Vector Limits

There’s something very satisfying about instrument flying.

I’m not sure if it’s the precision, the difficulty, the pilot/controller teamwork, or the sheer magic of being able to whisk through three dimensional space for hours on end without seeing anything outside the aircraft, navigating and maintaining ones situational awareness all the while.

Despite what the some would have you believe, all instrument ratings are not created equal.  I have yet to see a pilot who earned their rating at one of the accelerated Arizona programs who was able to handle the workload in the L.A. area without some remedial training.  It’s not a snub at those programs per se.  You just don’t have the exposure to actual IMC and high density operation out there in the desert.

Case in point:  I made a literal cross-country flight (Duluth, MN to Orange County, CA) with one of my instrument students in a new SR22.  We shot many approaches along the way, and he did a nice job.  But nothing could prepare him for coming over the Cajon Pass and being given the following pop-up IFR clearance:

Cleared to SNA via make a right 360, fly heading 175, when able proceed direct Paradise, depart on the Paradise 270 radial, victor 363, victor 8, Seal Beach, direct, descend and maintain 5000, squawk  4672, and contact Socal now on 135.4.

The controller read so fast that my student was only able to write down the first bit.  I knew this would happen and was prepared to pick up the slack, because when actual IMC conditions prevail, the controller is swamped, and you’re asking for the favor of a pop-up clerance, you have to make a strong first impression or ATC will simply refuse to give you IFR (as is their right).

Naturally, there were two revisions between Paradise and SNA, and what we actually flew bore no resemblance to the original or amended clearances.

The point is, this is a brutal environment in which to learn.  It takes longer, costs more, and is more stressful.  But it results in a much better instrument pilot.

Whether you concur with that statement or not, I’m confident most pilots would agree that the instrument rating is the most challenging certification to obtain.  And maintain.  This is especially true here in the Los Angeles basin due to the traffic density.  There are scads of airplanes, airports, and the frequencies are usually jam-packed.  This can lead to pilots and controllers attempting to take shortcuts with radio phraseology in order to be more efficient.  Unfortunately, this rarely works.

This brings me to the reason for this article.  My latest pet peeve is a shortcut that ATC seems to be taking more and more frequently these days:  they vector pilots around without telling them where they’re going.

I’m quite sure that this happens to other pilots as well, so I’m curious about why it never gets mentioned.  I was taught (and it makes perfect sense) that any time a controller takes you off your clearance and starts vectoring you, they are supposed to tell you where you’re going.

This is important because if you lose communication with ATC in actual instrument condition, you have to know where to go.  The regulations state that if you lose comm in IMC during radar vectoring, you should proceed to the that location.  How are you supposed to do that if you don’t know where you’re being vectored?

I asked a DPE about this, and was told that controllers often omit the vector limit when they know the weather is solid VFR.  On the surface, this seems reasonable.  After all, the regulations state that if you lose communication while in visual conditions, you should remain VFR and land.  If the weather is good, why bother providion a vector clearance that will never be used?

I can think of two reasons.  First, because it’s required.  When providing radar vectors, FAA Order 7110.65R states the following in section 5-6-2:

b. When initiating a vector, advise the pilot of the purpose.

VECTOR TO (fix or airway).




or if the pilot does not have knowledge of the type of


It’s interesting to note that while it says “advise the pilot of the purpose“, four of the five examples given are locations, not reasons.  The only exception is “vector for spacing”.  All the others are “vector to some location”.  While we’re on the topic, “vector for traffic” doesn’t show up on that list.  How often have you received that one?

Also, notice that 7110.65 does not make any exception for specific meterological conditions. If the aircraft is flying under Instrument Flight Rules and the controller starts to vector it, as far ask I know, the pilot should be given a vector limit regardless of the weather.

The second, and more important, reason controllers should provide a vector limit is because when they don’t, a red flag should be raised in the pilot’s mind.  He should ask where he’s being vectored.  As it stands now, pilots are learning or re-learning instrument flight all over the L.A. basin and not asking this question.  We’re becoming de-sensitized to the situation.

What’s going to happen when they’re being vectored in actual IMC?  Yeah, they won’t know where they’re going.

The larger picture?  Pilots are not navigating.  “Navigating” is the process of finding your way from one place to another.  If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not navigating, are you?  You’ve effectively abdicated that responsibiilty to ATC, closing your eyes and allowing them to blindly lead you by the hand.  This is dangerous, not to mention the fact that you won’t know when you get wherever you’re going!  If ATC says “radar vectors to final approach course” and five minutes later you blow through the localizer, you know to speak up.  If all you get is “turn left heading XXX”, you are a lot less likely to say something when that needle swings.

The answer to this problem is simple.  Insist on a vector limit.  I’ve become more stringent about requiring my students to always know where they’re going during radar vectoring.  Rule #1 when flying IFR is to maintain situational awareness.  You can’t do that if you don’t know where you’re going.

  3 comments for “Vector Limits

  1. June 29, 2006 at 10:54 am


    I could hardly think of a more appropriate subject. Every pundit seems to think the level of service from ATC is going to deteriorate, as many of us would already allege it already has.

    30 plus years ago I was a simulator technician for the USAF. We put our crews through a 5 day set of training and check rides annually … 4 hours in the class room and 2 hours ‘in the box’ each day. Every single day had it’s own pre-scripted emergencies, scripted in advance by the pilot and flight engineer instructors who actually “rode” inside with the crews in training.

