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When Not to Talk to ATC

Pictured, not the airplane involved in this story, obviously.

Article appeared in Flying Magazine April, 2015 by Martha King

Don’t drop the airplane to fly the microphone.

The North Dakota badlands had fascinated John and me for a long time, and we couldn’t think of a better way to enjoy them than from our Comanche 250. In retrospect, we certainly could have chosen a better day.

The day before we had flown from our San Diego home base to spend the night in Minot to be positioned for our sightseeing flight the first thing in the morning. When we awoke, we realized the weather would be marginal for VFR with ceilings of 1,000 to 3,000 feet. But the visibility was good underneath the clouds, so we decided that our day of sightseeing was on. It was my turn to be pilot-in-command, and on departure I headed southwest to join the Little Missouri River.

As we arrived at the badlands, we marveled at the spectacular formations. But we also began to realize that we were having to fly lower and lower to stay clear of the clouds. As the situation deteriorated we made the decision that to continue flying VFR was becoming increasingly risky and the better course of action was to pull up into the clouds and get an IFR clearance.

As John dialed in the center frequency and I turned towards Williston, our problems began to increase dramatically. The airframe rapidly began picking up ice. But worse yet, the engine began to quit. I pulled carburetor heat, which helped, but it did not solve our engine problem. The engine continued to run, but it was very rough and wasn’t putting out much power. I asked John to try the mixture control and he found that by leaning the mixture he could get the engine to run a little better. But as we progressed towards Williston, John had to keep re-adjusting the mixture to keep the engine running. By now we were at full throttle, but still not getting much power.

Meanwhile we were picking up a huge load of ice. I asked John to get out the chart for the VOR approach to Williston. As I did the course reversal, the airplane was gradually descending even though we were now at full throttle and I was flying at best rate of climb speed or slightly above. I kept us on course as if our lives depended on it, which they did, but with no ability to stop our descent we crossed the step-down fixes at the required altitude or above only by luck. Still at full throttle and descending inexorably, we broke out of the clouds on very short final perfectly set up to land. I put the gear down at the last minute and kept full throttle in until the flare was established.

The lineman who guided us into parking looked at us as if we had just arrived from Mars. The airplane had an incredible 3-plus inches of ice on it. We headed off to a nearby coffee shop to discuss how it possibly could be that we were still alive.

In our discussion one of the things that came up was that although we had the correct center frequency tuned in, and were listening to it, neither one of us ever got around to calling center and getting an approach clearance.

As you can imagine, we have done a lot of thinking about this event through years. Regarding our failure to call ATC, there are at least two issues. 1. Was it poor risk management to have conducted an approach without a clearance under the circumstances? 2. Was it illegal for us to conduct the approach without a clearance?

The risk management argument against our not calling ATC is we were risking a collision with another aircraft conducting an approach to the same airport at the same time. Mitigating that collision risk is the reason the entire ATC system exists.

The argument in defense of not calling ATC is that if even that little distraction caused us to not make it to the airport under control, we would have put at risk not only our own lives but the lives of those on the ground under our approach path.

This brings to mind the recent tragic case of a King Air which lost an engine on takeoff at Wichita and crashed into a building, killing the pilot and 3 others in the building. According to a witness, the airplane never got higher than 150 feet. It crashed in a turn towards the failed engine with gear and flaps down. Meanwhile the pilot was on the radio to the tower, declaring an emergency and reporting having lost his left engine. It makes you wonder why the pilot was talking on the radio when he did not yet have the airplane under control.

The second and less important issue, in my opinion, is whether we were legal, under the circumstances, to have conducted an approach in instrument meteorological conditions without a clearance. Under FAR 91.3, in an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action the pilot-in-command may deviate from any of the general operating and flight rules to the extent required to meet that emergency.

