In Severe Weather the Pilot Always Holds the Trump Card
by Jeffrey Robert Moss “MossY”
Judgment: That is a key attribute that a pilot flying single-pilot must possess. As a mentor, you want to see that the pilot will do the best of his or her ability to make good decisions in all areas of operations. Weather plays into this. In the fall, winter and early spring we get see pilot’s ability to deal with icing. The late spring and summer, it’s thunderstorms. One thing we pilots know is that flying into a thunderstorm can kill.
I spent my twenties hanging out on Boeing 747-400 and 777 flight decks. I often asked my friends and colleagues how to deal with ATC. I can remember going into JFK on a B744 from Vancouver with a NY Approach controller firing out an instruction to descend super fast; it was coming so fast we couldn’t catch it and then he then went “break…” and moved on to the next aircraft. My pals were forced to pull a trump card. They squawked 7600, yes that’s right, lost comm code. Sure enough that got the controllers attention who then issued us our next directive slowly so that we could understand it. Yes, I have had to use that one going in and out of Teterboro over the years.
One of the times the relationship between controller and pilot becomes somewhat strained is during times of bad weather. First, you have to put yourself in the shoes of the controller. They are bound by Letter of Agreements between facilities and own airspace both vertically and laterally. If the system falls apart, there can be devastating consequences. So they have to conduct themselves with a code of order. No order, and the entire system falls apart.
In early August I was flying with a CJP member for mentoring. The pilot, already typed single-pilot, was now getting real-world experience. No more flying in his comfort zone. Our flight was from Mackinac Island to Stewart, New York. We stopped at Alpena County Regional to get fuel (No fuel at Mackinac Island). For the quick 1h20m flight we filed FL410, primarily because thunderstorms were bubbling up and I wanted to get up as high as I could to keep a watchful eye.
The controller then said “Forget it pal.” I took the radio and said “Center, if you want us to declare an emergency for weather, we are quite happy to do so, but we need FL410 because currently there are thunderstorms over our destination airport and all paths leading to that airport.” The controller immediately cleared us to FL370 and told us take up whatever heading we needed to the left. That was the end of it. After five reroutes, we safely arrived at Stewart and parked the plane at the service center.After discussing with my pilot, I told him to tell the controller, “Unable and we really need FL410, now.”
Fast forward three days later. On our way to drop off one of our passengers at Fort Worth Mecham (KFTW), Regional Approach tried three separate times to get us to fly into the cell, and each time we advised unable. We went 30 miles out of our way to stay visual with the rapidly developing storms and found ourselves in perfect position to shoot the ILS. An American Airlines MD80 was right behind us, and the controller vectored him into the cell and the minute he entered I looked out of the left window of the Mustang, to see him enter the cell (as I said to myself, “good luck pal!”) and a huge bolt of cloud-to-ground lightning emanated out. The American Airlines pilot started yelling at the controller “get me out of here, right now!” I turned to my pilot-in-training and said “That is why we didn’t go into that.” But needless to say it took some serious convincing to the controller that we would not go into the cell.
Now we are on our last leg home after being on the road in mentoring for six days. We had already flown this route twice! You’d think this would be a piece of cake, right? Yeah, good luck with that! We are cleared to San Marcus airport (KHYI) via the BLEWE3 Arrival. Problem was at 6 pm the atmosphere was exploding with boomers. Temperature that day in Texas was close to 100, tons of humidity, unstable atmosphere and guess what you get? Big time boomers! They had developed along the later portion of the arrival with cells over the final approach course of the destination airport as well as near Austin Int’l our alternate.
However, toward the east and south, it was severe clear. We came up with a quick game plan to stay visual and used weather radar and XM WX to the max. As we briefed the STAR we noted there is a note for pilots to expect to cross SEWZY INT. at 13,000. As soon as we loaded it into the G1000 VNAV we recognize that the controller may issue that clearance shortly so we decided to get ahead of it. Pilot keys up and says “Houston Center, Citation 1HH would like to maintain FL220 due to weather.”
The controller immediately came back and said “No way, in fact, Austin needs you at 13,000 at SEWZY, so cross SEWZY at and maintain 13,000.” The pilot immediately came back and said “Unable, due to weather we need to maintain FL220.” The controller then in a very nasty authoritative voice says, “I’m not going to tell you again, descend and maintain 13,000 now!”
Pilot said, “Sir, we need to maintain FL220 due to storms in front of us we do not wish to descend into the cells.” The controller replied, “Are you refusing to comply with an ATC issue instruction”. That’s when I turned to him and said “my radios!”
I keyed up from the right seat this time and said, “Sir, we have a dynamic weather situation in front of us with storm popping up all over our flight plan route. If you are unable to work with us in the interest of safety, then we will be forced to declare an emergency for weather.”
The controller replied with “What?! You are refusing to descend, really?”
I then keyed up and said “Citation 1HH is now declaring an emergency due to weather, we are maintaining FL220 and we will let you know shortly what heading we are going to fly as a vector around cells.” The controller then keyed and said “Standby… Errr.”
About 90 seconds later the controller said, “Citation 1HH Austin Approach says you can do whatever you want!” I replied with, “Okay, so let’s confirm, are you now willing to work with us so that we can have a safe conclusion to this flight, or do we need to remain under emergency status and do this on our own?” He replied with “No need for emergency status sir, whatever you need, we will help you.” I then said “okay, cancel emergency status, and right now we need a 180 heading due to weather and we are maintain FL220.”
We then found a good safe path and descended in visual conditions and some light rain to the Intermediate Fix on the RNAV 17 approach and had a safe conclusion to our flight. Needless to say the next morning we were up early filing our NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) reports.
One of my Boeing mentors taught me no one wins in a pissing match, both personally or in business. In the flying world when a controller and a pilot get into a pissing match, the pilot always wins because they always hold the trump card: the ability to declare an emergency for safety to override the controller.
Jeffrey Robert Moss “MossY” is the 2010 National CFI of the Year, Master CFI and an Instructor/Mentor Pilot on the Citation Mustang, M2 and CJ Series as well as Phenom 100/300, Premier IA & Eclipse 500/550. He is widely regarded as a subject matter expert on Garminology, iPad and transitioning single-engine piston pilots directly in single-pilot jets. His company FlyingLikeThePros.com has online video courses for pilots on the G1000 and iPad.