    Every day had at least one “lost comm” or “wrong vector” scenario as well, initiated by us techs outside the “box” who simulated ATC services. And every single day, for all the years I worked at it, at _least_ one crew, after four hours in the classroom, during which lost comm was _always_ mention, would accept some hokey clearance such as aiming them direct toward Mt McKinley at 8,000 feet and ignoring any calls to ATC … care to guess how many crews actually remembered what Pilot In Command actually meant and refused to accept the clearance, or executed procedures to avoid the otherwise certain CFIT … and loud, blaring ‘crash horn’ from the simulator? You’d be depressed to know how few, I think.

    Any pilot who does not know where s/he is and where s/he is going has just changed role from pilot to passenger,

  2. June 29, 2006 at 1:01 pm

    I’m reminded of an instructional flight I did a year or so ago in solid IMC from Oakland to Santa Rosa. We filed flight plans to and from Santa Rosa. Prior to the approach clearance into Santa Rosa, my student informed Center we wanted to fly the missed approach and pick up up a clearance back to Oakland, pre-filed. The controller told us to expect our clearance “on the go.”

    The ILS went fine, we flew the missed approach and were handed off to Center again. The controller was very busy and immediately gave us a heading to fly “for traffic.” He told us to expect our clearance momentarily. That turned into several minutes. Meanwhile, we were given several new headings to fly.

    I let this go for a while, but after about 5 minutes I pointed out to my student that we were flying without a clearance limit. What if we lost our radios? Just then, the controller gave us another heading to fly. My student read the heading back and asked if we could at least have a clearance limit. The controller seemed flustered and blurted out “this is vectors to Oakland.” Strange. After another 5 minutes, he finally gave us the clearance which was so simple it made me wonder why he waited so long – cleared to Oakland via present heading, direct.

    Just two nights ago, an instrument student and I instructed to intercept and fly a DME arc to the SNS localizer. Thing is, the controller forgot to give us a frequency change and we ended up out of range. We asked if any aircraft on frequency could relay our request for an approach clearance and an America Airlines pilot gave us a hand. We got a new frequency and instead of accepting responsibility for what happened, the controller tried to humiliate my student into thinking the debacle was his fault. It was a good object lesson for an instrument student – controllers can and do make mistakes. They’re only human

    I see more and more situations where a single controller is handling multiple frequencies for multiple sectors. The situation is not good and doesn’t seem to be getting better.

  3. June 30, 2006 at 10:07 pm

    As a pilot of a few hundred hours, I agree with you about the coolness of IFR flying. I did a majority of my flight training in Daytona Beach, Florida, and understand the pressure cooker of training and densely packed airspace.

    As an air traffic controller of six years, I may have a little bit of clarification on the vector limit.

    As you mentioned, the .65 says that the controller will advise the pilot of the purpose of a vector. That purpose can be any reason that happens to show itself. It’s not restricted to the list in 5-6-2. For example, a purpose not mentioned in 5-6-2 is the vector “for visual approach.” It’s mentioned in 7-4-2. AIM 5-5-6 lists vectors for separation (i.e. “traffic”), noise abatement, or an operational advantage for the pilot or controller.

    Where I work, we border Detroit Approach. They are too busy to take overflights most of the time, so we issue a “vector around Detroit Approach airspace.” Often Cleveland Center will give us a vector to issue to an aircraft. We don’t know the purpose, so we issue a “vector from Cleveland Center.” When the aircraft is switched to the center, the center controller will give them the reason.

    My favorite justification is “vector for controller amusement.” I have actually used that on the freq, although the pilot was one of my flying buddies.

    Now, there are times when justification of a vector is not necessary. The .65 5-8-2 says that the pilot should associate headings after departure with vectors to the planned route.

    It’s also safe to assume that once a purpose is given, it doesn’t have to be reiterated with every other vector that is issued. Although if the reason for the vector changes, then the controller should give the new reason for it.

    In short, you should get a reason for your vector no matter what the weather is, and “Vector for Traffic” is totally legit.

    As far as lost comm goes, your clearance limit remains your destination airport. Just because you are on a vector, that doesn’t mean that you are no longer cleared to your destination. Therefore, if you happen to go lost comm, squawk 7600, proceed to the initial approach fix, and hold. Then shoot the approach in order to arrive at your destination airport as close to your proposed ETA. (AIM 6-4-1)

    Regarding John’s comment, if you go lost comm before you get your new clearance “on the go,” you are still cleared to the airport that you just did the approach to because you were not yet cleared to the new destination. Since you are already past your proposed ETA (because you just did an approach into the airport), you would squawk 7600, proceed to the initial approach fix, and shoot the approach immediately. In that situation, you were never without a clearance limit.

    As more controllers retire, you will hear fewer controllers working more sectors combined. For example, DFW is authorized 114 controllers. Currently, they only have 73. The FAA filed a report in 2004 that said they needed to hire 1200 controllers a year for 10 years. So far this year, they have only hired around 165.

    I hope that this explanation helps out. Your experiences may differ slightly; but I talked the explanation over with the night shift, and this is what we came up with. We also whole-heartedly agree with John. Pilots and controllers are both human, and we all make mistakes on a daily basis. The tricky part is getting some controllers to admit it. 🙂

    Enjoy the site. Keep up the good work, brother!

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