Notice the rule does not say you have to “declare” an emergency. It only says you have to have one. So if you have an emergency, there is no rule that says you have to tell anybody about it. You are automatically authorized to do whatever you need to do without asking anybody’s permission. So in any emergency, including ours in Williston, you can do what you need to do without talking to anybody.

Even so, there are many pilots who seem compelled to talk to ATC when they probably should not be. A possible example is a TBM-900 that crashed recently in the sea near Jamaica, killing the pilot and his wife. Apparently the pilot had a pressurization problem at FL280 and requested lower, saying, “We have an indication that’s not correct in the plane.” The pilot and controller continued an exchange with each other about traffic. In the meanwhile the pilot’s speech became slurred and he ultimately failed to respond. An F-15 pilot who was sent to intercept the TBM reported that he could see the TBM pilot slumped over the controls.

When we do our recurrent training for rapid depressurization in our Falcon 10 at FlightSafety, we are told to make an immediate emergency descent at the first sign of depressurization. “Advise ATC” is item #9 on the checklist, and not even a memory item. Notice it says “advise,” not “request.” In other words, we are taught to descend immediately, and talk about it later. The theory is that the odds of hitting another aircraft on the way down are pretty slim, but in a depressurization, the odds of becoming incapacitated and killing everyone on board are very high. By the way, this checklist is vetted and approved by the FAA.

Still, many pilots are troubled by the idea of doing what you need to do now and talking later. Not talking to controllers strikes many as poor procedure.

When I wrote in an earlier article about our aircraft failing to pressurize, and our leveling off briefly on our way to Flight Level 230 without first telling the controller, two readers expressed their concerns.

One reader replied, “…it is poor procedure to not let the controller know that you need to level off briefly.” Another reader wrote, “…as soon as the Kings recognized that their pressurization was inoperative, they should have requested an altitude at or below 13,000 from ATC.”

Of concern is that controllers can only help pilots who talk with them. At a meeting to enable pilot/controller interchange, a controller said to me, “You know what I hate is that when pilots have a problem, they quit talking to me.”

Yet many non-communicative pilots are just doing exactly what they are trained to do—follow the order of aviate, navigate, and communicate. Proper risk management means that when you have a problem, your priorities are to fly the airplane, put it in the right place, and then, last, talk. Interestingly, this flies in the face of human nature. Human beings are naturally very social. When we have a problem, there is a powerful urge to tell someone about it. It takes discipline to put off talking.

I don’t want to try to defend all the actions we took 43 years ago as relatively low time and inexperienced pilots on our sightseeing trip. You clearly have to wonder about the flight planning and risk management that put us in that terrible situation. But I have thought long and hard about our making that approach to Williston without talking to ATC, and I feel that it just might have been a life-saving example of the ever-present need to Aviate, Navigate, and then Communicate.


  1. Mark Schwab

    I’ve read thru the comments, most are quite old and outdated. I have performed maintenance check flights on most of the Cessna 441 and 425 fleet. I have been labeled as one of leading authorities on operation of these aircraft. On the 441 aircraft there is a list of things that require shutdown and restart of engines. This I have done countless times. I also have had to retrieve aircraft with mechanical difficulties. Six times I have had to land these aircraft with one engine shut down. Simply bringing an aircraft in for routine maintenance for a customer the right engine began to act up. By myself in the clouds I had to quickly troubleshoot the system and shut it down. I had been handed of to approach but in heavy precipitation and now hand flying a a 9000 pound twin ailing aircraft. There was no time for discussion. I loaded the approach intercepted the ILS and started in bound. Working toward the goal on short final contacted tower and TOLD them what I was doing. Broke out at about 400 feet landed without incident. With radar and ADSB everyone knew where I was what I was doing. But in this case communication was my absolute last priority. Aviate Navigate Communicate.

  2. Michael

    Should one not be on an IFR clearance before one enters IMC?

    While I agree with your actions after entering into the clouds the issue I have is going IMC prior to receiving an IFR clearance. Your failure to follow procedures is what placed you and anyone else in the area at risk and not the encountered Icing. Hopefully you did contact ATC and self report your violation.

