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Who’s in Charge Here, Anyway?

Article appeared in Flying Magazine October, 2015 by Martha King –Martha_04

My thumb was already in motion towards the mic button to declare an emergency when the Anchorage Center controller’s voice sounded in my headset. “N4577L, cleared for the ILS DME Runway 11 approach at Ketchikan.”

It was January in Southeastern Alaska. John and I were on our way home to San Diego in our Cessna 340 from teaching weekend ground school classes in Fairbanks and Anchorage. It was our eleventh round-trip to Alaska in our own airplane, and our refueling stops in Southeastern Alaska were always challenging.

The area has a well-deserved reputation for generating icing conditions. Plus, there were sections of the route where we would lose both navigation signals and communications with ATC. We would just hold our heading until we picked up the next VORTAC, and start listening on the next frequency. And of course at that time there was no radar coverage—IFR separation was based on each pilot’s reported position, time, altitude, and estimate to the next reporting point. You had to build your own image of the traffic flow based on the conversations you heard on the frequency.

Now there is radar coverage in Southeastern Alaska, so ATC doesn’t have to rely exclusively on pilot estimates. And when ADS-B is implemented in 2020, both ATC and any pilot with at least a tablet will have a real-time picture of aircraft locations.

As we approached Ketchikan, I began to realize there was an Alaska Airlines B727 overtaking us. It too was headed for Ketchikan, and it looked like it would arrive very slightly ahead of us. Thinking of the almost-certain icing conditions we would encounter at lower altitudes, I told Anchorage Center that if we were going to have to hold for the airliner I wanted to hold at altitude, above the clouds, to stay out of the ice. “You won’t need to hold,” the controller responded. “Descend and maintain 7,000.”

As I leveled at 7,000 feet the controller called with holding instructions. It appeared the B727 wasn’t as much ahead of us as the controller had thought. And as I had anticipated, 7,000 feet, the MEA in that area, did put us in icing conditions. I was cleared to hold at a fix on the airway at the 30 DME arc off Annette Island VORTAC, and once I was cleared for the approach I’d have to fly about 10 miles on that DME arc just to intercept the localizer and then 14 more miles to the airport—all in icing conditions. I wasn’t happy.

Although I had all the de-icing equipment activated in the C340, the ice built up steadily and our airspeed started to decrease rapidly. I kept comparing my estimate of how quickly the ice was building with my anticipation of when I would get approach clearance. Just as I made the decision to declare an emergency and start the approach without a clearance, the controller came through with my clearance. As I descended on the approach, I watched with relief as the ice slowly began disappearing from the wings. Although in the end I didn’t have to declare an emergency, it was just a matter of luck.

Was my readiness to declare an emergency, and almost certainly make Alaska Airlines do a missed approach, appropriate? I would make that same decision again, in the same circumstances. I had made the calculation that the B727 had a lot more power than our C340, had better icing protection than we did, and if anyone had to hang around in the ice it was safer for him to do so than us.

The controller’s number one job is to keep airplanes separated. As a pilot, I am in charge of everything that can affect the outcome of the flight. I have to be proactive rather than waiting for the controller to give me directions. Plus, there are many circumstances in which a controller might not be there to help me.

Pilots often tend to think, “I’m in controlled airspace everywhere I fly, I’m always talking to a controller who can help me out.” But that’s not necessarily so. Numerous control towers and ATC centers have been evacuated due to tornadoes, fires (internal or external), or earthquakes. Ultimate responsibility always falls on the pilot. A pilot cannot give away that responsibility to a controller; they must always be ready to be fully PIC.

An example is the total shutdown of Chicago Center on September 26, 2014 due to sabotage. A deliberately-set fire caused Chicago Center to lose all radar coverage, and shortly thereafter all communications with the airplanes it was separating. A number of airplanes descending for landing were put into holding patterns before communications went completely dead; en route airplanes had the frequency go silent. Every pilot had to make a command decision about how to handle the loss of communications.

En route aircraft generally just kept on going while they searched on their charts, or called on 121.5, to get a frequency in an adjacent center. Airplanes descending for landing, or in holding patterns, generally re-established communications through a nearby approach control.

