Hey, It’s MY Turn!

Hey, When is it MY Turn!

In aviation, as in life, we sometimes wonder how we rate. How does Air Traffic Control determine who gets priority handling?

When I began my training at Albuquerque Center in 1983, FAA Order 7110.65 – the “Bible” of Air Traffic Control, stated it simply. Service is on a first come, first serve basis except that priority shall be given to:

  • Aircraft in Distress
  • Lifeguard Flights
  • Presidential Aircraft
  • All others

Over the years the Federal Aviation Administration has added quite a few categories of aircraft that they feel should get priority handling on a routine basis. Looking at the roster I am reminded of the procession list of a royal parade.

First come, first serve is still shown as the primary instruction.  After which the list begins with aircraft in distress and Lifeguard (ambulance) flights as priorities one and two. Number three is now aircraft involved in a search and rescue mission.  The President was slipped to fourth place.

After that we have a raft of minor functionaries jostling for attention. FLIGHT CHECK, is followed by NIGHT WATCH, then FLYNET, GARDEN PLOT and SAMP aircraft. All of these are government aircraft operated by either the FAA, NOAA, or the military. After them, ATC is supposed to expedite the movement of interceptor aircraft on active air defense missions. (To be honest if I was any of the others so far, I’d probably stand back and let him go first. I prefer staying behind the guy with the guns.)

Once he’s gone, the next priority goes to the aircraft called SCOOT, then TEAL and NOAA. IFR aircraft have priority over SVFR aircraft and finally the OPEN SKIES observation and demonstration flights are given priority over all “regular” air traffic. A comforting note at the end of the section indicates that priority is given to any aircraft that has been diverted for any reason.

So, basically, once you’ve finally gotten to taxi to the runway that had been closed by an emergency landing, you will not be given a clearance until the Lifeguard lands and the President departs. Once airborne you will be vectored around FLIGHT CHECK and under NIGHT WATCH, , then FLYNET will cause you to circle around GARDEN PLOT, while SAMP, takes your requested altitude. The wake turbulence behind an intercepting SCOOT aircraft will bounce you across the paths of TEAL and NOAA to OPEN SKIES where you will get priority handling as a reward for being diverted.

Now doesn’t that make you feel warm and fuzzy all over.

There are other priorities that are not covered by this section, but which are simply practical. For instance, at an uncontrolled (no tower) airport, IFR aircraft that are inbound have priority over aircraft sitting on the ground requesting IFR clearance to depart.  Mind you, the VFR traffic can still come and go as they please and the IFR ones need to keep that in mind.

If it is a VFR day, the IFR aircraft on the ground could choose to depart using VFR rules and pick up his IFR clearance from the ARTCC once airborne.  Centers prefer to be told if the IFR aircraft on the ground intends to do that so they can be looking for the departure.

Flight Service has always been required to give priority to traffic on the radios over calls for preflight briefings. This rule was written when Flight Service was composed of small one and two man stations, where the specialist worked all positions simultaneously. Today the radios and the phones are manned separately. However, if you call radio and make a request that is basically a preflight function for a future flight – such as a full weather briefing or filing a flight plan – this type of request takes a back seat to aircraft calling for actions pertinent to their current flights.

Flight plan filings and preflight briefings tie up radios for five to ten minutes, and when you are monitoring 50 or more frequencies, that locks up the position for a long time. If possible, try to perform these functions on the ground prior to your flight, or at least don’t be one of those pilots who wants to file a flight plan for a flight that doesn’t start until four hours after he lands, but doesn’t remember what is needed so flight service has to extract the information piece by piece.  If weather is involved and you need to go IFR RIGHT NOW that’s different…take all the time you need to get it right.

Always and forever, pilot experiencing distress come first – the FAA’s directive is the SAFE and efficient flow of air traffic – safe comes first.  That is the mindset that is drilled into all of us from day one.  Even if a pilot does not declare an emergency, if the controller or radio specialist can tell that something is wrong, we can treat it like it is an emergency.  But that is the subject of another article.

Now that you know all about priorities I have a feeling you will understand that the transmission a lot of controllers have wanted to make their whole careers goes something like, “Air Force One, standby, Piper Cub two-three-four cleared to depart…”