Article appeared in Flying Magazine October, 2015 by Martha King –
My thumb was already in motion towards the mic button to declare an emergency when the Anchorage Center controller’s voice sounded in my headset. “N4577L, cleared for the ILS DME Runway 11 approach at Ketchikan.”
It was January in Southeastern Alaska. John and I were on our way home to San Diego in our Cessna 340 from teaching weekend ground school classes in Fairbanks and Anchorage. It was our eleventh round-trip to Alaska in our own airplane, and our refueling stops in Southeastern Alaska were always challenging.
The area has a well-deserved reputation for generating icing conditions. Plus, there were sections of the route where we would lose both navigation signals and communications with ATC. We would just hold our heading until we picked up the next VORTAC, and start listening on the next frequency. And of course at that time there was no radar coverage—IFR separation was based on each pilot’s reported position, time, altitude, and estimate to the next reporting point. You had to build your own image of the traffic flow based on the conversations you heard on the frequency.
Now there is radar coverage in Southeastern Alaska, so ATC doesn’t have to rely exclusively on pilot estimates. And when ADS-B is implemented in 2020, both ATC and any pilot with at least a tablet will have a real-time picture of aircraft locations.
As we approached Ketchikan, I began to realize there was an Alaska Airlines B727 overtaking us. It too was headed for Ketchikan, and it looked like it would arrive very slightly ahead of us. Thinking of the almost-certain icing conditions we would encounter at lower altitudes, I told Anchorage Center that if we were going to have to hold for the airliner I wanted to hold at altitude, above the clouds, to stay out of the ice. “You won’t need to hold,” the controller responded. “Descend and maintain 7,000.”
As I leveled at 7,000 feet the controller called with holding instructions. It appeared the B727 wasn’t as much ahead of us as the controller had thought. And as I had anticipated, 7,000 feet, the MEA in that area, did put us in icing conditions. I was cleared to hold at a fix on the airway at the 30 DME arc off Annette Island VORTAC, and once I was cleared for the approach I’d have to fly about 10 miles on that DME arc just to intercept the localizer and then 14 more miles to the airport—all in icing conditions. I wasn’t happy.
Although I had all the de-icing equipment activated in the C340, the ice built up steadily and our airspeed started to decrease rapidly. I kept comparing my estimate of how quickly the ice was building with my anticipation of when I would get approach clearance. Just as I made the decision to declare an emergency and start the approach without a clearance, the controller came through with my clearance. As I descended on the approach, I watched with relief as the ice slowly began disappearing from the wings. Although in the end I didn’t have to declare an emergency, it was just a matter of luck.
Was my readiness to declare an emergency, and almost certainly make Alaska Airlines do a missed approach, appropriate? I would make that same decision again, in the same circumstances. I had made the calculation that the B727 had a lot more power than our C340, had better icing protection than we did, and if anyone had to hang around in the ice it was safer for him to do so than us.
The controller’s number one job is to keep airplanes separated. As a pilot, I am in charge of everything that can affect the outcome of the flight. I have to be proactive rather than waiting for the controller to give me directions. Plus, there are many circumstances in which a controller might not be there to help me.
Pilots often tend to think, “I’m in controlled airspace everywhere I fly, I’m always talking to a controller who can help me out.” But that’s not necessarily so. Numerous control towers and ATC centers have been evacuated due to tornadoes, fires (internal or external), or earthquakes. Ultimate responsibility always falls on the pilot. A pilot cannot give away that responsibility to a controller; they must always be ready to be fully PIC.
An example is the total shutdown of Chicago Center on September 26, 2014 due to sabotage. A deliberately-set fire caused Chicago Center to lose all radar coverage, and shortly thereafter all communications with the airplanes it was separating. A number of airplanes descending for landing were put into holding patterns before communications went completely dead; en route airplanes had the frequency go silent. Every pilot had to make a command decision about how to handle the loss of communications.
En route aircraft generally just kept on going while they searched on their charts, or called on 121.5, to get a frequency in an adjacent center. Airplanes descending for landing, or in holding patterns, generally re-established communications through a nearby approach control.
A controller’s greatest nightmare is being cut off from their traffic. But pilots cannot afford to have their biggest nightmare be being cut off from the controller. We need to be able and willing to be PIC without the direction of ATC—or even against the direction of ATC.
One of the most remarkable incidents I have seen of a pilot truly exercising PIC authority happened at the Providence, RI airport on the night of December 6, 1999. There was heavy fog at the airport, and the tower controller could not see the runways or taxiways.
United Airlines 1448, a B757, landed on 5R, turned off to the left, and got lost on the taxiways in the fog. It ended up with its nose back over 5R. The United flight reported they were at least partially on a runway. They didn’t know for sure which one, and actually reported at one point it was 5L. But they were pretty sure it was in use because they could hear the sound of a FedEx B727 taking off.
With the dense fog and no ground radar, the tower controller could only rely on the pilots’ reports of their positions. While the United pilots were still trying to figure out where they were, the tower cleared US Air for takeoff. The US Air captain refused the takeoff clearance, not once but twice, and stated he would hold his position until United had reached its gate.
The pressure on the US Air captain was huge. The tower controller was forcefully trying to get him to take off. But the US Air captain knew the United pilots didn’t know for sure where they were. The tower wouldn’t either until the plane reached its gate. The US Air pilot that evening proved that he was truly pilot-in-command.
Sometimes exercising PIC authority doesn’t involve contradicting ATC, just suggesting a better route or procedure. That’s what pilots do whenever they request deviations for weather. On a trip not long ago into the DC area, Potomac Approach was issuing holding instructions to pilots. The controller issued me instructions to hold on the airway at the Linden VORTAC 10 DME fix.
Looking out the window and at our radar, I could see that the clearance would have me going in and out of a nasty-looking cumulus cloud. When I asked to hold at the 15 DME fix instead, the controller was happy to give it to me. He was just busy separating traffic. It was my job to keep everybody on my airplane as safe and comfortable as possible.
The issue of PIC responsibility and authority is just as important for VFR pilots. For instance, there is a tendency for some pilots to feel a false sense of comfort from an erroneous belief that they have shared—or transferred—responsibility when using flight following. While flight following can be helpful in letting you know about pop-up TFRs, they only provide traffic advisories, not separation, and only on a workload-permitting basis.
Nor does flight following guarantee search and rescue service when an aircraft goes down. Unless the controller has reason to believe an aircraft has gone down, if a pilot just quits talking to them—because the pilot changed to a different frequency, flew out of radio range, or crashed—the controller will not automatically activate search and rescue procedures. That’s what flight plans are for.
We as pilots are always in charge of our own welfare. Sometimes it is scary to contemplate, but as pilots we cannot give away our responsibility to a controller. Regardless of IFR clearances or flight following, only we have final responsibility for the outcome of a flight. As the PIC, we can’t afford to be passive. We must always be proactive, not reactive, and always be truly the pilot in command.