A controller’s greatest nightmare is being cut off from their traffic. But pilots cannot afford to have their biggest nightmare be being cut off from the controller. We need to be able and willing to be PIC without the direction of ATC—or even against the direction of ATC.

One of the most remarkable incidents I have seen of a pilot truly exercising PIC authority happened at the Providence, RI airport on the night of December 6, 1999. There was heavy fog at the airport, and the tower controller could not see the runways or taxiways.

United Airlines 1448, a B757, landed on 5R, turned off to the left, and got lost on the taxiways in the fog. It ended up with its nose back over 5R. The United flight reported they were at least partially on a runway. They didn’t know for sure which one, and actually reported at one point it was 5L. But they were pretty sure it was in use because they could hear the sound of a FedEx B727 taking off.

With the dense fog and no ground radar, the tower controller could only rely on the pilots’ reports of their positions. While the United pilots were still trying to figure out where they were, the tower cleared US Air for takeoff. The US Air captain refused the takeoff clearance, not once but twice, and stated he would hold his position until United had reached its gate.

The pressure on the US Air captain was huge. The tower controller was forcefully trying to get him to take off. But the US Air captain knew the United pilots didn’t know for sure where they were. The tower wouldn’t either until the plane reached its gate. The US Air pilot that evening proved that he was truly pilot-in-command.

Sometimes exercising PIC authority doesn’t involve contradicting ATC, just suggesting a better route or procedure. That’s what pilots do whenever they request deviations for weather. On a trip not long ago into the DC area, Potomac Approach was issuing holding instructions to pilots. The controller issued me instructions to hold on the airway at the Linden VORTAC 10 DME fix.

Looking out the window and at our radar, I could see that the clearance would have me going in and out of a nasty-looking cumulus cloud. When I asked to hold at the 15 DME fix instead, the controller was happy to give it to me. He was just busy separating traffic. It was my job to keep everybody on my airplane as safe and comfortable as possible.

The issue of PIC responsibility and authority is just as important for VFR pilots. For instance, there is a tendency for some pilots to feel a false sense of comfort from an erroneous belief that they have shared—or transferred—responsibility when using flight following. While flight following can be helpful in letting you know about pop-up TFRs, they only provide traffic advisories, not separation, and only on a workload-permitting basis.

Nor does flight following guarantee search and rescue service when an aircraft goes down. Unless the controller has reason to believe an aircraft has gone down, if a pilot just quits talking to them—because the pilot changed to a different frequency, flew out of radio range, or crashed—the controller will not automatically activate search and rescue procedures. That’s what flight plans are for.

We as pilots are always in charge of our own welfare. Sometimes it is scary to contemplate, but as pilots we cannot give away our responsibility to a controller. Regardless of IFR clearances or flight following, only we have final responsibility for the outcome of a flight. As the PIC, we can’t afford to be passive. We must always be proactive, not reactive, and always be truly the pilot in command.


  1. Barry

    One of the most important words in a pilots vocabulary when dealing with ATC is “Unable.” When you were given the hold in icing conditions, that would have been a great time to use it.

  2. Mark Fryburg, CFII, AGI

    Martha, Didn’t See this one intil I took your FIRC. It is a gem! Includes great examples of pilots having courage to do what’s right – and what will save a life. FAA should include in its “Hazardous Attitudes” Excessively Compliant, Excessively People Pleasing, and Fear of Embarrassment.
    Thank you!

  3. Griz

    Your last statement “PIC’s Must Always be PROACTIVE; Not REACTIVE” can not be understated. Having been a CFI for over 20 years, your statement stirred up a kinds of emotions for me as I remembered numerous times where I wished I had been more Proactive to make many of my flight experiences less stressful. Although I never had any serious consequence associated with my actions, if I had been more Proactive sooner, it would have made the situation easier to deal with.

  4. Bill McAdams

    There is a story told around the Santa Barbara Airport of a low time pilot who flew from Gaviota pass into the SBA airspace, asking to land. He was informed that the airport had just gone IFR and that he was not to enter the airspace VFR. He replied that he could see the airport and again asked to land. The controller, clearly looking for a way to allow the pilot to land asked “are you declaring an emergency?” The pilot said, “no” and turned back towards Gaviota, where he crashed into the mountain and died.

