Air Traffic Controller Discussion With a Global Perspective
By Robert Shearman Jr 1155655
#513684 Hi, there --

I was observing during the below scenario and an interesting discussion ensued over PM. I'm curious as to whether there is unity or dissension regarding the issue at hand. I didn't take this to feedback at the facility in question because I think there's definitely a gray area here; the controller came down on one side of it and I the other, and I wanted to collect some opinions from the forum community to guide my future thought process in similar situations rather than go straight to throwing someone under the bus who clearly thought he was doing as he should.

The scenario is thus:

A VATSIM GA pilot departs IFR from a US Class C airport. The Tower and Departure positions are not staffed, so both are being handled by the overlying Center controller. The pilot is instructed runway heading off of RWY 9, and based on his flight plan, he expects to turn on course to about a 135 heading to intercept a VOR radial after something like 10 miles.

He departs with takeoff clearance, but forgets to activate his Mode C in the process.

The pilot levels off at the assigned initial altitude. The controller lets him fly on for about 10 miles without a call. Finally the controller asks him to activate his Mode-C. The pilot, unfortunately, is buried in his chart trying to figure out whether he's missed his radial intercept, and does not hear this call from ATC. After about another 5 miles the pilot appears to turn on course on his own.

I, as an observer of this flight in the role of an Instructor offering coaching to the pilot, then Private Message the controller to verify that the pilot's turn on course had been uncommanded. The controller responds saying that the student did so on his own -- and furthermore, makes it clear that the reason he ignored the pilot for so long in the first place was that the pilot never called after departure to report airborne.

Now, I fully accept that the pilot in this scenario made three fairly substantial errors: (1) forgot to engage Mode C, (2) missed the call asking about his Mode C, and (3) turned on course after assuming, I guess, that he'd been forgotten about (in our post flight debrief I never did get a clear picture of his thought process for doing so). I am however very curious about the controller's assertion that it is incumbent upon the pilot to call airborne when departing from a towered airfield in the US.

Obviously, if he had departed from a NON-towered field, he would have been instructed after his clearance and release to "report airborne this frequency." However, in departing from a towered field in the US, the normal real-world course would be for the Tower controller to HAND HIM OFF to Departure, at which point he would check in with the Departure controller and get his instructions for joining his filed route. This is not Europe with a "silent handoff" procedure in place -- that handoff occurs VERBALLY over the channel.

Now, the situation with the Tower and Departure controllers being the same person is a complete VATSIM-ism -- not applicable to real-world situations. My question is, do VATSIM controllers universally consider it the pilot's responsibility to make that initial call off the runway with the altitude verification in order to radar-identify and start providing services? Or are you of the opinion that the controller, in place of the handoff that's not going to happen, should initiate that call to the pilot for said altitude verification? In my experience on the network, I've mostly experienced the latter, because I've behaved as though it's the controller's "turn" to speak there just as it would be in the real world -- regardless of the fact that he's not handing me off. (Now, in some cases, where I think the controller might have forgotten about me or not noticed that I'm off the ground, especially at a secondary field, yes, I'll take the initiative to report my altitude unprompted just to keep the controller "in the game" as it were.)

So -- the question at hand is -- completely irrespective of the other mistakes this pilot made, was the controller justified in ignoring the pilot because he never called airborne? Or do you feel a call from the controller to the pilot for altitude verification, in place of the non-handoff, is appropriate?
By Bradley Grafelman 1242018
#513685 When it comes to VATSIMisms, we're inventing our own fantasy worlds and the procedures within them. So, it's not hard to believe that two individuals didn't end up within the same world with the same procedures.

In this instance, no, I don't think any sensible/intelligent controller would simply twiddle their thumbs and wait for a radio call from the pilot. If the positions had been split, the departure controller would have started making blind calls on frequency and/or raising the local controller on the intercom in order to recover a pilot who is either off-frequency or experiencing radio problems. He wouldn't think "Oh well, maybe he'll call eventually; I'd better just sit here quietly and wait until then..."

