FAR 91.3 defines the responsibility and authority of the pilot in command as: "The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft." That is quite clear to me. Yet, every year many planes break up after flying into thunderstorms, or run out of fuel a few miles from the runway because the pilot made several poor decisions in a row. In this article, I want to primarily focus on the pilot-controller relationship. It has many times stupefied me how pilots allow air traffic controllers to 'get into their cockpits.' In any airplane, this is a very dangerous situation, but especially in a jet. Jets burn several times as much fuel down low as they do up high. It is such that blindly accepting unfavorable ATC instruction; a jet pilot can run out of fuel short of the runway, or in the more common scenario, burn through precious reserve fuel and land on fumes.
What steps can you take to avoid finding yourself in these dangerous situations?
Remember that YOU are the PIC. Act like it. The only thing the controller knows about you is how you sound on the radio. Sound confident and BE confident. If you come across like an unsure little schoolgirl on the radio, ATC will treat you like one. Anticipate radio calls, so you start climbing or turning as the controller is calling you. Show them immediate action. It really seems that I get more leeway than other pilots I have spoken with. Why? Because I tell ATC exactly what I want, and then execute it. I am assertive and specific with my needs. Flying often does help, because ATC facilities start to remember your call-sign and they know what you and your aircraft are capable of. Houston TRACON knows that if they ask me to keep 200 knots to 5 DME, I can handle it. They know that whatever they ask of me, I will get it done. This gets me preferential treatment over traffic that the controllers are unfamiliar with. However, even when I fly into unfamiliar airspace in other cities and countries around the world, I find myself in an idle descent from FL410 while other jets are burning 5 times the fuel at 8,000ft still 100 miles from their destination. Why? Because I look at dealing with ATC as a constant negotiation.
The only reason the air traffic control system exists is to help pilots successfully and safely complete our flights while working other aircraft in the airspace. Do not be afraid to use the word 'unable.' I was recently flying back from the East Coast when I kindly asked for a deviation for weather. The controller simply replied with 'No deviations.' I told him that was unacceptable, and that I would be deviating 15 degrees to the right for the next 30 miles and that I appreciated him working that out for us. There was absolutely no way I was going to allow anyone else to fly my airplane into a dangerous situation. Yet, somehow every summer we see fatal crashes from exactly this happening. It is not only novice pilots who are the problem. Plenty of ATP's have been found guilty of the same blunders.
It is important to remember that controllers are on the ground because we are in the air, and not vice versa. It is rare to have an interchange with a controller that ends negatively, but if you do have a problem, remember that the radio is not the place to fight about it. If you have an issue with a particular controller or facility, politely ask for their supervisor's name and phone number. I have made a few calls to facilities to express my concerns, or in one particular case on a Wounded Warrior mission, my gratitude for a few particular controllers going above and beyond for me.
Remember, ATC doesn’t sit in the left seat.