Former Naval aviator John Koon spent his last tour on active duty assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Accra, Ghana, where he flew the American ambassador throughout West and Central Africa in a Beech C12 (King Air 200) where he had plenty of opportunities to assess the quality of ATC and competence of controllers.

From his experience, Koon warns business aviation operators visiting Africa to be aware that in some areas poorly trained, overworked and under-equipped controllers can be quickly overwhelmed when their airspace — particularly in terminal areas — becomes congested, especially in bad weather. His advice is to be hyper-alert, flexible and willing to intervene on the radio if a situation appears to be cascading out of control and safety is compromised. Here, in Koon’s words, is an example of such a scenario, which took place at Conakry International Airport (GUCY) in Guinea as several aircraft were stacked up in holding for the ILS Runway 06 approach.

“We had been put in holding at the IAF, BILAM, at 3,000 ft. because an Air France B777 had just been cleared for the ILS 06 approach starting from BILAM at 2,000 ft. Because of the prevailing southwest winds, they requested to circle to Runway 24 for landing. While they shot the approach, we had two Beech 1900s arrive, which were put in holding above us while thunderstorms approached from the north and west.

“The Air France flight called field in sight and started to circle, so Conakry approach cleared us to 2,000 ft., and the aircraft above us to 4,000 ft. and 6,000 ft. The Air France flight then called missed approach and requested clearance to BILAM at 2,000 ft., which Conakry approved. We noted the looming conflict and reminded ATC that we were at 2,000 ft. at BILAM; the controller said we should be at 3,000 ft., but [the pilot of] another plane interjected ‘No, you cleared him to 2,000 ft.’ At any rate, we climbed to 3,000 ft. and waited. We had plenty of fuel, but the guy at the top of the stack notified ATC that he was 10 min. from declaring emergency fuel.

“The Air France flight shot the second approach — we were not cleared to descend this time — and for a second time, after circling, [the B777 declared a] missed approach, again requesting direct BILAM at 2,000 ft. We jumped in on the radio and said, ‘No, he’s had his turn, we need to make it in before the thunderstorms do.’ ATC replied, ‘Air France, he is right, climb to 8,000 ft. on a heading of 120, report reaching.’ The rest of us made it in just fine, [as] we didn’t have to circle. Air France ended up diverting to Freetown, Sierra Leone, I think, because we never saw [the B777] on the ramp.

“The point of the story is that ATC easily gets overwhelmed in situations where busy airspace and dynamic weather can make for tricky situations,” Koon said. He also noted two other potential trouble spots where visiting crews need to be alert:

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Brazzaville, Congo Republic, as the two capitals sit directly across the Congo River from each other, and their airports — respectively, Ndjili International (FZAA) and Maya-Maya International (FCBB) — do not necessarily coordinate departure and arrival flight paths.

Abuja, Nigeria, where controllers are known to clear VIP departures directly into the active approach corridor of opposing traffic without notification, resulting in traffic advisories (TAs) and resolution advisories (RAs) on the TCAS. “It behooves pilots to listen on the radios, watch TCAS and anticipate what ATC is going to try to do to mess up your day,” Koon advised. BCA

This article appears in the November 2015 issue of Business & Commercial Aviation with the title "When ATC Is Overwhelmed."