Here's the scenario: I was a student pilot on inbound for landing at my home airport on my final solo cross country flight I needed before doing a checkride.

At roughly 8 miles out to the north west, I established contact with the tower and was told to "enter left base, runway 7, report 3 miles out." I interpreted the "report 3 miles out" as to give the tower a call when I was 3 miles away from the field, ie, when my GPS indicated I was 3 miles from the field.

Now, it was the most windy day I had flown solo in so far (15kt gusts) so I wanted to make sure I had ample time to line up with the runway on final and get a feeling for how the winds were blowing since the ATIS reported them as being variable in direction.

That said, what I ended up doing was making a wide base, except apparently I made it a little too wide because the GPS did not indicate I was 3 miles from the field until I was on final. At this point, I called the tower, reported I was on a 3 mile final and was given clearance to land. After landing, I still had no idea I had done anything incorrectly as the controller made no indication to me.

A few hours after I landed, my CFI sent me a text message asking me how "report a 3 mile base" meant "report a 3 mile final and fly a straight in approach." I'm not sure if he was on the frequency when it happened or if the tower controller called him after the fact and told him about it because I was told to "report 3 miles out", not "report 3 mile base."

I completely understand that I made my base leg too wide and that caused me to deviate from an ATC instruction. What I'm wondering is how bad of a screw up is this? My CFI's reaction was one of legitimate anger and it makes me want to stay on the ground for a while.

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    Did you speak with you CFI about the mistake in detail? There is nothing as bad as making a mistake and being unable to learn from it. – ratchet freak Apr 25 '14 at 16:19
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    @user2207 I cannot answer your question but only commenting about your last sentence. You might have, probably did cause some inconvenience so you've to learn from it. Don't get too upset about CFI. You are very close to not seeing him too often anyway. You can get a better CFII for the next phase. – Farhan Apr 25 '14 at 16:34
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    I may be mistaken, but I'm pretty sure the tower gives you a number to call if you've really screwed something up. And then you get to talk to someone from the FAA about it. If you didn't get a number... Not to downplay your mistake, I'm just sayin'. – Jay Carr Apr 25 '14 at 16:37
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    if you are worried then contact him before you go flying again, a good CFI will be able to explain what you should have done – ratchet freak Apr 25 '14 at 16:38
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    I don't know where you're training, but consider contacting the tower, explain the situation and try to arrange a visit. I am sure they're happy to explain their side of the game and their expectations. – DeltaLima Apr 25 '14 at 18:26
up vote 28 down vote accepted

Well, you screwed up, but nobody got hurt, no metal was bent, and since the tower didn't yell at you presumably you didn't obviously endanger anyone's safety (though there's always some level of risk when an aircraft isn't where the tower expects it to be).

As far as deviations go, that's not good, but it's not terrible. The tower was probably expecting you to report 3 miles out, continuing in to about a mile from the field for your downwind.

Schedule an extra half hour of ground time with your CFI before your next flight to talk about what happened. Also take the time to fill out an ASRS report explaining what happened and why (It's probably unnecessary in this case, as a student the tower will almost certainly be satisfied with you getting "a good talking-to" from your instructor, but it's a good way to learn how that system works.)


There are a couple of other things you might want to do on your next few training flights:

  1. Spend some time getting comfortable in the pattern on windy days.
    You should be comfortable in a tighter pattern than 3 miles, even on a windy day (see my next item for why). This takes practice, and fortunately for you it's spring (at least in the USA) so there are plenty of windy days in most of the country!

  2. Practice some engine-out approaches to get a feel for your plane's glide performance.
    A base leg 3 miles out in a typical GA trainer is very wide -- Remember you generally want to be able to make some spot on the runway if your engine quits on downwind, and you probably can't do that from 1000 feet AGL at 3 miles out.
    Take a few laps around the pattern and have your instructor pull the power at various points so you have a feeling for how the energy management works out - this will give you a good feel for how wide your pattern should be.

  3. Turn the GPS off and practice flying visually.
    The GPS is one link link in your error chain, but I think it's a big one: If you were flying visually and relying on landmarks to judge your distance rather than the 3 mile alert from your GPS you might have realized "Hey, I'm entering downwind - I should tell the tower!"

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    Biggest take away here is the lousy phraseology from ATC, especially with a student. Are you guys in the US? Do you have/use the prefix "TYRO"? – Simon Apr 25 '14 at 19:46
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    @BretCopeland Thanks. Personally, if I'd been the CFI, I would have invited the controller to a "tea, no biscuits" meeting along the lines of "if you want people to precisely follow your instructions, then issue precise instructions". That said, it does seem like the only person with a burr up his a** is the CFI. – Simon Apr 25 '14 at 20:11
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    I already stated my opinion about the matter in chat chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/15163821#15163821 – Bret Copeland Apr 25 '14 at 20:14
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    The tower said, "enter left base," so a downwind was not expected. It also said, "report 3 miles out," not, "report 3 mile base," so (assuming the OP's quoting is accurate) there was no violation, the CFI overheard the transmission, and the CFI was wrong. – Ralgha Apr 29 '14 at 15:40
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    Count me as another vote for "the OP did nothing wrong". I'm not seeing a problem with what they did, and the tower didn't comment, so I don't believe they did either. I'd talk to my instructor, and one thing I've learned, don't argue, see if they have anything instructive to say and accept the feedback with respect, but don't take it personally. YOU were PIC, not them, even though you're a student you still have more knowledge of the sitatution that occurred than an instructor that wasn't in the plane. – Greg Taylor Nov 11 '15 at 23:50

It's not really bad at all. How do we know? Because the ATC didn't intervene or question you.

