The relationship between pilots and air traffic controllers (ATC) is often fractious. Pilots hate being told what to do – and ATC often has more than enough reason to consider pilots to be idiots.

Guy Leitch

A RECENT INCIDENT AT GEORGE AIRPORT where pilots and ATC blamed each other for an airliner taking off on 29 while another was on approach on 11 has made me come to the defence of ATC.

Newbie pilots are often wary of ATC – fearing that if they do something wrong, they will get into trouble. That’s why too many pilots choose to fly long cross countries without ever speaking to ATC. I even heard of a Springbok – okay Protea – competition pilot who wouldn’t fly from Brits to Heidelberg without flying all the way round the west of Krugersdorp – because he did not want to have to deal with either Lanseria, Grand Central or Rand ATC. And about ten years ago a pilot took off from Wonderboom in his C210 and spoke to nobody before he fatally crashed into the mountains around George. S&R angel Santjie White and many others spent days of frustration searching for the wreckage. And I confess that after a recent run in with George ATC, I usually choose to fly under their radar.

‘ANCAviate, Navigate and Communicate

Another common problem pilots have with ATC is that the controllers are sitting safely on the ground when everything is going to hell in a handbasket in the air. That’s why the mantra for when shit happens is ANC – Aviate, Navigate and Communicate – in that order. Don’t crash the plane trying to please ATC.

A few years ago I was in front right seat in a Cessna Caravan taking off from Grand Central. The day was warming up and the Van was loaded to the roof. It had a heavy executive interior with fat leather armchairs for the pax and lots of other hefty items such as full coolboxes. We staggered into the air off the uphill Runway 17. Fortunately, the ground slopes down beyond the runway and to keep some speed the pilot flying pushed the nose down. (It reminded me of learning to fly at Grand Central on hot summer days in a Cessna 150 (ZS-IVS) with a 200 lb plus instructor – Freddy Smith). Anyway, as we sagged back towards the ground in the Caravan, the ATC said, “Alpha Bravo Charlie, confirm ops normal.”

The pilot in the left seat was sweating bullets coaxing the van to climb and the last thing he needed was to answer a controller safe on the ground and completely incapable of helping the plane actually climb.

Sometimes ATC can be your partner – and your conscience. I remember some years ago taking off from our Lowveld farm strip one Sunday afternoon to get back to Lanseria. As usual there were clouds banked up against the Escarpment. I needed to get over the Berg just north of Mariepskop and the cloud base looked like it might have enough holes to get through. But Mariepskop itself was in the clag and in those days that was where the Lowveld controllers sat – on top of the mountain. As I flew on towards the cloud shrouded escarpment, Lowveld ATC called; ‘Juliet Delta Sierra, maintain Victor Mike Charlie.’ It took a moment to work out what he meant.

The radar installation on Mariepskop with cloud building below.

The reality is that for any long flight in South Africa, the weather can be a real challenge. Most weekend warrior VFR pilots will face three distinct bands of weather: the Highveld, the Escarpment and the Lowveld. That should be enough to persuade you to get the best weather reports you can. Fortunately, weather information has improved a lot since I blundered about on either side of the escarpment, being urged to maintain VMC. An internet forum poster Shaunus notes, “We now have enough decent tools to make the go-no go decision. Do yourself a favour and get intimate with what weather tools are available on the internet. Then practice with them, i.e. plan to fly, then check the websites, and confirm your decisions with the webcams. Between Metars, High Res Satellite images and Webcams, you can get a pretty good idea of what is going on. And always have an alternate, e.g. options for bus, car hire or commercial airline.”

Thinking about the challenges of getting caught by the weather over the Drakensberg, I was reminded of another post on avcom by ‘jvg075’, who wrote, ‘I was one of the first area controllers when LASS (Lowveld Air Space Sector) was established on Mariepskop in the early 1980’s.

‘scattered cloud can become solid within 20 seconds’

Regrettably I saw some aircraft blips disappear off the radar screen without having had any contact with them, only to learn about their tragic fate when having to guide SAAF S&R (Search and Rescue) to the point of last radar contact.

“I also was privileged to have assisted numerous aircraft navigating a safe way across the escarpment under positive control, although in those years it was ‘illegitimate’ to provide any ‘instruction’ to any civilian aircraft, but only ‘advice’. Nevertheless, if you find yourself in trouble what is the use if the controller tells you, “I respectfully advise you to consider a heading of 220?” Our viewpoint was always, ‘If someone asks for help, exercise positive control, as that is exactly what is needed at that moment.”

What is even more satisfying was to make time to interview some of the pilots with whom I had such interaction. Three very important issues emerged. They are nothing new, but perhaps worthwhile mentioning:

First and foremost, stay out of the weather unless you are: A) properly rated, B) experienced and current, and C) have an aircraft capable of dealing with those conditions. Apart from extraordinary high winds, violent gusts and unbelievable up-and-down draughts, you should also take into account freezing levels. It’s easy to say that someone must stay ‘out of it’ – but believe me – conditions may seem okay, but ‘scattered cloud’ can become solid within 20 seconds or less, after entering it.

Secondly, remember that there is nothing as useless as the fuel in the browser. We were amazed at how many aircraft ran into trouble, simply because they departed from a game

ranch or other private airfield without sufficient fuel to divert. A diversion to keep you out of trouble along the escarpment may be longer than many may think. I’ve had cases where the only ‘safe route’ turned out to be all the way north, past Tzaneen and then on to the old Pietersburg area. Or find a suitable open place in the Lowveld. That may in itself be difficult, especially in low light.

Thirdly, (and I remain open to be corrected on this one) – I do not know of a single event (at least until 1993) where any pilot calling for help in time, and being assisted by one of the LASS controllers, did not make it safely onto the ground.

Some of the military personnel at the Mariepskop radar station.

In those years the systems were not nearly as sophisticated as today. However, the lesson that clearly surfaced was one of pride. It’s no shame to call for help. So please – ‘COMMUNICATE’. Do not for a moment think that anyone will think of you as ‘stupid or weak’. Believe me – whenever a pilot called for help when faced with those first moments of panic – everyone on the frequency assisted. I’ve had many cases of other pilots relaying, assisting and providing good advice in the heat of the crisis. I will never forget the help of a pilot who had left the SAAF just a few months before, and who was used to being vectored into interceptions. A C182 was lost above the clouds near Lydenburg, en-route to somewhere near Hoedspruit. It was running low on fuel and had managed to ‘get on top’ just after running into the soup at the Belfast area. The C182 pilot was lost but had the common sense – or was desperate enough – to call for immediate assistance. It was a late on a grey Sunday afternoon. The ex SAAF pilot was flying a King Air A100 outbound from a private strip near Mica. He immediately offered to intercept the C182. We pulled off the intercept and the A100 accompanied the C182 to the only open place – Phalaborwa.

And then there is the story of the late Val Humphries, who knew the Lowveld very well. She was flying a C210 and one early evening agreed to form-up with a Seneca pilot to get him safely into the notoriously difficult old Nelspruit Airport.

The fact is that both these pilots who asked for assistance had flown themselves into trouble. But when they realised that they were in trouble, they had the sense to pack away their pride and shout for help. Were they blamed? Ostracised? Made fun of? No. I personally met every one of them as well as many others that were assisted.

Everyone learned from the experiences. But most important – they communicated – and lived to tell others!”

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