  3. AirFrank

    I can remember as a private student doing a go-around my instructor telling me to quit talking. Fly the plane first. My response was “But I’m telling those lining up for take-off what I’m doing” Her reponse, “Don’t you think they are looking at you and know that you are not landing?” Duh.

    So while I’m sure ATC wants you to tell them so that they may help, they do have radar and know that you we are descending without their approval.

  4. Stephanie Cruz

    I haven’t read through all the comments, but I agree with you Kings, the aircraft flies by Bernoulli principle not Marconi’s. Besides the first thing that controller on the ground is likely to ask you is “What are your intentions”, when you’re still busy trying to figure that out. They probably had you on radar and cleared your path. The NFP might have put in 7700 or 7600 to let ‘them’ know there was a problem.

    I have taken your FIRC several years now, this one has been the best–I learned LOTS! Thank you

  5. Curtis Burton

    Great article as is. I passed both my private, instrument and multi engine with your help and recently passed 1,000 hours. Thank you so much for your honesty and for the education, and for helping to keep more of my friends in the air. I really appreciate you. Sincerely Curtis Burton

  6. George Bell

    I love the articles that the Kings write! they give their own experiences with things that they did that were not the smartest thing that New Pilots do. They survived and if 1 new pilot learns from the things that the Kings have experienced then we all can collectively thank John and Martha King.

  7. Marcelo Ahumada

    I totally agree with you Martha. And yes, it is hard to not talk, but we have to remember our priority is to fly the aircraft first.

  8. Yoni Boujo

    Great article mrs king and you did follow the rules that govern our way of flying,always stick to basic training.
    AVIAT,NAVIGATE,COMMUNICATE,and that is my religion.

  9. Doug Royer

    Its always great to hear the King stories. You guys put a smile on my face when I hear you in he news (or facebook this time).

  10. Jeff

    Aviate-Navigate-Communicate. It was drilled into us young USAF pilots from Day 1. That said Martha, once you were sure you were “flying”, squeezing off a quick call to ATC just as an initial advisory is the way to go…..for your safety so they are aware of the problem and can start moving IFR traffic out of your way. I speak with considerable experience on the subject, having had more than my share of flying incidents in my USAF career. You don’t ever have to talk to them again after that first call if you are task-saturated with flying, but it sure helps everyone if they at least know you have a problem. The other thing you could have done, even if you don’t talk, is to squawk 7700 given them notice you’ve got a problem. Neither of these options seems too far-fetched with two people in an airplane designed to be flown by one.



  12. Michael Kail

    John and Martha King taught me how to fly and I have the up most respect for both of them. Martha is right, you must put all your concentration on the problem! Sure, it would be nice to chat with the controller and advise them of your dilemma. But there are times when you can’t afford to deviate your thoughts for even a second in a life or death situation. It’s not breaking the rules or showing disrespect, it’s survival.
    Keep flying high John and Martha!!

  13. Kevin Moore

    Well written and thought-provoking article, thank you for sharing what must have been a frightening experience. I agree with your conclusions about subordinating “communicate” to the primary task of dealing with the emergency. ATC folks are in the business of communicating so it’s not too surprising that they don’t like it when a pilot in distress stops talking. It might be helpful for our ATC colleagues to have the opportunity to ride along in a simulator for several emergency scenarios to experience things from the pilot’s perspective.

  14. Dean

    There are way too many examples of pilots dropping the airplane (as you put it) to fly the radio. In my 35 years as a flight instructor the Priority Checklist as I call it of Aviate, Navigate, then Communicate has become more and more clear and important to me. In my current location I get students that have moved here with some flight training under their belt and those that come in from high density airtraffic areas seem to be hung up on making radio calls either to ATC or traffic advisory even if their aircraft is not under complete control. When I brief my copilots in the Westwind I fly I always make sure they understand that in an emergency WE fly the airplane and get it under control and then IF time permits we call ATC and ADVISE them of what we are gong to do. More than once I have had to inform ATC that my call was ADVISORY not a request. It seems that once we establish that, ATC turns into a helpful, supportive organization. I have had to file an explanation of why I used 91.3 once, but when the inspector read and herd my reasoning it was case closed. Even if the FAA does not agree with you, it is still better than being dead. Thank you for your story and example.

