Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
A Tower of Respect

August 10, 2012  By Michael Bellamy

The Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) has an interesting section in its monthly newsletter that reports on all CARS violations from flying with a lapsed medical to airspace violations.

The Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) has an interesting section in its monthly newsletter that reports on all CARS violations from flying with a lapsed medical to airspace violations. It should be required reading as a reminder to all pilots that due diligence is always required when transiting through unfamiliar airspace.

Airspace violations are not just the work of low-time pilots; commercial pilots with thousands of hours of flying experience commit them as well. Examples such as a pilot’s descending or climbing from Air Traffic Control (ATC) assigned altitudes or deviating from an instruction to maintain a particular heading are happening across the country.

So, the question is, why does a pilot acknowledge an ATC instruction and then ignore it? Whether or not a “read back” response is indicated, I’m beginning to suspect that sometimes pilots acknowledge the instruction without fully understanding what the directive actually is – or they’re sometimes too intimidated to ask for clarification.

High-density radio traffic also often demonstrates the limits of VHF and, as pilots, we have all heard the annoying squeals that occur as users step on one another. What is said during these moments gets lost completely except for those keying the transmit buttons. And these pilots have no way of knowing that all or part of their transmission is unintelligible. Controllers, too, in an effort to maintain a smooth communication flow, often deliver clearances with the celerity of an auctioneer. Those familiar with the airport may easily understand clearances or instructions, but those who are exposed to the process only a few times a year may not.


A helicopter pilot who has spent the winter slinging bags on a seismic job or moving drills come summer, may find transitioning to a busy international airport to be an onerous task. The procedures, while not altogether foreign, are not current either. I know many pilots, both fixed- and rotary-wing, who say they avoid the situation altogether by skirting larger airports and re-fuelling at quieter aerodromes.

Sometimes a modest detour is a practical solution for expediting fuelling times and so on. But a circuitous routing around larger airports shouldn’t be necessary just because the pilot finds it too stressful. We are, after all, professionals and should be up to the task. The pilot who relies on the “Go To” button on the GPS without familiarizing himself with the “Flight Supplement” and the “Terminal Area Chart” is on his way to a humiliating tirade from a controller. Refreshing your knowledge of airspace procedures, and entering a few pertinent waypoints in the GPS, will turn the flight into a safe and professional one.

Traffic control at airports is critical and not understanding a clearance or deviating from the published procedures without authorization can easily have tragic consequences – or at the very least have a pilot slapped with an expensive fine for endangering other aircraft. Acknowledging an ATC instruction assures the controller that you understand and can comply. Do something other than he or she is expecting, or destroy the smooth flow of traffic at the airport, and you will discover that NAV CANADA is not exactly your friend. 

Since NAV CANADA evolved from a government agency to a private corporation, a few formalities have been withdrawn from radio transmissions. The polite “sir” or “ma’am” used to be a prevalent salutation when addressing others in conversation. For aircraft with retractable gear, it was common banter for the tower to remind the pilot to “Check gear down” when issuing a landing clearance. Inbound to an airport that was below VFR, and the tower would advise the pilot, “Special VFR is required.” Warning the pilot that he or she must remain clear of the CZ until the request was sanctioned was also standard phraseology. However, these examples, and many more, have all but disappeared over the past number of years.

I recognize the demands of increased traffic and safety concerns have dictated this brevity, but I am disappointed by the demise of such interaction. I felt the old way connoted mutual respect and concern for one another’s well-being. The controller’s task at a busy airport is a challenging one and introducing a “loose cannon” into his or her midst must be frustrating to say the least – if not downright dangerous.

As pilots, we should be obliged to conduct all facets of our occupation professionally. Pilots who can fly a helicopter with superlative expertise but can’t or won’t trouble themselves to keep abreast of how to transit a busy control zone are only doing half a job. 

A native of Spruce Grove, Alta., Michael Bellamy has been flying fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft in a variety of capacities since 1971, and is an accomplished author of several books, including Crosswinds.


Stories continue below

Print this page