What emerges for me out of this report is that you need a new CFI. Getting angry at a student's innocent mistake is bad. In particular if it is not something you've been cautioned about before (have you?).

Communicating angry feedback by text is even worse. A good CFI would have waited till they had a chance to speak to you, and started with asking you what happened, not started with an attack on you.

(I recognize that this question is now 3 years old, but since GreenAsJade resurrected it...!)

If we're speaking about controllers working at a tower at your own airport, it might be worthwhile to call the tower on the phone, identify yourself as the pilot of N1234X, and ask if you could visit them. Of course, be respectful of their time (don't call when there's a lot of traffic in the area!). Depending on the field, you may actually get to visit the tower, a terrific experience for any pilot of any experience level! (note: perhaps this would no longer be permitted post 9/11).

The first time I did this was after screwing up at my home field, or, at least, they sounded annoyed on the radio, and I wanted to clear things up once on the ground. Some observations:

1) Few controllers are pilots, so they don't always know what's going on. They have a 'godlike' view with their radar screen, but you the pilot have a very different environment and things can be happening fast. That's not an excuse, it just is, which is why we train and practice so much. Controllers can get overloaded too, of course, and our boneheaded mistakes make their problems worse, and can cause accidents, which is the controller's #1 job to prevent!

2) Controllers are curious about us pilots and we should be curious about them. I was surprised that they had as many questions about flying an airplane as I had for them about being on their end of the mike.

3) It's a partnership! Controllers and pilots work together to do this dance of aviation efficiently and safely. We're in this together! Honestly, if a controller doesn't feel loyalty to us pilots, they're in the wrong business.

4) We owe them loyalty, too! (Climb) Confess, Comply. Don't have a chip on your shoulder. You want to learn and do your part to be safe, be safe for others too.

After doing this at my home field (the one I learned at many years ago), I had a very different relationship with the controllers. I visited more than once and learned a ton! They knew who I was and I knew them. Seriously, I got better handling and occasional hand holding as a newly minted pilot. Later, I repeated this at a new home field after moving far across the country, and it was as rewarding as before. In other situations, I've just called a Flight Service briefer (800-WXBrief) during off hours to discuss things like this (evenings tend to be slow). AOPA also has great resources to call.

Maybe you can't visit towers any more - I don't know - but you could always approach your airport manager about setting up a discussion session with the guys in the tower, say some evening after dinner. If you do that, work hard to promote it and you'll have an amazing evening that will benefit everybody involved. Promote aviation, promote understanding, and promote safety.

Clear skies and tailwinds.

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    Welcome to Aviation.SE and a great answer to begin with. Have some rep. So many simple human truths in what you say. – Simon Mar 15 '17 at 17:30
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    +1 for great advice, it's what is needed, though I would point out you didn't actually address the main question. – Notts90 Mar 15 '17 at 19:44
  • Good point! So maybe more directly to the question... The OP was relying too much on GPS and too little on the intent of the instruction form the controller. We didn't have no stinking GPSs way back when, so the only way to "report 3 miles" was by intimate familiarity with the airport & ground references. Other than that, what "report 3 miles" really means is to tell the controller that you are in the immediate vicinity of the airport & actually have the field in sight. If you're dancing around at 4 miles but have yourself oriented on the field, that's information to let the controller know. – AJ88V Mar 17 '17 at 2:43
  • I also agree with others that the instructor handled his response poorly. He acted like the student made him look bad. Heck, all of us have done stupid things in the air. Step1 is to be honest with yourself (confess, comply). Step 2 is to be grateful for it turning out ok. And Step 3 is to work to improve.in the future. Be safe! – AJ88V Mar 17 '17 at 2:53

It happens and good controllers will be able to work with you. I don't know of any pilots who haven't screwed up a radio instruction a time or two. It could be worse; you could be this guy.

On a more serious note and FYI, the tower wanted you to enter a long base for the runway and report three miles out while on base. Will it result in anything aside from a little embarrassment and a CFI razzing you about it? No. Had it resulted in an incident or an accident then yes you could be found liable for it and suffer civil or criminal penalties.

Back when I was a freshly minted Cessna driver I had a tendency to be a little dyslexic and turn left when I was instructed to turn right, once nearly straying into a block of restricted airspace near an airport I was flying laps in a traffic pattern at. This made for a colorful conversation between the tower and myself, but nothing more came of it. Everybody makes mistakes and any pilot who tells you they don't is full of crap.

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