Unpleasant Surprises

Despite having (most of) the big picture, controllers aren't mind readers. Be sure to tell them your plan so they can plan accordingly.


When I was learning to fly, my instructor would say, “A good flight comes from good information.”

Surprises in the cockpit aren’t generally good things. To avoid them, you absorb data, whether it’s a preflight
weather brief, the information on the ATIS, or what your instruments are telling you. You take these disparate pieces and assemble them into what you hope will be a predictable, successful flight.

What if you didn’t know a key piece of data was missing? For instance, how would you feel if the FSS briefer failed
to mention your destination airport was NOTAMed closed? That makes for a frustrating experience, as you cobble together a new plan.

As an air traffic controller now, I can say surprises aren’t welcome in the tower or radar room either. How can pilots ensure an error of omission doesn’t put ATC in a tight spot?

Hurry Up Slow

Much of the information controllers rely on is readily available to them, such as filed altitudes and routes. When flight plan strips print out in a radar room or tower, we’ll check for discrepancies and follow up if anything looks weird.

However, one field that displays for some controllers, but not others, is your filed airspeed. Centers need that information. Once you’re at cruising altitude and cruising speed, they ensure you’re not running over other aircraft, or are getting run over yourself.

You know who doesn’t normally see your filed cruising speed? Towers and approach controls. We typically don’t need it. All aircraft are restricted to 250 knots below 10,000 feet. A departing jet filed for 380 knots would only be hitting that speed once they’re climbing up into Center’s airspace. If they’re an arrival, they’d be slowing to 250 knots as we descend them out of 10,000.

That said, even without seeing the filed speed, towers and approach controls absolutely rely on speed to separate aircraft. If I’ve got a jet and a Cessna 206 ready for takeoff, I would launch the jet first and the Cessna close behind, knowing the jet will rapidly outrun the C206. We depend on the “get up and go” performance of jets to build our required three miles of IFR separation.

So, when a jet gets up and doesn’t go, it’s a nasty surprise. One day in the tower, I had a Beechjet 400 ready for takeoff, and an Airbus A320 behind him. I cleared the Beechjet, waited until he rotated, and cleared the A320. This jet sequence would normally give me more than enough room, as the lead jet accelerates to 250 knots.

I suddenly noticed the Beechjet’s landing gear remained down. I advised the pilot, who responded, “Yeah, we need to keep it down for the flight. Maintenance issue.” There was nothing in the remarks. Now, if you pull up the POH for the Beechjet 400, its VLE—maximum landing gear extended speed—is 200 knots. I later printed out his full flight plan. He’d filed for 190 knots. That’s all nice and safe and legal for him … except I now had an Airbus A320 starting its takeoff roll, who was about to eat him for lunch.

I immediately called radar and coordinated a turn for the Beechjet to get him out of the way of the Airbus, and a higher climb for the Airbus so he’d top the Beechjet more quickly. I also added a “SPD RESTRICTED 190KTS” remark for my fellow controllers downstream. Had the Beechjet pilot just told me his restriction beforehand, I would have departed the Airbus first. If you’re flying anything other than a normal performance profile for your aircraft type, please tell the controller so ATC can plan for it.

Say What You Mean

Above, a departure’s omission led to a safety issue. The same happens with arrivals. I was working Tower when Approach handed me a Cessna Skyhawk. If an aircraft is doing a touch and go, radar adds a character to its radar data block to indicate he’s not a full stop. The actual character varies across ATC facilities, but let’s say it’s the obvious: “T.”

The Cessna checked in. He had no “T,” so I said, “Traffic departing prior to your arrival. Runway 27, cleared to land.” The pilot read it back exactly as I’d said it: “Runway 27, cleared to land.” He was still a few miles out, so in the interim, I launched a pair of airliners.

The Cessna crossed the threshold, touched down … and suddenly throttled up. What the …? Was he going around? Now, I’ve seen go-arounds at all phases of a landing. I’ve even seen a Boeing 757 touch down, power up with nose high and only the mains on the runway, and then head skyward again.