  15. Stan Barankiewicz

    I completely agree with what you did and your analysis. When overwhelmed by events, you must first and foremost control the aircraft to save your lives and minimize harm to others. There is little solace to have followed communication procedures and clearances just to end up dead or hurting others. I would like to say that since there were two pilots, the non-PIC person should have squawked 7700 and continued on with helping you stay in control. That way, ATC knows there is a problem and can clear a path for you. I know this armchair quarterbacking, but the “second-in-command” should anticipate what would be helpful even if the PIC cannot, since the “second-in-command” has somewhat less of a workload than the PIC. Lastly, in an emergency, I would forgo all “pilot speak” when talking to ATC. The conversation with ATC should be in normal language–the same way you would talk with 911. Trying to remember phraseology and the order of information in an emergency consumes precious mental capacity that a pilot in an emergency likely has none to spare.

  16. Jeff Bartels

    While your story contains some important points about not relinquishing pilot duties to ATC, overall I am appalled at the thinking in this article! As a pilot who flies corporate jets in IMC conditions regularly, it frightens me to think that persons of your caliber would try to justify the actions taken in terms of relative risk to yourselves and others, and make it sound like it was OK to silently fly that approach. A quick call on 121.5 stating what you were about to commence (there were two of you after all) would have sufficed to notify the world of what was happening and hopefully clear out the airspace you were using to cope with your emergency. And yes, you would have had some explaining to do, rather than just discussing it amongst yourselves in private.

    You correctly recite the priorities of Aviate, Navigate, Communicate, but #3 is NOT optional when time permits: how long did this event last? Certainly there was time for an emergency call!

  17. John Martin

    John and Martha King,

    I’m glad to have this opportunity to tell you of the huge respect I have for you both. I am studying with your DVD courses on A&P. It has made me a more knowledgeable aircraft mechanic. Thank you for everything you do.

  18. Dan Schiffer

    I suppose nitpickers could try and pick the fly poop out of the pepper on this “when not to talk to ATC” but the important point John & Martha are making is to “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate ”
    Thanks for sharing

  19. Marty Hutto

    This reminds me of a flight I took to Connecticut from Virginia several years ago. It was a nice VFR day and I was using Traffic Advisories. As I was crossing the Delaware bay, I saw my ammeter suddenly go to zero. The center controller was rattling off instructions to several aircraft non-stop. I cut power and started a rapid descent to WWD, which was the nearest airport. When the controller finally got around to me the instruction was “Squawk VFR, Flight Following terminated.” I replied we had experienced an alternator failure and were diverting to WWD. She then handed me off to Atlantic City Approach. Suffice it to say I was more concerned about getting the airplane on the ground and determining the reason for the alternator failure than talking to ATC.

  20. Mike Doherty

    As a newly licensed pilot and aspiring IFR pilot I have spent many hours watching you Guys try to get the basics through my slowly absorbing brain.
    Your course is truly outstanding and I thought after reading your “When not to talk to ATC” article I would drop you a note. I trained in Minot, ND and if you ever come by again it would be great to meet you in person.
    Thanks for making my training enjoyable!

  21. David

    You are alive today because you never stopped flying the airplane. I agree very much and we are glad you lived 43 years ago to become the incredible team that you are and who in turn has given back so much to enhance the safety of our flying , privately and professionally. It will never be know the number of lives and flights your team’s training and influence has impacted in assuring their safe return to earth. Thank you for your faithfulness to live and train with conviction and integrity.

