Discretion: (n.) the ability to behave without causing embarrassment or attracting too much attention, especially by keeping information secret.
Hello dear readers,
I am sure you have already been up in the air, and when selecting the frequency of your destination airport, that you heard a lot, I mean like really A LOT of traffic. This can easily be the case if the airport you are flying to is served by a few commercial operators.
On a beautiful Saturday morning, at a medium-sized international airport, it was the usual mid-morning rush hours, with commercial flights landing and taking off at very good pace, while a local general aviation pilot was approaching the CTR to land.
Some days, it can just be like that. You sit down at your working position in the tower, and traffic just never seems to stop. Fair enough, that’s part of the job, but the last thing you need then is adding unexpected occurrences, let alone problems.
The track of the light airplane was visible on the radar, and the controller had spotted it a few minutes ago, knowing from the flight plan that it was heading for her airport, but in the middle of the peak hour, it was going to be an interesting moment. When approaching downwind, she would have to negotiate a tighter gap between two IFR arrivals to let the light airplane join a short final and try to vacate as shortly as possible. Or, send him to the main departure runway, which was an appealing option, since it would be much easier to create the gap herself, and delaying an aircraft on the ground before departure was much easier.
All the options were going through the controller’s mind when she realized the light aircraft had entered the control zone without calling. And thus, without clearance, of course. Things weren’t looking good, and the controller knew they could just go from bad to awful in a matter of seconds if things were not taken care of properly. First reflex, the one that later appeared to have saved the day, she called her colleague working at the radar sector responsible for arrivals, and told him to take a look at that VFR track on the screen. She explained that he had no clearance to be there and that he was inbound to the airport, so there were not a lot of solutions if he carried on with his plan and came to land.
Indeed, the light aircraft was inching closer and closer to the aerodrome, did not respond to the repeated calls from ATC, and came to join downwind. In a resigned, almost jaded way, the controller issued go around instructions to 2 jets on final and called approach to hold all arrivals because the intruder was indeed showing intentions of landing, without any radio contact whatsoever.
And so, the little Cessna made its way undisturbed to final, landed, and at the great dismay of everybody in the tower, taxied to the general aviation apron, again without a single time even calling the controllers.
Now, you can easily imagine that there was a party waiting for the pilot as he disembarked his four-seater. When the airport sub-manager asked him why on good Earth he had come to land without calling the controllers, the gentleman responded in a kind and almost compassionate way: “Oh, you know, I was listening the whole time, but that poor lady at the tower, she seemed so busy and nervous, I didn’t want to disturb her, there was so much traffic and I knew how to get here, so…”
Well, sir, the intention was indeed mightily fine from you, but one of reasons why the controller was busy and sounded nervous may have been the fact that you disrupted a whole airport for a good 15 minutes, caused 2 go arounds and created delay for a hefty number of passengers…
Trust me, my friends, I know how busy ATC can sound sometimes. But it is part of the job, ATCOs are heavily-trained professionals who can handle whatever traffic is thrown at them. Call, ask for clearances, and the worst that can happen to you is… to be asked to “stand by” if there is really too much traffic.
“Stand by”? Well, that will be the subject of our next article. Until then, fare well, stay safe and healthy!