Problems at Socal Approach

Posted by in Aviation, IFR

What on earth is going on at Socal Approach these days? It seems every time I fly, they find a new way to confuse, infuriate, or disappoint me. Sometimes all three.

It really pains me to say that, because my cousin was an air traffic controller and I have the utmost respect for ATC. Hell, when I was a kid, I used to hang out at Anchorage Center’s facility on Elmendorf AFB. It’s not easy controlling traffic in the Los Angeles area. They are beset with personnel shortages, a plethora of trainees, a dysfunctional relationship with FAA management, and high levels of traffic.

I try to help them out as much as possible. Speaking clearly, eliminating excess verbiage, being patient when they’re busy. But a guy can only take so much, and in my experience Socal makes more mistakes now than they ever have.

Just the other day I launched out of SNA on an instrument flight plan. My clearance was to depart the airport and fly heading 220 for radar vectors to the Seal Beach VORTAC. This is the standard boilerplate clearance when departing John Wayne Airport under IFR, and something I’ve done a thousand times.

I’m not two miles from the field before they start yelling at me for not following the Orange departure. This is a head scratcher, because the Orange departure is a VFR procedure.

As soon as I explained that I was IFR, not VFR, I received five different squawk codes in the space of 4 minutes. As if this wasn’t enough, I was then handed off to Los Angeles Center while at 2000 feet MSL and less than 10 miles from the airport!

I am not making this up.

I questioned the handoff and got yelled at for doing so. OK, I shouldn’t have phrased it the way I did (“Is the TRACON being evacuated?”), but still. I would have asked for a phone number, but things were so screwed up on their end I wasn’t sure whose number to ask for. I was basically “lost com” while talking to ATC via a functioning radio.

Eventually I got in touch with the proper Socal controller, who yelled at me for not being on the frequency sooner.

Now I try not to fly angry, so I forced myself to let it go. But in retrospect, that might not have been the best thing to do. Something was very wrong down in San Diego, and I could have forced someone there to deal with it. Imagine if this had been a freshly minted IFR pilot on his first flight in the system. Or someone who wasn’t familiar enough with the area to know that they should be talking to Socal on 127.2, not Los Angeles Center.

It sounds like I’m really down on ATC, but I do realize they have their own challenges. Socal is the busiest TRACON in the world. As I noted, personnel shortages are a big problem for them right now due to high numbers of retirements, and it’s clear there are a lot of trainees working the scopes these days.

I’m not sure the towers are any better. A friend works as a tower controller at LAX, and said the quality of the new people working the cab there is “scary”.

This experience has reinforced something I teach all my students: trust but verify. Because regardless of whether you’re flying under visual or instrument flight rules, when all is said and done, the only person you can count on up there is yourself. So expect the unexpected and don’t let a controller bully you. If something smells bad, question it. Trust me, you’ll be doing yourself — and ATC — a favor.

From what I can see, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. If you want a controller’s perspective on this, I recommend Get the Flick, a blog written by a recently retired controller and safety representative from Atlanta ARTCC.