Having said that, it sounds like the controller did eventually try to communicate with the departure... only to receive no response (via transponder or radio). So now you've got a compounding VATSIMism of how to deal with an apparent radio failure despite the fact that there wasn't a frequency change and the other controller to coordinate with is yourself. Pretty soon, you're going to be watching Leo's next hit movie, VATSIMception.
By Robert Shearman Jr 1155655
#513686 Haha... thanks, Brad... that was pretty much my take on it, more-or-less start-to-finish (minus the Christopher Nolan reference, that is -- maybe mine was finish-to-start, like VATSIMento). I'm still curious to see some other responses but you've affirmed my opinion so far.
By Ernesto Alvarez 818262
#513687 ive not tried some of the newer ATC clients so i dont know if they have some feature that could provide erroneous limited data, but one can also assume the controller wants to make sure the data matches.

if im handling top down and i havent issued multiple departure clearances at the same time, its fairly easy to assume that target now departing the airport, even though i have no data on it, is in fact the one i just cleared out. simply handle it like they would in the real world "N1234, right turn to the southwest approved, check transponder" or similar, which ive had happen at least twice doing full stop taxi backs at the field and simply forget to flip it back on. id hold off on giving the aircraft anything specific like an altitude until i start getting that data unless the pilot comes back and tells me its failed or something (not likely online but if a controller is in the mood, theyll roll with it and handle you accordingly)

also part of the differences between a tower radar and enroute radar for example is going to be how that target is shown, towers display is going to show the info, something like an enroute radar though is going to show nada, just a target if the transponder is on standby.

i wouldnt have let the target travel far without reminding them to check that, but then again you probably had one that was being really really patient or just wanted to wait until the pilot figured it out lol

should also be noted there is more then one option when tracking a target to get that "radar contact" established. a lot of online controllers tend to rely solely on that data to do it. but theres more then that if it comes to it. turns etc.. can be used to do it. all radar contact means is ive identified you on the radar, various things can be done to establish that.

also additional note for students and novices alike, a transponder failure does not mean you cannot continue your IFR flight, whether it happens enroute or prior to departure. if it happens prior to departure include the info in the remarks "IE: unserviceable transponder" and call ahead to get it coordinated. not something youd encounter online, but a pilot can ask the controller if they can simulate a failed/no transponder flight which kinda is what you would do anyway
By Dace Nicmane 1313735
Robert Shearman Jr 1155655 wrote:I've behaved as though it's the controller's "turn" to speak there just as it would be in the real world -- regardless of the fact that he's not handing me off.

While I haven't consciously thought about it, I've always behaved as if the handoff which will never happen has already happened (i.e., this step is simply skipped), so I try to report my altitude. In many cases I don't get to doing it simply because of the workload (no co-pilot, again, unlike real world) and/or busy frequency. I have a feeling that most controllers wait for a while before calling the pilot themselves, so they're actually expecting it.
By Josh Glottmann 1275389
#513691 Can't expand at the moment, but I expect pilots to call with their altitude. If the frequency is too busy for them to call on their own, or they don't call in a reasonable time, I'll call them.
By David Zhong 1027224
#513702 I can't speak for US procedure, but I would have thought that it was common practice to make a "departure report" regardless of whether you are remaining or switching frequencies (in Australia at least, this report is mandatory in many instances). This procedure is necessary for a few reasons, one of which, in a radar environment, to allow the controller to verify the Mode C level.
Last edited by David Zhong 1027224 on Sun Apr 30, 2017 12:16 pm, edited 1 time in total.
By Ryan Savara 1369362
#513705 In the US, it's on the controller to identify the aircraft if they are top down, unless another method is stated in charts. Regardless of Mode-C reporting, the controller (depending on client and radar mode) will see at least the squawk code and an associated blip. No altitude will be reported, but the blip will be there.

