On The Other Hand
By Peter Conant - Although I've written about misunderstandings with controllers and their instructions, I should also point out that I also have had excellent service from ATC on many, many occasions, often greatly exceeding my expectations of what a controller is capable of. A few examples:
Late one night, just south of JFK at six thousand feet on the way back to Boston with my family, a New York controller called me to say that a heavy jet which had just departed would be climbing toward my position with his landing light shining right into my eyes. "You will see a swiftly climbing airplane headed up toward you. The plane is restricted to five thousand feet and will stop his climb one thousand feet below you." Talk about a controller going beyond his regular duties! When I saw the landing light racing up toward me, I realized I probably would have taken evasive action had I not been warned. As Wayne Gretsky says, "you don't want to skate to where the puck is, you want to skate to where it's going to be." Or in this case, where the GA aircraft is going to be relative to a departing jet. I am grateful to New York Departure Control for a great example thinking ahead.
Another occasion was an afternoon in the summer flying south from Boston and waiting for the ILS clearance into Martha's Vineyard. A Cessna also on the frequency was almost inaudible with a very scratchy carrier. The controller at Cape Approach called me to ask if I had heard any of the Cessna's transmissions. "Very faintly" I responded. The controller then asked if I would accept a clearance to circle south of the Vineyard and relay transmissions. "You're going to be my best friend if this works out" he said. By this time I was hearing the Cessna a bit better, and told Cape Approach. The Cessna had departed New Bedford enroute to Nantucket, and Cape Approach wanted me to tell him that his radio was unreadable and to return to New Bedford and "have his radio repaired before entering controlled airspace." I was impressed that the controller had thought to use me as a relay station.
Other small kindnesses include a controller monitoring transmissions from airplanes ahead of me, coming down Victor 139 (affectionately known as the "shark route" over the ocean from Long Island to the Maryland shore) and asking if I had their heard reports of icing. I told him I had also been listening and was "very interested" in their continuous reports. Sure enough, as I cleared the shoreline, light rime began building on the windscreen and leading edges. I asked for a lower altitude and after a few minutes the ice began to slowly melt away. Keeping ahead of the airplane and out of the ice was easy. I've heard it said that when you encounter a surprise when flying, it's usually not a pleasant surprise. Forewarned is forearmed.
Or the thoughtfulness of a controller who suggested a heading to avoid a line of thunderstorms while I was flying down to Raleigh, North Carolina to visit my daughter. Or the controller near Bradford, Pennsylvania who on a cloudy, chilly winter afternoon reacted to my decision to avoid the ice and snow by detouring to Williamsburg by saying "I'll give you a few minutes to pull out that approach chart." What a gentleman, and one who must have been a pilot familiar with all that goes on in the cockpit when plans change.
Or the laconic controller in South Dakota who, hearing my distress at having flown with my family into a building line of thunderstorms (thanks to a terrible weather briefing at the Mason City, Iowa FSS), gave me a block altitude to ride out the updrafts and, when I asked him about just turning around, said "You should be out of it in less than ten miles." Comforting words indeed, especially while rocking and rolling through the massive and unpredictable updrafts.
And someday soon, I might even tell you about the subsequent DOWNDRAFT we experienced as we flew out of the South Dakota clouds and into clear air. I have never flown through anything like it, before or since. If we easterners think we've seen bad thunderstorms, just try flying near a summer thunderbumper in the Midwest or the South. We don't know turbulence at all.