From a pilot's perspective, when a controller asks me to do something, I do it. The exception is obviously dangerous situations, like, say, the controller points me right at a thunderstorm or a mountain. At that point, I would exercise my Pilot in Command rights and say "Approach, unable heading due to terrain / storm / certain doom." But in general, I realize that the controller has the big picture and is asking me to do something for a reason.
From a controller's perspective, we're not sitting at our scope issuing "vectors for controller amusement." There is thought and purpose put into the things we ask pilots to do. It's in the controller's best interest to get the aircraft where they're going as quickly as possible with as little complication and coordination as possible. Along the way, we may tell them to change altitude, speed, or heading, but it's mainly for the safety and efficiency of the operation. This is drilled into us constantly during our training and is the very mantra of ATC: "Safe, orderly, and expeditious".
Every pilot wants to be number one for the runway or number one out the departure gate, but sometimes it just doesn't work out that way. So, we work with the traffic, runways, and airspace we have and try to accomodate the pilots as best we can. Some pilots don't seem to get that, however, and take it personally when they get vectored.
We have one pilot who flies around here in a high performance airplane. He's a local, an easily recognized voice on the frequency. I don't know what he does for a living, but he must be a lawyer or something outside of the cockpit. Why do I say this? Because he likes to question every single instruction issued to him.
For the sake of this blog, we'll call him "Bob".
- We're departing runway 26 at Pensacola. Departures are coming off westbound climbing to 1700' .
"Bob" is in his fast single-engine airplane, eastbound at 1700' about 15 miles west of the airport. While Bob is VFR, most of our departures are IFR. Right there, that demands at least a 500 foot vertical separation requirement between IFR and VFR. There's also the little matter of TCAS: if an airliner takes off and levels off at 1700 and winds up with a face-full of Bob, that will result in a Resolution Advisory. Those are ungood, resulting in scared pilots, called-in complaints, and a lot of paperwork on the part of the pilots. (Obviously, if Bob was in the way, I wouldn't have released an airplane for departure anyway.)
I tell him to climb and maintain 2200. He responds "You...you want me to climb?" in this really snide, sarcastic How dare you? voice. I explain that Pensacola's departing runway 26 and we have departures coming off, opposite direction, climbing to 1700. He begrudgingly climbs to 2200.
A minute goes by. And then... Bob snidely requests to land Runway 17 instead. The tone in his voice is arrogant, as if he's saying "I'll teach you to climb me!". The copped attitude made me laugh.
Well, I'm of the "kill 'em with kindness" mindset, so I ApReq the 17 arrival with the tower. I then radioed the pilot and told him to enter right base for 17. The smugness in his readback was palpable. He continued with his "I'll show you" tone right up until he switched frequencies. It was so very ridiculous.
I kept thinking: a person with that kind of obnoxious attitude should not be anywhere near a pilot's seat.
- That was slightly annoying. However, the first time I dealt with this character it was much more entertaining.
We were landing Runway 17. Once again, Bob is inbound VFR from the west at 1700' landing Pensacola. However, Navy Sherman was on Runway 19, so their final cuts directly across this guy's flight path. They have an IFR T-34 in the pattern over there at 1700' who's on a right downwind, and even when they're twenty miles apart I can tell they're going to be a conflict for our friend Bob.
Now, we have a bunch of aircraft inbound to Pensacola. However, Bob's lined up to be #1. He's VFR and his high speed and direct flightpath will put him smoothly into a right base for Runway 17. All I need to do is make sure he misses that T-34, so I'll just give him some vertical separation.
Guess what I do? (Tell me if this sounds familiar) Yup! I tell Bob to climb to 2200'. Little did I know at the time that 500' could mean so much a person.
What follows is a back and forth argument with the pilot. He starts off with the "You want me to climb?" bit. I say "affirmative". He says he's "just fine" at 1700'. I tell him about the T-34 traffic. He confidently states he'll just keep an eye out for the traffic and get a visual on him. I begrudgingly consent and just leave him at 1700'. The sky is clear and I figure Bob will get an eye on the glaring orange and white T-34.
They continue to close the gap and I continue to keep an eye on them. At five miles I issue the traffic. Bob doesn't see him. At this point, it's obvious that they're going to get really close. The "green between" (a.k.a. lateral spacing) between the targets is not guaranteed.
Three miles. Doesn't see him. At two miles, my instructor and I stop taking chances on this guy's eyeballs and tell him, "N123, traffic alert, 2 o'clock, two miles, 1700 feet, northbound, T-34. Turn left heading 360, vectors for traffic."
Bob takes the turn, complaining the whole way. After a little bit, he finally gets the T-34 in sight.
Now, of course, he just wants to keep going straight to Pensacola. Not so fast, my friend! Because of the turn and the resulting additional flying miles, he is no longer number one. We have to sequence our arrivals into the airport - both VFR and IFR - and now his slot's been blown. We had quite a few arrivals inbound that were already lined up behind him from the north and east, and now #2 has become #1. Bob goes from being number one to number five!
So we tell him, "N123, fly heading 030, vectors for sequence." He snaps back, "But I can see the airport! I'm almost right on top of it!" That's unfortunate for Bob, but we needed to rebuild our sequence. "Unable direct to the airport, fly heading 020 for sequence. You are number five for the runway." Let's just say he wasn't thrilled with his number in the line, the stress in his voice coming through over the frequency. However, he quickly stopped fighting the inevitable and just took our vectors without further complaint. Bob landed eventually, just a little later than he had planned.
The stupid irony to this is that if the guy had just climbed the freaking 500 feet as I had asked originally, he'd have been #1. He would have saved the gas and the time on the airplane. He'd have given us piece of mind on our end as far as the T-34 goes. He would also have saved us a whole lot of additional work in vectoring and rebuilding our plan around his resequencing. I mean, it just goes to show that one action in ATC can have a ton of repercussions.
Are there other things that I could have done? Sure, I could have put on a vector right from the beginning to keep away from the traffic. That still would have put him in as #5. I was just trying to be efficient with him and took a bet on him being able to see the T-34 - as he said he would. That didn't work out, so we just rebuilt the plan around the new developments.