anytime ATC initiates an off-route clearance. U.S. ATC also assumes
responsibility for terrain clearance during radar vectors, except where the aircraft is
climbing below the minimum vectoring altitude. In the rest of the world, ATC does not
reliably assume responsibility for off-route terrain clearance, even where initiated by
ATC. Some countries do not assume responsibility for terrain clearance even during
radar vectors. Even U.S. ATC is not infallible so the off-route/radar vector terrain clear-
ance responsibilities are, in fact, shared between the pilot and controller.