Don’t give your controller a heart attack

11 Aug 23 3 Comments

Redditor jmcmanna is a controller in the Chicago area, with references to working O’Hare (ORD) and Midway (MDW) International Airports. Jmcmanna is an active participant on the flying subreddits that I follow and regularly responds to pilots with questions about ATC and procedures. It’s a great look “behind the scenes” from someone who is clearly a very engaged controller.

An unknown air traffic controller hard at work. Photograph by Petar Marjanovic

Today’s post on Reddit starts with a very simple plea:

If you’re getting flight following, let ATC know before you decide to do a simulated engine failure, or a touch and go on a lake!

It’s easy enough to imagine the situation from that alone but jmcmanna goes on to tell us the whole story:

I was working a busy arrival push into MDW yesterday and was giving flight following to an aircraft that was an “experimental” a couple of miles off the Lake Michigan shoreline flying northbound toward Wisconsin. I had given them an altitude restriction that I no longer needed, and they didn’t respond to my transmission canceling it.

I then watched them make a steady descent from 2000’ to 700’ and thought for sure they were in the water. I made several unanswered calls to them while working my MDW traffic and alerting the Sup that I may have lost one when their target re-appeared and started climbing again.

I re-established radio comms with them and asked if they were okay, and they said that they were in an amphibious aircraft and wanted to get close to the water. Not cool! Aside from panicking and trying to remember the keystrokes in the heat of the moment to mark the lat/longs while working my other traffic, I had a mini heart-attack from the whole experience.

Please, advise your friendly air traffic controller before diving for the ground! We might be cranky and unaccommodating sometimes, but we still care for every target on our radar screens personally.

I can’t imagine the stress of such a situation. The controller admits this is related to a pet peeve: pilots who ask for flight following and then don’t respond to calls.

The replies include a number of incidents that must have looked odd from the point of view of ATC, including training under the hood. To simulate instrument conditions, pilots put on a “hood”, basically a visor reminiscent of horse blinders, which forces them to fly without visual references. Often instructors will wait until the students are in quite a mess before allowing them to look around.

Redditor Mispelled-This wrote:

My CFII once gave me a simulated engine fire under the hood—and when he told me we broke out, I discovered we were pointed straight at a 2000ft radio tower. Center was not amused. But if he’d said something, I probably wouldn’t have needed to throw away those pants, which I’m pretty sure was his goal.

Followed by Redditor dodexahedron who wrote:

Man, unusual attitude training under the hood was humbling that way.

“OK, give me a steep turn to the left”

3 seconds later…

“OK, open your eyes and fix it.”

Meanwhile, we’re in a vertical dive, a couple seconds away from exceeding Vne.

Another example is deliberate fast descents. The most extreme example was from Redditor thenickdude, who wrote:

When we’ve decided that it’s time to go to the pub, and I’m descending out of the winter wave in a glider, from 12,000 down to 2,000 feet, right over the top of the airfield with the gear out and full airbrakes open in a tight spiral, I have to make sure to make multiple altitude callouts on the way down, since other traffic isn’t anticipating me to be falling out of the sky like a skydiver, lol.

The key word there is “glider”, I sure hope no one is trying this on a light aircraft!

The fast descent stories led to this four-minute video being posted, in which a jump plane takes the skydivers up for a jump and then races them back down. It’s eight years old but still amazing to watch:

Just watching that gave me an adrenaline rush and I’m safely on the ground.

To conclude, I want to repeat that heartwarming comment at the end of the jmcmanna’s post as it is something I think we all need reminding of, now and then.

We might be cranky and unaccommodating sometimes, but we still care for every target on our radar screens personally.

I don’t know what this is but it seemed appropriate for toasting controllers with. Photograph by 盈棻 吳

Be safe out there and be kind to your controllers.

Category: ATC,


  • Several of the Controllers at New Orleans were friends of mine from childhood and my closest friend was a US Navy AC. All fantastic people.

    After strapping a parachute on the butt of one of the female controllers, at her request, and taking her through the basic Sportsman Program in Harry’s Stearman, she made a poster of my face in front of the plane with the caption, “Shoot On Sight”. It hung in the stairwell of the tower for far too long.

    A part of Pilot training should include a couple hours in the tower, a trip to weather and time in the ATC. When you see how hard these folks work and how calm they remain when everything is going to hell, you really appreciate them.

  • IIRC, ground school for my private-pilot training included a field trip to the nearest ARTCC (en-route center); since I trained at Hanscom/Bedford and the “Boston” center is in Nashua (a half-hour away), this was easier than it would have been for many student pilots. During instrument training a couple of years later, we went back to Nashua (IIRC just after the shift from “shrimp boat” markers tracking aircraft across the screens to computer-constructed displays) and to the local center and control-tower dome at Boston Logan. It was definitely a learning experience, but I don’t know how far many/most USA students would have to go for such visits as a lot of private flying happens out where population is thinner and major airports are fewer.

    wrt that drop-plane video: when I was skydiving, the pilots were the sane ones; this one is swooping as if he’s under a bat-wing canopy. If I were still skydiving I think I’d rather wait a little longer for my ride….

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