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10 Times It's Appropriate To Say 'Unable' To ATC

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There are a few times when you should use the phrase "unable" with ATC...

1) You're going too fast to safely exit the runway at the taxiway the tower has directed you towards.

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2) You can't accept a "land and hold-short" (LAHSO) clearance due to landing performance.

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3) You've been given a hold in the middle of icing conditions.

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4) The runway in use exceeds your aircraft's wind limits, and you need a runway change.

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5) You're unable to follow an instrument procedure due to equipment limitations, and you need an alternate procedure.

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6) You've been cleared late for a last-minute descent, and you're not able to comfortably make a crossing restriction.

7) You're unable to maintain a 500 foot-per-minute climb rate under IFR.

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8) ATC gives you a speed restriction that you can't maintain.

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9) You've been assigned an altitude that you're not comfortable or capable of flying at because of weather, oxygen requirements, etc.

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10) In short...any time you're given a clearance or instruction that affects safety of flight or exceeds your aircraft's limitations.

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Keep in mind, avoid giving a simple "unable" response without closing the loop. If time allows, briefly explain why you're unable to comply with an instruction, and suggest an alternative


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Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at swayne@boldmethod.com, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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