Obviously, communicating is last behind aviating and navigating, so I patiently waited for the Cessna to say, “Going around.” It never came. Once he was well out of the critical phase of flight, I finally prompted, “Say intentions?” He replied, “Oh, we just wanted to do a touch and go, then head back to (home airport).” Wow. So he’d never intended to full-stop in the first place?

I was annoyed. You might ask, “What’s the harm? Aircraft do touch and goes all the time.” Well, the issue is two-fold. First, I had launched two large aircraft ahead of him, so we now have a wake turbulence situation. Normally, when a small aircraft does a T&G after a larger plane departs, ATC must ensure the small one doesn’t cross the threshold until three minutes after the large aircraft departed. Alternately, ATC must ensure the small aircraft has the departure in sight, and then instructs them to maintain their own visual separation from them.

A full-stop aircraft doesn’t need any of that, since it’s not expected to take off into the departure’s wake. Now, thanks to the impromptu T&G, I had neither the three minutes, nor the pilot providing his own visual separation from the wake-generating aircraft’s rotation point. This was another safety issue.

Second, Approach was also expecting this fellow to full-stop. I now have to call Approach to coordinate climbout
instructions and pass on the new destination. Approach then must amend the Cessna’s flight plan to his new destination … unless his old flight plan’s already timed out of the system, in which case Approach will have to type in a new one.

The real kicker is that the pilot read back, “Cleared to land.” That’s unambiguous phraseology. I didn’t say, “Cleared for the option,” which encompasses many choices, including landing. I was expecting that aircraft to full-stop. If he wasn’t intending to land, that was his cue to say, “Negative. Requesting (touch and go/top and go/ low approach).” The pilot withheld information, and didn’t correct it when given a clear opportunity. This created a possible safety threat to the pilot and an ATC workload increase.

When You Gotta Go ... Around

What happens when you cram hundreds of people into a pressurized metal tube? ATC and pilots find out that some passengers don’t want to be left out of the surprise business, and put everyone around them in a bind!

Per regulations, an airliner can’t taxi if passengers are out of their seats. I first encountered this on Ground when an A320 was taxiing to its gate, and suddenly stopped. I asked, “Do you require assistance?”

“Nope. Somebody had to hit the lavatory. We can’t go until they, uh, go.” It would’ve been funny, except they’d stopped on a major taxiway intersection, blocking both my outbound and inbound traffic. Like a bathroom line at a football game, about 1000 other people in a half dozen other airliners were stuck waiting until one person’s business got done.

The most egregious example of this happened another day, during a crazy arrival and departure rush. We had multiple airliners on final, and a line of other airliners ready to depart. As one arrival touched down, the next one was a few miles out. Tower told an A320, “Runway 9, line up and wait.” The Airbus rolled onto the runway.

As the arrival vacated the runway, Tower cleared the A320 for takeoff. No response. He cleared them again, noting the rapidly approaching arrival on final. The crew replied, “Uh, we just had someone stand up in the back. We can’t go anywhere.” Seriously? The immobilized Airbuswas occupying the most important piece of real estate on the airport. The language in our tower cab—and I imagine in the cockpit—was … colorful.

Tower took the only option available: He sent the first airliner arrival around. Meanwhile, the A320 was also still technically cleared for takeoff. Tying off that loose end, Tower told them, “Cancel takeoff clearance. Hold position and advise intentions.” Meanwhile, the next arrival was closing in. A second go-around was becoming a possibility. All the other departures were being delayed as well.

The clearly frustrated Airbus crew finally responded, “We’re going to need to taxi off and sit for a bit.” Tower taxied him off the nearest taxiway, and cleared the next arrival to land. Soon, the departures also started flowing again. Eventually, the A320 departed too.

