Eight words that can really ruin your day. In over 47 years of flying, I had never heard them. It’s not that I have never pushed the limits of the FAR’s. I just haven’t been caught doing it. And, while I often write this column with a fully-developed sense of humor, I take my flying very seriously.
So, on a cool January day, I was devastated to hear those eight words as I taxied in after a normal two-hour leg. The situation began to develop during our descent for landing.
“ATIS information Oscar, sky clear, wind variable at three knots, visibility more than 10 miles, altimeter 30.48.” I checked in with approach. “N1865C turn left heading 240, vector for final approach course,” came the response from the controller. “Say desired approach.”
“The ATIS is calling for a visual to 16,” I said. “You can expect that,” came the reply. I set my Collins FMS up for a visual to runway 16. “Contact approach on 121.1.”
The new controller asked if I had the airport in sight. “Negative, we are right in the haze layer,” I responded. “I can vector you for the ILS to 3 if you don’t get the airport in sight,” he said. “Roger,” I replied.
Some time passed, then, without explanation, the controller vectored me 30 degrees away from my direct heading to the airport. I was confused. “Do you see 1865 Charlie west of the runway 16 centerline?” I asked. “Affirmative,” came the response. Now, I was totally confused. How was I going to get to the airport on this heading? I still assumed that I was being vectored to the final approach course as intimated by the first controller. The new controller had another idea. I just wasn’t sure what it was.
And here was my part of the confusion. I continued on an un-assigned heading for what seemed like 30 seconds toward the airport as I tried to figure out what his plan was. Angrily, the controller said, “turn right to 180 now, there is rising terrain on that heading.” Indeed there was, all clearly visible miles away in our VMC conditions. I made the turn, saw the airport, and flew a visual to runway 3. Taxiing in, the tower controller told me to call TRACON.
And whereas years ago, this kind of situation would likely have been handled by a simple admonishment, the guy on the TRACON phone line said there was little he could do and was required to forward my possible transgression to the local FSDO.
I didn’t sleep well that night. Would my license be revoked? Suspended? Would my record forever be tarnished? Would my insurance carrier cancel my policy? Would my dog Peaches bite me?
I called the AOPA legal hot line and got some great advice. I filed a NASA report. I hired an attorney to advise me on the next steps. I downloaded much of the recorded conversation between me and the controllers via ATC live.net. I took a picture of my actual flight path from Flight Aware.
I became more friendly with my dog.
About three weeks later, I got a call from an inspector with the FSDO who asked lots of questions. He was a former corporate pilot and he opined that there was likely a failure by me and the controller to communicate effectively and rectify the confusion. “Since your record is clean, we just need to discuss what happened and fill in a whole lot of boxes for the data base.” He was professional and courteous. “I’ve been there before,” he said.
And that was it. No action taken. No black mark on my record. Just a lot of sleepless nights wondering.
Let’s hope that the FAA’s new compliance philosophy outlined by Administrator Huerta will make things a little easier for all pilots.