  22. Eddie Skelton

    I have flown many years as a commercial pilot. Many of these hours have been single pilot. There were two occasions in which not talking to controllers made all the difference. Once on approach to Ontario KONT in California. after the approach controller lost his cool and became a huge distraction. I simply ignored him and conducted the approach with out com.

  23. Mario

    In the example cited by Martha King, I agree with her, the TBM 900 pilot should have immediately descended with out getting permission from ATC due to the very little time of lucidity he had to maintain control of the aircraft, in fact I believe the time lost during the communications with ATC, resulted in LOC.
    in the face of a true emergency you need to do what’s safest for the people on board the aircraft and notify ATC WHEN everything else is under control

    Mario PP

  24. Ellen

    Since I can’t imagine private aviation without them, thank God they survived. But what always impresses me is the revealing candor and analytic detail Martha and John offer in their extensive experience as pilots. Their willingness to share and discuss complex lessons learned from both mistakes and successes have taught thousands and undoubtedly saved many many lives.

  25. Duane Mader

    I’ve been surprised at how forthcoming the Kings have been about their early flying experiences and have really enjoyed learning from them.
    I MAY have said the words to myself “this is stupid” and pulled up into clouds and THEN gotten an IFR clearance in my early flying career. Was it illegal? Yep. I Am here to write about it though.

  26. Jeff KYff

    I once got myself into some freezing rain right after takeoff. I turned back toward the field and notified ATC immediately. The controller started asking me (more than once) if I had the field. Well, I thought I could if I could just get all the ice off the windows. I knew if I said that I did not have the field in sight he was going to vector me out for the approach which would have been suicide. I flipped open the pilot window and saw the field almost directly below me. Told him I had the field and descended like a rock. The ice shed when I got down a couple of hundred feet and I landed more or less normally and ice free. Yes, there must be a God.

  27. Alan M Hoffberg

    The discussion on when not to talk to ATC was right on the mark. I’ve used it several times while flying IMC in our Florida and surrounding area. The controllers do not seem to have any problem with my explaining a “deviation” afterwards.

    Likewise, I have the habit of advising ATC when I have a high expectation of performing a deviation necessitated by IMC or other conditions in the near future. Typically, no one else is within 30 miles (due to IMC). ATC has always provided me a wide latitude for deviation.

    Alan M Hoffberg
    Approx 1,300 hrs and 800 IFR hrs

  28. Bob

    Right on Martha !

    I have attended many pilot/controller pow-wows and the song is always the same. ATC wants to hear from us at all times no matter what. The fundamental issue is a conflict that will never be resolved: ATC lives by that mic button whereas pilots have many other buttons to consider
    FIRST !!!

    Both ATC and Pilots need to review and consider the consequences of the ATC mandate:
    “To sequence and separate known and observed traffic on a first come first served basis.”
    Pilots need to concentrate on what being PIC actually means: Keep the airplane upright and in one piece. ATC needs to realize how much of a distraction they become with their often useless comments and questions. Pilots need to minimize distractions to maximize efficiency. It begins with FAR 91.103 Preflight action which most pilots don’t take seriously. Too many pilots have this attitude: “ATC will take care of me…” I plan my trips with without any dependence on ATC. That includes no radio and NO RADAR. Throughout the training of students I always repeat the same Q: How do you measure the distance between a challenge and a formality ?
    A: In units of preparation !!!
    That is what training and practice is all about. Practice will make us proficient. Practice will never make us perfect because our skills are use or lose. ATC could learn from that example as well.

  29. Dick Bares

    You were very lucky that there was not another aircraft shooting the approach at the same time. I think that you compromised safety on this one. Also, if you were communicating with your right seater, why didn’t you utilize him to coordinate with center prior to pulling up into the clouds? That’s what Cockpit Resource Management is all about, as I know that you have learned since then.

  30. Richard Walker

    You made the best choice and as proof you lived to tell the tale that just might help someone else in a similar situation.

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