I can only speculate about the details, as we had more important things to worry about. If it had been something serious, the airline would’ve deplaned the individual. It leads me to believe it was something minor, like another bathroom run. All I know is that everyone using that same runway had been thrown into a difficult situation, and there was nothing either ATC or pilots could do but follow their procedures. —TK

When I was “flying the line” I had a similar situation happen to me. We were departing Bakersfield, CA during the typical mid-winter, low-vis tule fog (“tool-ey”). Our required takeoff weather was 600 feet each for the touchdown, mid, and rollout RVR sensors. That morning the visibility bounced from as low as 200 to 700, so we sat and waited at the hold-short line for all three values to get over 600 at the same time. And waited … and waited… We could tell Tower was trying to help us out, perhaps “rounding” the numbers just a bit or delaying identifying a lowering reading. Still, we waited. After about 20 minutes, in one breath Tower told us the visibility was 600/600/600 and gave us an immediate takeoff clearance. The intercom rang as we brought up the power. It was the flight attendant telling us a passenger had just gotten up to go to the lavatory.

We stopped, still on the safe side of the hold-short line, told Tower, got and acknowledged our takeoff cancellation, and waited … another 30 minutes for the RVRs to once again align for our takeoff clearance. —FB

Paint the Picture

Forgetting or withholding information doesn’t just impact the pilot or ATC; other pilots are affected too. One seemingly daily example? If I had a $5.00 for every time a training aircraft got within five miles of their destination airport before telling me they wanted a practice instrument approach—after I’ve worked hard to sequence them with jets—I could retire and live comfortably off the interest. It literally recently happened to me twice in 10 minutes.

If I had the information ahead of time, I would’ve made a completely different plan. It’s taught me to be proactive with aircraft I know belong to flight training schools. If they don’t volunteer anything on check in, I’ll directly ask them, “Verify requesting the (advertised visual approach)?” That’s their cue to request something special instead.

A lot of this can be solved with good radio check-in technique. Now, a thousand controllers may have a thousand different preferences, but, generally, we need to know you have the ATIS, what you’re requesting now, and how your request will terminate.

Some of the shorthand we use for noting pilot requests and our planning: R7P stands for “RNAV Runway 27 approach with a published missed approach” and V7W is a “VOR 27 with a west climbout heading.” Also noted: their request to later pickup an IFR clearance to another airport.

Do you have only one approach request? Here’s a good check-in: “Approach, N456CD at 5000 with ATIS Mike, requesting RNAV 27, full stop.” Perfect. I know you have the ATIS, your approach request, and that it’s terminating with a landing. No 20 questions. If there’s nothing in the way, my next transmission could literally be, “Cleared approach.”

Do you have multiple requests? We’ll often want to write them down. So you can give us a fighting chance to grab some paper and a pen, and take care of any more pressing actions. If I hear, “Approach, N456CD, at 5000 with ATIS Mike and multiple approach requests,” I might say, “Standby with your request,” while I take care of other things. When I respond, “N123AB, Approach, say request,” you know I’m ready for you.

If, after your fun times with me, you’re planning on picking up an IFR clearance outbound, say so. “Requesting RNAV 27, followed by a VOR 27, then pick up our IFR outbound to (other airport).” Now I know to issue you a missed approach heading that will best get you lined up for your second approach. I’ll also track down your outbound flight plan for when that moment comes.

Once you’re on Tower, let them know how—or even if—you want to touch the runway. “Tower, N456CD on final for Runway 27. Requesting touch and go.” Or, “Tower, N456CD, 10 miles out on the VOR 27. Requesting low approach.”

Neither air traffic controllers nor pilots hold a monopoly on surprises. I’m the first to admit I’ve forgotten to tell a pilot something, and felt terrible about any complications I put on them. All we can do is try our best to make sure
everyone has the information they need to act appropriately.


  1. The stand up and lavatory stories really do not impact GA pilots.
    I have a couple of stories of the tower using misleading language and omitting vital info.

  2. They would if you are on final cleared to land and now the Airbus lined up and waiting on the runway with a clearance to takeoff can’t move because somebody in the cabin stood up. You will likely have to go around. What other people do unexpectedly can often affect you. And yes, ATC can make mistakes too.


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