Brief and Understand “ATC ZERO”!

The pandemic caused ATC outages that caught pilots by surprise at busy locations. “ATC Zero!”No ATC Services puts a shiver into any pilot at a busy location (especially operating under IFR). The first pandemic “scrub-down” happened last spring at Midway in Chicago, then McCarran in Las Vegas. ATC-Zero even caught NY Center – the busiest airspace in the U.S. – leaving 270,000 square miles of airspace “uncontrolled” for pilots to operate according to non-radar separation procedures. ATC specialists have been real heroes during the pandemic but keeping them healthy has necessitated some closures. The Midway tower was closed early on –  Click here for Midway and Southwest Airlines operated there very professionally for several days. Pilot resilience and flexibility is a key attribute to continuing safely in a rapidly changing situation. This recent challenge from Pilot Workshops makes clear the gravity of this situation and the necessity for creative decision-making.

As flying activity continues to grow back, we know this will not be the last “ATC Zero” event. It is essential to brush up on your non-tower rules and non-radar separation procedures. Tune in KMDW and listen. Imagine this all happening without ATC. Above all, it is important to remember, these procedures are safe, but were never designed for such busy operations as Midway with daytime traffic so some adjustments and accommodation are essential to safety. The exact details are covered in the FAA’s Operational Contingency Plans.

Pilots do not like surprises, and fortunately,  ATC-Zero has been historically rare. Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, this is an increasingly plausible possibility anywhere due to random infection. During ATC Zero the ATC system is designed to “gracefully degrade” to the next lower level of control. Download this brand new FAA guidance from our SAFE webpage. Pilots familiar with non-tower IFR procedures (small Echo fields, Bahamas?) will adapt quicker to these surprise occurrences; and  this article might help. The FAR AIM basics are in 4-1-9 (and scattered elsewhere), please review these essentials as you get back to flying.

One of the critical safety concerns is to understand that every pilot/crew needs to exercise a cooperative attitude to successfully (and safely) work through these emergency situations. There are procedures but often no precise playbook. And though everyone wants to be efficient and on time, the usual consequence of non-sequenced arrivals is delay and accommodation. Patience, knowing the rules and compliance are the key attributes every pilot needs to exercise to get through these situations safely. Be especially careful during ground operations in non-tower operations. Many of these airfields were not designed for elegant “cooperative operations.” Fly safely out there (and often!) See you at Sun ‘N Fun Hangar “Bravo” #22!

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

2 thoughts on “Brief and Understand “ATC ZERO”!”

  1. David – that you so much for this article and the link to Midway Airport. As soon as I read your email on 032320 I listened to Midway operations and heard several Southwest departures making their reports as they taxied and took off. Exact departure heading and initial altitude was included. Their phraseology was impeccable and consistent (sort of think their ops and atc may have provided some guidelines). Very interesting. They were departing on 4R even with a slight tailwind component. I then looked at the area on Skyvector.com and realized that was totally logical to keep the Midway departures away from O’Hare. Reminded me of when the tower at my previous airport had a scheduling glitch in the tower and didn’t have a controller at opening time. No one answered our calls for taxi. A pilot arriving let us know approach control had advised him that the tower wasn’t open yet, so two of us made our non-tower airport calls including crossing a runway (like Southwest did) and taxied out and departed. While still in the Class D area, the tower controller arrived and made the usual request for any aircraft in the airspace to report which we did and everything was normal after that. It’s really worth keeping current in both the tower and non-tower environments.

    1. Yes, Warren. Day One at KMDW with (suddenly) no tower caught many by surprise (scrape off the rust). To fly safely we need to stay sharp on so many different procedures! Many heroes out there making it happen.

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