ATC Versus Pilot Regs

While both ATC pilots have the ultimate objective of safe and efficient flights, the regulations that govern each can seem contradictory.


You might have heard the old adage, “The flight cannot be cleared for departure until the gross weight of the paperwork exceeds that of the aircraft.” While cynical, this reference to all the required processes, rules, and regulations makes a good point. Regulations and procedures for pilots largely mirror those of ATC, but these might have widely different interpretations based on where you sit.

Born Out of Blood

We have all heard the expression that rules and regulations were essentially “born out of blood” or “written in blood.” While this is true to an extent, aviation (along with many other things) started from a reactive culture and moved toward a proactive culture. Every NTSB report filed either touches an existing rule for pilots or ATC, or calls to create a new rule. Depending on what exactly might be the remedy, the process of deciding whether it is a systematic rule or human related starts at the same time that the incident occurred. At the end of the day, something is done about it in some form or fashion. Whether it was effective or just feels good, I’ll leave to you.

Rules naturally derive from something being new or newly understood, where we humans didn’t previously understand what to do or how to handle a situation. When aviation took off 117 years ago, the rules that followed did not take too long to be written, even if it wasn’t initially on paper. Now, while many of us follow the rules and interpret them in a certain way, there are some who think a particular rule might not apply to a specific situation.

One very common example is pilots yelling on frequency at a non-controlled field, “Traffic in the area, please advise!” There are still those that have a different way of thinking. Despite AIM 4-1-9.g. saying this phrase “is not a recognized Self-Announce … should not be used under any condition,” many pilot —even professionals—still say it.

Some might claim that the AIM isn’t regulatory. Nonetheless, deviations from the “best practices” in the AIM can result in a violation as we explored in “AIM is Non-Regulatory” in our September 2019 issue. The AIM states and re-states federal regulations, then clarifies and interprets them for a reason.

Now what about the ATC side of things? Our order 7110.65 (that we commonly just call the .65, “point sixty- five”) has been established since the late seventies. One of my good friends actually had a copy of the 7110.65A that was published on 1 January, 1978. It was short compared to today’s 672-page version.

A controller should be following the book to the best of their ability, which means pilots are sometimes left wondering, “Why on earth did the controller do that?” With nearly 700 pages of “How-to,” there is probably a reference for that.

Yes, “there is probably a reference for that.” But, what if there isn’t? One unwritten rule that can be used by both sides is, “If there is no rule/reg for a specific situation, use common sense. What gets everyone progressing safely while minimally affecting other aircraft? Yeah, do that.” Seeing how most pilots and controllers have Type A personalities, we can all go in a different direction when it comes to one specific topic.

Understand the Other Side

I think it’s very helpful if controllers know more about what pilots have to do, and if pilots know more about ATC internal requirements. Let’s say you and another airplane are VFR, and you are in the same traffic pattern. In a pilot’s head, what kind of separation is needed? “Don’t touch.”

Now let’s say you are in the pattern at a Class D airport, do your requirements change because someone else is “separating” for you? ATC requirements for separation for two VFR aircraft in the same pattern are simply, “Don’t touch.” Yeah, it’s the same. However, a controller’s “Don’t touch,” might translate to letting you get a bit closer than you are comfortable with, especially if that controller isn’t also a pilot. While the AIM always applies to your actions, when you add a controller, you add their rules—and interpretations of those rules—as well.

Whenever I’m discussing ATC requirements with pilots, I like to cover runway separation requirements. Not a lot is said in the AIM for a pilot’s requirement to not get close to other (non-formation) aircraft on the same runway.

Many newer pilots, even CFIs, think that if there is an operational (not-disabled) airplane on the runway, they can’t land. At a towered field, unless you haven’t been given a clearance to land, or be told to go around, the previous statement is not necessarily true.

ATC has runway separation requirements that allow us to put two airplanes on the runway at a time. Paragraph 3-9-6 in the .65 states that as long as I have suitable landmarks for reference (runway distance-remaining markers in most cases) I can land two single engine airplanes that weigh less than 12,500, on the same runway as long as I have 3000 feet. Or I can land a twin behind a C172 if there’s 4500 feet. Anything that involves a jet is 6000 feet. Yes, with a Tower clearance, you can land with another aircraft on the runway, as long as you, the PIC, feel it’s safe!

ABOVE: When we get told to hold for wake turbulence, it’s common to just accept it (Left). But, did you know you can waive the delay (Right) if you think it’s safe?

Another thing I like to discuss is wake-turbulence requirements. A pilot is brought up and taught to fly above and around the general vicinity of the wake from another aircraft. For departing, you might hear a simple, “hold for wake turbulence.” Depending on the airplane you are following and what you are flying, wake turbulence can be a few bumps, or it can be the reason you find yourself inverted.