  5. cw

    This is really a good reminder that PIC authority CAN NOT be delegated to ANYONE and is always riding our shoulders. When we depart, we are making a promise to ourselves, our passengers, and other pilots, that we will do everything we can to have as safe a flight as possible, keeping all these (including ourselves) out of avoidable danger.

  6. Randy Billingsley

    Martha, Very Good Info!! I am currently studying your courses for an IFR Rating and do enjoy hearing other people’s stories about their experiences. I fly an arrow and recently experienced a landing gear failure which took three attempts for me to get them to drop by over-riding the emergency gear lever and yawing the plane back and forth vigorously to get them to drop. I would have much rather read about it. Just want to emphasize the value of continuing to learn from the stories and increase awareness of situations that pilots of all experience levels may encounter. Thank You

  7. Ben

    Excellent! As an instrument student, this is very helpful for a real world scenario and how to handle ATC in tricky icing conditions. I would have refused the hold clearance in the icing case for safety reasons.

  8. Dustin Woodhouse

    Thanks Martha, great article! I know for me, when I was a new pilot, ATC and tower seemed very ominous, and the idea that I might need to reject an instruction or clearance was scary! Fortunately I never needed to, but I often wonder, if I had, would I have had the courage to do os? It was articles and stories like the ones you’ve shared here that brought it to life for me, and helped me realize the incredible responsibility behind those three letters: “P-I-C”

  9. Mark

    Anyone who has not seen or heard a presentation of the United 1449 runway incursion at Providence mentioned in the article should. There are various versions available on YouTube, some with animations, others with commentary. The 3 minute ones will cover up to the first USAir rejection of the takeoff clearance; the longer ones far more. A simple search for “United 1449 Runway incursion providence” will bring most of them up.


    Truly what a great story and comments on others. As a person earns his or her private certificate it is only a license to learn and in aviation you never stop learning. Love hearing these stories from you because until you experience a situation like this or read these types of stories/comments it is hard to be ready for these situations. Once again experience is the real trainer and hope each pilot is ready for them. Great stuff.

    Happy flying

  11. Don Weiffenbach

    Ms. King in your seinario in Ketchikan, I would not have accepted the clearance to hold, just saying. No reason to even compltimplate an emergency or request one.

    • Gary CFII MEI B737 Captain

      In all fairness, Don, you weren’t there. Just saying.

      The important lesson is: Everyone is trying to kill us and our passengers. ATC especially, the Airline Management, Flight Attendants, Mechanics, Gate Agents, Baggage Handlers, even Passengers, and, although rarely, your own Co-Pilot.

      As PIC you are solely responsible for the Safety of the Flight. There are countless times I have done what that USAIR Captain did in my 31 years of Air Force, CFI, Regional, and Major Airline Captain piloting experience.

      Martha’s share is powerfully and honestly told. Everyone should learn how to just say “Unable” from her article.

  12. Barbara

    Hi Martha,
    I enjoyed the article. I am still a student pilot but hope to get my solo and Private Certification this summer. Your ground school course helped me earn a 90 % on the FAA written.
    Kindest regards,

  13. Andy Stafford

    I agree Martha, and as a CFI I try to instill this notion of PIC in all my students. Most have to have a slight ‘scare’ to get the true meaning of PIC, but we still teach good ADM

  14. Don

    Excellent article. Since we are just slightly over 50nm away, I see many student pilots from a university flight school (controlled field) on what is probably their first solo cross country flight landing our little uncontrolled field. Many appear completely lost on the ground. Downwind t/o & landing, improper use of taxiways, unnecessary back taxi, etc are common since they have no ground control to instruct them. As a CFII it makes me sad they haven’t been taught that they are PIC and also haven’t followed the regulations to know all they can know about their intended flight. I hate to think what they would do at a more complex field at night when the tower is closed. On the ground, there’s plenty of time to figure it out, a luxury they won’t have when they encounter a problem in the air.

    • Jean Gabriel Ducournau

      Thank you indeed. I as well enjoy Martha’s articles.
      I couldn’t agree more.
      It takes a lot of self-confidence to suggest a variation or even “question” a controller’s instruction; From my point of view, it takes experience, proper and fresh training, being current without a doubt and definitely PIC’s attitude, certainly without being arrogant. It has proved to myself throughout 30+ years flying GA that such procedures are correct.

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