When ATC Makes a Mistake

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When ATC Makes a Mistake

Postby TXTBOOK » Sun May 20, 2012 7:30 pm

Recently, I was in a situation where ATC made a significant mistake which could have turned into a dangerous situation. As a primary student, it was an excellent learning experience and first hand experience to know that it is my responsibility as PIC to think for myself.

It was a beautiful day, but the winds were directly favoring the seldom used crossing runway at Montgomery Field, San Diego, CA MYF. I almost missed the active runway part of the ATIS as I was so used to using 28R as the main departure runway. Ground gave us taxi instructions that included an immediate instruction to cross both 28R/L on our way to 23.

Holding short and with two aircraft visibly on final (and after run-up) I called up Tower letting them know that we were ready to go, expecting him to acknowledge our status and tell us to hold short for landing traffic. He did.

After watching both aircraft that were lined up on final land, we saw a yellow piper cub, which had been cleared to land, turn short final. Seconds later, the controller cleared us for takeoff and gave us the expected left crosswind departure instruction. My eyes were focuses wholly on the cub that I knew was on too short of a final for us to be cleared, yet I read back the instruction, and even gave the aircraft some throttle. This was done out of habit from me, but mentally I was consciously aware that the situation was incorrect and that I should stop. Just as I was able to re-apply the brakes, another tower controller cancelled our clearance and told us to hold short. I of course complied, not having moved more than 5 feet from the original holding location.

Overall, what happened was...what was supposed to happen in this situation. A bad call was made, the pilot knew it, and it was corrected by ATC almost immediately. As a student, my takeaway was more serious. What if I had been in a hurry, and there wasn't another controller up there to correct the first guy? Everyone knows controllers make mistakes, but they would never clear and aircraft for takeoff with another aircraft on a quarter mile final, right? I'm glad to have seen first hand that it happens. I think that's what practical learning in aviation is all about.

Have you guys ever been in a situation where the controller put safety at jeopardy? How did you handle it? How did the controller?


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Re: When ATC Makes a Mistake

Postby Jeb » Mon May 21, 2012 9:25 am


Congrats on avoiding a "problem" and learning from it. I had a similar thing happen at BWI a few years ago, except I caught the landing Seminole, not ATC.

Two thoughts:

-- As you fly more, ATC will make more mistakes. They're human, just like you and me (you'll make mistakes, too, just as I do). I hate to quote him, but Ronnie Raygun said it best: "Trust, but verify."

-- Always, always, always take a long, hard look at the final approach path before taking the runway.


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Re: When ATC Makes a Mistake

Postby jackhodgson » Mon May 21, 2012 9:28 am

Interesting story. Giving it some thought. But tell me this, you describe yourself as a "primary student", were you with an instructor when this happened? Or solo?

// Jack

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Re: When ATC Makes a Mistake

Postby Laminar » Mon May 21, 2012 10:56 am

Good cautionary tale, thanks. I would have just assumed that it was the Cub pilot's fault.


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Re: When ATC Makes a Mistake

Postby TXTBOOK » Wed May 23, 2012 1:19 am

Thanks for the responses.

Jack, I was with my instructor. We were heading out to the practice area to test against the PTS.

I think I beat my instructor by about half a second as to what was happening. He chalked it up to a controller-in-training, and we agreeded that checking the final approach path visually should happen every time you take the runway.


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Re: When ATC Makes a Mistake

Postby JA_AK » Fri May 25, 2012 4:36 pm

Back in my pilot training days, we were shooting practice approaches into Jacksonville NAS. I was on a PAR, and very heads down fighting to keep those "On course, on glidepath" calls coming, and was not looking outside. My instructor, however, was. You don't switch to the tower frequency on a PAR, and somehow the tower controller and/or the radar controller missed a potential issue - a P-3 was cleared to takeoff by the tower when we were on a 1 mile final. My instructor took the plane, offset and climbed quickly to avoid a potentially ugly issue.

The controller was a bit too nonchalant about it for my taste, but what did I know. My lesson was to never lose my SA like that, and to not trust the Navy.

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Re: When ATC Makes a Mistake

Postby kashcow » Fri May 25, 2012 10:05 pm

I've had similar experiences, but on the arrival, twice.

The first time, the controller cleared me to land on long final, then brought a faster a/c in behind me and asked me to keep my speed up. When I was on a 1-mile final, the controller brought a slower aircraft in FRONT of me on a 1/2 mile final, and THEN (apparently realizing what had just happened, but wanting to make it work out for everyone anyway) asked me to do S-turns for spacing. Not wanting to become the creamy-white filling in an aeronautical Oreo, I replied, "Unable. Break me off the approach and re-sequence me. I'm in no hurry and that should work out better for everyone." With what sounded like a sigh of relief, the controller thanked me, re-issued better instructions for everyone, and any problems were avoided.

The second time, on initial contact, the controller gave me instructions to enter the pattern which matched the ATIS, along with a later reporting point. I continued on, listening to traffic in a closed pattern and spotted the a/c as I got closer. I reached the reporting point, called in, and was given the exact OPPOSITE direction for the pattern. Rather than read back the instructions, I replied, "Confirm your last. Did the winds change from the expected approach you gave me earlier? Also,I have visual on the traffic in the pattern." After a moment of sputtering, the instructions were reversed, I entered the pattern in front of the other a/c and everything worked out fine.

To be fair, I've pulled a stupid pilot trick or two, whereupon the controllers professionally and kindly, but firmly, corrected my mistakes and nothing more was said. While none of my goofs involved other a/c in the vicinity, it still goes to show that everyone is human and a little understanding goes a long way... and to speak up if something doesn't sound right or it makes you uncomfortable.


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