Did you know you can waive wake turbulence spacing? It’s not something controllers should solicit on frequency. This applies on the ground while waiting for departure behind a larger aircraft,
but it doesn’t work if the previous departure is classified as an actual heavy.

Imagine you are waiting to depart in your Turbo 210, and a Falcon 900 goes in front of you. At the same departure point, Tower should not hold you for wake turbulence. In that same scenario, if you are at an intersection, tower will hold you for 3 minutes. As PIC, if you deem you can safely depart and avoid the wake of that Falcon, all you need say is, “Tower, (Callsign), will waive wake turbulence.” If there is no other reason to hold you, the next words you should hear are “Cleared for takeoff.” Of course, be sure you can conduct the takeoff safely before waiving anything.

He Did; Can’t I?

There are some cooperative agreements that ATC has with specific entities that are not easily accessible to the general public. For example, every ATC facility has at least one Letter of Agreement (LOA) with other entities, both other ATC facilities and local operators. In the ATC world, an LOA has at least two parties who agree to a specific operating procedure based on certain conditions. The .65 sets the main ground rules for ATC controlling airplanes, however it may not be practical in some places. A Class D in the middle of nowhere doesn’t need an LOA to push out departures like a busy Class B airport. Next time you are flying and hear an airplane doing something that sounds unusual, it could be normal for them and they could have an LOA in place with the controlling facility to further enhance understanding and keep the operation smooth.

The most common LOA at my facility is with the local helicopter flight school. It’s nothing fancy, just a reiteration of ATC rules for SVFR procedures and rules for operating when the field is IFR, along with the school’s own fancy callsign. Normally, when the field is IFR, it’s only one in, one out. Since helicopters have lower operating altitudes, the school proposed an LOA with the Tower so they could still do pattern work while we were IFR. Now this doesn’t mean 200 broken, the ceiling has to be at least 500- feet AGL.

When it comes to entering and exiting the Class D under IFR, if they don’t want to file, they have to take a very specific route, and report along the way, as well as report when clear of the Class D. This is highly advantageous for this flight school as well as others when the weather doesn’t exactly cooperate with the original plan. Having everything laid out on paper lowers workload and stress for both the pilots and controllers involved.

An LOA might be useful for what you are doing. Creating an LOA with an ATC agency will enlighten you more than I possibly could here. The controlling facility will literally sit down with the requestor and go over their requirements to keep things safe, and make sure you are able to do the same. While it is a long process, in the end it could be beneficial to both parties. Note that alternatives to face-to-face sit downs are in place during the various coronavirus restrictions.

Understanding Leads To Efficiency

At my home field, there are several flight schools, one of which has a lot of foreign students. Not only are they learning how to fly, they’re often learning or expanding their English while being immersed in an unfamiliar culture a long way from home. It is not an easy task, to be sure.

This school was earning a lot of deviations, and students were frequently being told to make full-stop landings at times because they wouldn’t follow— or didn’t understand—instructions. While the effort through official channels takes forever, I had a couple of their CFIs reach out to me informally to discuss a few things.

We went over many things surrounding the problems they are experiencing. A few of those were getting sent around more often and then not
following instructions after that. The language barrier was one of the bigger problems the school had, however there is only so much a controller could do. Thus, the conversation went to overall efficiency.

They want to “not be in our hair” longer than they needed. I explained to them a few different subjects, one of which was runway separation, and explained that controllers need 3000 feet between two of their aircraft on the same runway. This was a newer batch of CFIs, and they thought that staying relatively close to the aircraft in front would speed things up a bit. It ended up doing the opposite.

I explained to them that they could go to an uncontrolled field and do that. However, when someone else could be responsible for you coming
too close to another aircraft, our minimums don’t change. Another piece I explained was that if they are just entering and exiting our airspace, they could go as a single flight in formation. That was a non-starter for them.

We spoke for a couple hours and they were able to take the information back to their school and educate others on why ATC does certain things. Not too long after that, it seemed to catch on. They were spacing themselves perfectly without any extra instructions from me. If it wasn’t 3000 feet, it was quite close. The number of deviations and go arounds decreased to a minimum. After the numbers went down, management no longer saw a need to meet for further discussions. The school got what they needed out of it, and we controllers got a more efficient pattern. Of course, we all got a reaffirmation that common sense goes a lot farther than politics at times.

Change to Advisory Frequency

Even at the student level a pilot has to read many books in order to prepare to fly an airplane. The same is true for controllers. It should be no trouble for each of us to venture just a little bit outside our comfort zone to learn a few things on our counterpart. Learning a little bit about the other side will help you find that warm, fuzzy space of separation that you so desire, or on the other hand, could yield one less turn in a hold. It will allow you to enhance safety and efficiency by knowing more about what is expected and what is possible. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way in this instance. Now, go around.


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