How can I politely remind ATC that I'm waiting for instructions or clearance?

  • How can I politely remind ATC that I'm waiting for instructions or clearance? abelenky

    (background: low-hour, low-experience, private pilot.)

    I've got an issue regarding talking to air traffic controllers, especially when I think they may have messed up, yet still giving them the respect they deserve as hard working professionals.

    One common scenario is when I'm ready to go, along with multiple other planes, all coming from various taxiways. I know the tower tries hard to clear us each more-or-less in the order we've called up. But when one plane feels they've been badly skipped, or possibly forgotten, it can get awkward.

    I've heard a pilot say (very politely, and with good cause):

    "Tower; Arrow-23: Did you forget about me?"

    only to have the tower come back with a snappy and frustrated:

    "I'm doing the best I can. I'll get you all out of here as fast as I can. Just wait your turn!"

    Obviously, that didn't go very well.

    On the other hand, I've tried to be patient for awhile, only to learn that the Tower really did overlook me, and sequenced several planes out in front of me.

    On the ground, its wasted fuel, HOBBS, and time.
    But in the air, it can be more significant.

    Sometimes I've had tower miss actually clearing me to land.
    If they're trying to sequence me in, I stay on an extended the downwind leg for a long time, waiting to be cleared before turning base. But if they really did get busy and overlook me, I can end up well out of position.

    If I call and ask, sometimes they'll get a little testy with me if they are just busy.
    If I stay silent, I might've been skipped/forgotten, and end up flying downwind for a long time.

    Whats the most appropriate, friendly, and polite way to check in and make sure nothing got missed, without sounding accusatory?

  • What I usually do is repeat the last clearance or instruction. That way you give ATC the impression that you're not impatient but just reporting your progress. If they really forgot you they will quickly rectify the situation. If they didn't and it was intentional, they won't feel as if they are being accused.


    When holding at a holding point:

    Tower, N1234, holding RWY 27

    When still on extended downwind, being "forgotten":

    Tower, N1234, continuing downwind

    When waiting for a landing clearance during approach:

    Tower, N1234, continuing approach

    And if they still don't clear you when you're already below 200ft or over the threshold:

    N1234, VERY short final

  • There's lots of advice I can give you here, but the answer is really that the degree of communication tower wants/needs depends on your local tower (and to some degree the individual controllers).

    Perhaps the most universal piece of advice I can give you is to think like a controller. Listen to the frequency and get a picture of what's going on in the airspace before you call them, and when you get good at it you'll also get good at knowing what kind of a situation you're flying in to (Is the airspace empty, or are there 4 planes in the pattern for landings, 3 in the opposite downwind shooting touch-and-gos, and a jet arrival on an instrument approach that just got dumped on the tower inside 7 miles barreling in & messing everything up?)

    Also remember that from a controller's perspective of priorities ("Safe, Orderly, Expedient") speed doesn't count for much when compared to the other two requirements of the job (and aircraft on the ground are inherently Safe and Orderly unless they do something stupid like go charging across the hold-short line). Unfortunately for us pilots delaying the plane on the ground (that isn't moving, and is thus unlikely to hit anything) is generally preferable to trying to maneuver and delay the ones in the air (that can't stop moving unless they hit something, which is generally considered to be a Bad Thing).

    For a masters class in "thinking like a controller" call your local tower and ask to arrange a tour / shadow a controller for an afternoon. Spending the day in the cab is a great way to get an appreciation for how crazy things can get up there.
    You can usually Google up the phone number, or call Flight Service or your local FSDO and ask. For most towers it's relatively easy to set up a tour (they'll ask for a driver's license and possibly FAA certificate number to do a background check and make sure you're not completely insane).

    The rest of this post is just my personal view on getting along with controllers based on doing most of my training & flying at a pretty busy towered field (According to the FAA's ATADS "Tower Operations" ranking KFRG was #42 in 2013).

    On The Ground

    When you're ready to go call tower and tell them - Something like Tower, Cessna 12345 number one runway 32, ready to go. is usually plenty (if your airport is configured such that there may be some question as to where you are specify which taxiway/intersection you're at).

    After you call the tower and tell them you're ready my experience is you're not likely to be forgotten about. You may be sitting there for a while (my personal record is about a half hour at the hold-short line), but the tower can usually see you sitting there at the runway end waiting. They want to get rid of you, they just need a hole big enough that they can get you onto the runway and airborne without creating any conflicts.

    If you are forgotten (it does happen sometimes - you'll see other aircraft being cleared for takeoff who called the tower to report ready after you, or the controller changes, or you've been listening and are pretty sure the airspace is clear but you're still waiting) a polite call to remind the tower you're ready to go isn't out of order. Just don't be That Guy calling every couple of minutes, and if the controller gets a little snippy just be the better person and shrug it off.

    In The Air

    In the air is a slightly different story. Sometimes it can take me 3 or 4 calls to get tower to even acknowledge my existence on busy days (again, you don't want to be That Guy calling the tower every 10 seconds - you should have a picture of what's going on in the airspace, and if the controller is busy you may have to circle outside their airspace for a while).

    Once you've made contact a good controller will communicate with you and tell you what they need you to do and where they want you to report, where to turn base, or who they want you to follow.

    If you feel like you've been forgotten a well-timed position report is usually the best way to remind the tower you exist (and as a bonus it helps everyone else with their mental picture of the airspace too).
    For example on an extended downwind for runway 01 at Republic you'll pass Sunrise Highway (a pretty easily identified road, and if you miss it you'll spot the train tracks right after it), the inner shore of Long Island, and the outer shore of the barrier beaches. Reporting each of those points while waiting for tower to call your base generally works (if they genuinely forgot about you they'll usually have an "Oh S%$^!" moment when you call them over the outer shoreline and turn you in for a 7-mile final).

    One exception to my position reports technique is landing clearance -- I generally do something to remind myself if I've been cleared to land (fold a chart, turn my kneeboard, etc.) and if I don't recall being cleared I'll call somewhere between 500 feet and the threshold with something line Tower, confirm N12345 landing clearance? (Where depends on the conditions of the day - sometimes they crank out departures pretty tight & if someone's rolling waiting until they're airborne is usually a good idea).
    Sometimes they cleared me and I missed it.
    Sometimes they didn't clear me and they do.
    Sometimes they have an "Oh S%$^!" moment (they forgot about me, have a conflict, and I go around).

    All of those situations are generally preferable to landing on a runway someone else may have been told they can use.

  • Lots of good feedback here. Whenever I am compelled to call the ATC to confirm a clearance or instruction, or if I suspect I was simply forgotten, I just carefully word it as though I may be the one who missed their call even if I'm 99% certain I didn't.

    For example, I'd never say, "Tower N1234 sitting at the threshold of 27 ... did you forget about me?" (Accusative)

    Rather, "Tower N1234 sitting at the threshold of 27 ... did I miss your clearance for takeoff by chance?" (Inquisitive)

    Many towered airports ... especially Class Delta ... have their own little methods of madness or traditions or idiosyncrasies that you won't know the first or second time in. I recently flew in and out of Fort Myers Page Field. Normally, I'll never switch from ground to tower until told to do so. I taxied to the runway threshold, did a runup, then called ground to say I was ready to go ... and "Shall I switch to the tower frequency?"

    Answer, "N1234, at this airport, whenever you arrive at the threshold you may go ahead and switch to the tower frequency and let 'em know when you're ready."

    OK ... fine ... cordial ... polite ... but certainly not by the book.

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