Working top down its easy to "forget" or give late calls to departures at a field that isn't considered trolled by someone else. Regardless, the pilot is in controlled airspace, and should request the turn or altitudes with the controller. The worst thing that will happen is he's told to standby.

As an S3, I've forgotten about departures. Either zommed in giving taxi instructions, or tabbed out looking up a route for another guy, I've forgotten. But eventually I catch it, and get the pilot on their way.
By Ross Carlson 887155
#513707 Robert, I tend to agree with you in terms of it being reasonable to expect the controller to contact the departure and ask for an altitude verification, since the controller (if covering tower) would be contacting the departure at that point anyway to transfer comms to the departure frequency. That action prompts the pilot to check in with departure. In this "VATSIMism" situation where the same person is handling tower and departure, we still need something to prompt the pilot to contact departure.

There are essentially two ways that prompt could occur:

1) The controller could simulate the handoff by saying "N1234 contact departure 133.0"
2) The controller could contact the departure and ask for the altitude.

Option #1 could be awkward or even confusing given that the controller would be telling the pilot to switch to a frequency that the pilot is already on, so I would say that option #2 is the way to go, and that's what I always do when I'm controlling top down.

That being said, as a pilot, I will often call the controller after I'm airborne because I think that's more realistic for both of us.

Perhaps we need an option #3 to cover this VATSIMism ... perhaps when issuing the takeoff clearance, the controller could add "report airborne".
By Dhruv Kalra 878508
Ross Carlson 887155 wrote:Perhaps we need an option #3 to cover this VATSIMism ... perhaps when issuing the takeoff clearance, the controller could add "report airborne".

My #3 is usually to just reach out to the aircraft using the phraseology "N1234, radar contact, say altitude." Since I issued the takeoff clearance myself, I'm effectively simulating that I gave myself a rolling call, and therefore as long as I observe the target within 1nm of the departure end of the runway, he's considered radar ID'd via a primary method and I just need to verify his Mode-C.
By Robert Shearman Jr 1155655
#513709 Very interesting discussion; thanks, everyone! As I suspected, there seems to be a split on whose "job" it is to make that contact after wheels-up; my informal conclusion in this scenario was that there was "plenty of blame to go around" (as I like to say when the snafu was not just one person's fault). I appreciate the insights.
By Ross Carlson 887155
Dhruv Kalra 878508 wrote:My #3 is usually to just reach out to the aircraft using the phraseology "N1234, radar contact, say altitude."

Yup, that's what I meant by #2 ... the controller initiates the communication once the aircraft is airborne.
By Wygene Chong 1089621
#513737 My practice, and this is a European perspective, is to say "Identified passing [altitude]" if the pilot does not call after passing around 2000ft, depending on airport, traffic situation etc. I was taught that it is the pilot's responsibility to call airport with passing altitude, but that we have to be proactive as APP controllers if they do not. I find on average about 50% of pilots in Iceland will call airborne before 2000ft, while 50% will not.
By Andreas Fuchs 810809
Dhruv Kalra 878508 wrote:"N1234, radar contact, say altitude."
And the reply will be "altitude", because you just asked the pilot say the work "altitude" :mrgreen: If you'd like a pilot to state his current altitude or level, then you better use the term "report".

Back to topic, I go with Ross there. If you want a pilot to report when airborne or when passing a certain altitude, ask him to do it when you handle his flight on the ground already. Easy!
And if a pilot does not call me, I innocently ask him "confirm you are airborne?" :twisted:
By Bradley Grafelman 1242018
Andreas Fuchs 810809 wrote:
Dhruv Kalra 878508 wrote:"N1234, radar contact, say altitude."
And the reply will be "altitude", because you just asked the pilot say the work "altitude" :mrgreen:

Nah, pilots on this side of the pond are smarter than that. It's why we let them pick their own SIDs and STARs, too! ;)