What Did He Mean By That?
Never Assume A Controller's Intentions
June 3, 1979. It was a glorious day for flying, unusual for the Los Angeles Basin. The skies were clear, at least by Los Angeles standards. From the pattern at Brackett Field one could easily see the local mountains, even the trees at the top of the ridge. It was beautiful.
N48570: "Five-Seven-Zero, downwind abeam."
Tower: "Five-Seven-Zero cleared for a low approach."
A simple enough communication. Who would have thought that some 2,100 flying hours later that conversation would continue to burn in my memory and affect the way I communicate and teach communications when operating at a towered airport?
I was a student then with 12 hours of dual instruction and three hours of solo, and I was flying in the pattern. My logbook indicates that I had completed five landings in N48570, a Cessna 152, and was completing the sixth circuit when the exchange between the tower and me took place.
Upon accepting my clearance, I thought for just a moment. What is a low approach? I had never heard the words before. I decided that a low approach meant that the air traffic controller, for some reason, wanted me to be as low as possible on my final approach. After all, what else could "low approach" mean? As I turned base to final and began my descent, I adjusted my glidepath so the VASI was just red over white. I even went a little low so the white turned pink and then corrected to red over white. I was feeling quite proud of myself. As I continued my descent it must have become quite obvious to the controller that I intended to land. He came on the radio and with a slightly raised voice said, "Five-Seven-Zero, make a low approach!" My reply was a quick "Low approach, Five-Seven-Zero."
I guess he must want me lower, I thought. I adjusted my approach so the VASI was now holding at red over pink. Again, the quiet in my headset was disturbed by a more agitated and raised voice: "Five-Seven-Zero! Make a low approach!"
I knew something was wrong but hadn't a clue as to what it might be. I just knew I wasn't low enough. I also knew I was going to land.
My God, I thought, if I get any lower I'll hit the fence. The VASI was very red over red. I didn't dare go lower, but I fudged a bit more. By now I was becoming nervous and concerned. Clearly I was doing what I thought was requested, and yet the controller was extremely upset. Somewhat nervous but confident, I continued my landing, skimmed over the fence, and touched down on the numbers. The tower barked, "Five-Seven-Zero, make an immediate stop on the runway! Baron whatever, go around!"
I was shaken. Somehow I managed to come to a quick stop without locking up the brakes and stayed on the runway. For what seemed like an eternity I stayed on the runway as a Beech Baron went roaring overhead.
As I started my taxi to the ramp, my mind began to race. My flying career was over, I knew that much. But I didn't know why. I tied down the aircraft for the last time, gathered my chart and bag, and with a heavy heart headed for the FAA inspector whom I knew was waiting just inside the door. With my heart pounding, I opened the door, entered the room, and hesitated. Nothing happened. I waited, but no inspector appeared. Slowly I headed for the counter, filled out the paperwork, and paid my bill. Still no inspector. I didn't know what to do. I was torn between leaving before the inspector arrived and waiting for the inevitable. After some time passed I bravely approached one of the instructors and explained what happened.
If memory serves correctly, he laughed a bit and then explained what the tower wanted. I was to descend to 200 feet above ground level and then execute a go-around. Next we made a joint call to the tower. He explained what had happened, and I apologized to the tower for the trouble I had caused them. The tower supervisor replied, "No problem, but next time a controller asks you to do something that you don't understand, ask him to explain what he means."
Today I tell this story to all of my students. If you are not absolutely sure about an instruction, tell the controller, "I'm not sure what that means, could you please explain what you want?" This goes for something a flight instructor might ask you to do, and of course, a clearance from ATC. There is no shame in asking. Second, you do not have to do what the controller asks. As the pilot in command, you are responsible for the safety of the flight. If you cannot or it is not safe to comply with a request, let the controller know you can't comply-and why. Controllers are generally extremely cooperative in developing an alternative clearance that is safe for the conduct of your flight.