Them and Us: A CFIs Guide to Partnering With Your ATC Facility

My company is nothing without its partnerships. Among those are the ones we develop with mechanics, with our airport management, our neighbors, our competitors, and with our ATC facility.

El Monte Airport (KEMT) is a class D airport that’s smack-dab in the center of some of the most complicated airspace in the world. Lying directly to our north is the San Gabriel Mountains, a mountain range with terrain over 10,000.’ The basin is also flanked by smaller ranges that criss-cross the southern half of the state, from the coastline to the Mexico border. The KLAX class B airspace begins about 1-1/2 miles from the south end of our airport, and the Inland Empire area to our east–which includes airports such as KCNO, KAJO, and KRAL–is one of the most congested IFR training areas in the country.

Which means that our controllers aren’t just the people we talk to on the radio: They’re partners in our operation, because they help keep our students and CFIs alive. Understand this, and you’ll be one step closer to making the most of your ATC partnership and helping make things better for the aviation community in your neighborhood. The folks up in that facility have names, faces, and aspirations, and if you give them the opportunity, they’ll probably be happy to share their knowledge in ways that can help your students… and you.

What does this relationship look like? For us, it begins with the understanding that our tower crew is doing the best they can to keep everyone safe and running efficiently. It helps to remind ourselves that we’re not the ones looking at the radar screens, and so if we get a long runway hold, another extended downwind, or weird vectors to final, it’s happening in the interest of everyone’s safety. Be patient and you’ll help your controller help you. That might include giving traffic a bit of extra space (such as a student pilot on their first solo or a pilot who mis-hears an instruction), or letting other pilots go ahead of you on the ground. Plan ahead and be willing to yield in a possible conflict, and you make your controller’s life a thousand times easier–which frees up their mental bandwidth to help you when you need it.

Along these lines… have you heard yourself on the radio lately? Your radio presence says a lot about you, over a very public part of the airwaves. Would you want to talk to–or fly with–you, based on these interactions? If not, fix it! Nobody, in any field, wants to talk to grumpy automatons. Be upbeat, imagine your future students are listening, and give good “mic” and people will respond.

What else can you do? Ask your controllers to participate in your training and outreach. This has paid dividends for us at KEMT; our controller team has been regular participants in our Rusty Pilot seminars and ground school classes; they’ve also helped us host youngsters from the community, and they have pitched in with their specialized expertise when we have students who struggle with ATC communication. In an area with a high percentage of non-native English speaking pilots, the advantages we gain from our controllers’ help cannot be understated: getting to know the person on the other side of the radio makes communication more cooperative, and WAY less scary for our students.

How do you go about getting your controllers’ help? Be courteous in the pattern and on the taxiways. Teach your students the same, with the understanding that their flying reflects on your operation. Get to know the people in your tower. Offer your controllers a “familiarization” flight. Invite them to events. Tap into their knowledge. Understand that they are as interested in your safety as you are. They’ll reciprocate–I promise.

Happy flying!

I’m a CFI… Now What?

If you’re newly-certified, welcome and congratulations. As of this writing, I’m about 60 hours ahead of you–maybe twice that if you count ground instruction I did up to this point (I also have my AGI/IGI certificates). From my vantage point, I can tell you that although nothing you did up to your checkride will fully prepare you for how bad you’ll be during your first hundred or so hours of instruction, but if you care about the job and your students you’ll learn really fast. 

What’s coming up? First, you’re about to learn it’s really, really hard to let go of that stick. You’ve spent your entire pilot career being in charge. You’ve convinced your passengers (some of whom were probably first-time flyers) that you’ve got everything under control. But now your job is to hand over control to your student as fast as you can safely do so, and that’s surprisingly hard to do at this stage. It sounds insane, but we need to teach these novice pilots how to get out of ugly situations, and sometimes that requires that we do nothing at all. So your job is to sit tight, hush up, and do as little as possible while your student figures out how to keep you both (and the airplane) in one piece.  

Good luck with that. 

Okay, that’s maybe a little-bit dramatic. But not really, if you want to be good at this work. Here’s why: One of the hallmarks of a great flight instructor is the ability to let a student screw up ALMOST to the point of bending metal or violating the FARs without feeling the need to step in and fix it at an early stage. These Ironmen–and Ironwomen–are a HUGE benefit to a student pilot because they make it possible for the student to fix many more of their own mistakes without the kind of “help” that does them no good. Their best skill is a sort of practiced apathy. Whether that’s by constitution or by training is anyone’s guess.

Am I one of those people? Not yet. I have some ways to go until I’m that level of badass. 

Will I ever get there? I sure hope so. Whomever flies the next lesson with me can tell you how I’m doing. 

Stay tuned…