To get the most out of this article, read it with your eyes closed. Sound silly? Okay, lets apply the same philosophy to radio communications. To get the most out of your $50,000 nav/comm stack, make all transmissions with the volume turned down.
Youll find the silence quite relaxing, no stress from competing pilots on CTAF or confusing instructions from nattering air traffic controllers. Just you, your machine, and the cosmic bliss of free flight. If you were a seagull, someone would write a book about you. But youre not. Youre a pilot and, unless youre knocking about grass fields in a J-3 Cub with no radio, youll need to improve those radio skills.
The good pilot never stops improving the art of communications, and the best way to learn how to speak on the radio is to learn how to listen. If you take nothing else away, remember that the Calvin Coolidge approach to speech works best – listen; dont talk unless absolutely necessary.
In 25 years of tramping around aviation, Ive worked as an air traffic controller, a ramp rat, and in the cockpit giving flight instruction. In desperation, Ive even turned to aviation journalism. All careers have one thing in common: My mother was right, I shouldve gone to medical school.
But even had I become a doctor, I probably wouldve been lousy at it because Id end up hanging around the airport. Theres just something in the DNA of pilots that prevents them from being anything else. And we dont so much become pilots as we perform the role of pilots. We pick up our wardrobe from Sportys, we learn air poise from Martha King, and we live in mortal fear of a bad review from the critics at the FSDO.
As aviation actors, we must perfect our delivery and this begins with recognizing our faults. For a truly humbling experience, hook a tape recorder to your radio. With the recorder on, every flub you make between Request clearance and We need progressive to parking will be recorded for posterity. Like Nixon, youll want to erase certain segments before going public.
Even without the recorder, you can review your communication skills beginning with a critique of your preflight lingo. Well skip the part where you swear at the snowplow operator for spraying slush across your spinner. Instead, call the FSS for a briefing and consider how you sound. DUAT lovers may wish to review the human-to-human interface from time to time because the FSS is a fair source of information in case your modem rolls over. Some day the FSS will go the way of VCRs and 8-track tapes, and youll have missed a truly underrated experience.
Heres how to talk to the FSS: Call anywhere in the country 1-800-WXBRIEF. Before the briefer answers, rehearse your speech. Know what you want and how to say it. The briefer sits before a computer screen and tries to fit you into the briefing profile. Although a good briefer can be flexible, it helps to have a generic speech pattern such as this: Hello (politeness counts; ask Martha), aircraft number is 85607, a Cessna 172 slant Golf. Im an instrument-rated private pilot at Milwaukee Mitchell, headed to Moline VFR and leaving in 30 minutes.
This paints an initial picture of the capabilities of both pilot and aircraft. It also gives your location and destination. As you speak, the briefer types the info into the computer. Now, what do you want? Request a standard briefing, please. (Other briefing types include an outlook, used when planning a departure over six hours away, or an update, if youve had a previous briefing.)
The briefer now has enough to begin. He doesnt have to pry out the information like so many impacted teeth. The smoother your monologue, the better the service youll receive. In many respects, the briefers are like computers – garbage in, garbage out.
Then, once youve impressed the folks in the windowless bunker, you head to the ramp. What happens next depends on whether theres a tower or not.
Searching for Deliverance
After the preflight, with the kids securely strapped to the cargo floor, you call clearance delivery at a towered airport. Depending on the complexity of the ATC facility, clearance delivery might be combined at the ground control position. Either way, the procedures are similar. Bigger airports have data-link clearance delivery so airlines can receive IFR clearance through a computer hooked to a mother ship circling the globe. Thats a few years off (not many) for GA, so well stick with voice-to-voice comm.
As with the FSS, when you speak to clearance delivery, you should know what you want. Are you IFR or VFR? Do you have the ATIS? Are you ready to copy your clearance or are you one of those pilots who always seems surprised when ATC reads a clearance back? Still got that tape recorder going? The answer will be there in all its humiliating detail.
This is how you should ask the average clearance delivery for an IFR clearance: Milwaukee clearance, Cessna 85607, with Alpha, IFR to Moline. Thats it. Some pilots like to toss in Ready to copy. That evokes a big groan in the tower.
Of course youre ready to copy. Why else would you call? Well, maybe to amend your flight plan. In that case, say, …IFR to Moline. Request. That word, request, alerts ATC that you want something different. Controllers listen to hundreds of calls every day. They hate excess verbiage. That said, many controllers suffer from love of their own voice and need a few lessons in being succinct.
When ATC reads the clearance, you dont have to read it back, but you do have to acknowledge. Saying Roger actually suffices. Its best, however, to read back all clearances to trap errors: Cessna 85607, cleared to Moline, Brew Three departure, as filed, 5000, 125.35, squawk 4536. Just the facts, maam.
Minimize use of extra words, such as is, at, on, via, were. The controller cares about the details, not the grammar. A quick please or thank-you is optional and keeps the airwaves civil, so insert them efficiently without getting too sugary. Same applies with sir, maam, or oops.
A big problem clearance delivery faces is the pilot whos unprepared. They barge onto the frequency with open-mouth breathing that sounds like a sea bass sucking air out of water. Ah, ah … tower, er, ah, clearance …. Cessna One Four … ah, whats my number? Theres only one thing worse and thats clearing your throat on frequency. Grosses controllers out. Your service will suffer.
Same principal applies here as with the FSS – know what you want and how to ask. If you follow five easy steps on all initial call-ups, youll sound relatively professional. Begin with the name of the facility youre calling (Milwaukee clearance, Toledo ground, Oakland Center, whatever), then give your full call sign. You can abbreviate later. This establishes the vital bond between pilot and controller. You can stop here for a breath to give the controller a chance to digest this or, if youre feeling smooth and your controller sounds ready, launch into the next three steps.
Say your position (not necessary for clearance delivery unless its combined with ground control), On the Elliot ramp or shorter yet, Elliot ramp. Or if youre airborne and calling approach inbound, say, Five west of Salinas VOR, 4,500 (dont say feet; thats assumed).
Skip the Flights of Fancy
Next, tell the controller what you know – not everything, just the ATIS code, … with Charlie, Mike, Victor or any of the other folks in the phonetic alphabet. (Ever notice theres only one girls name- Juliet? Very un-PC.) You can say with the numbers but I dont unless I forget the code. ATC is required to ensure that you have the ATIS info. By saying with the numbers, there could be doubt about which numbers you have. Giving the ATIS code erases doubt. Finally, complete the picture for the controller and say what pilots skip most – what you want. VFR to Moline, 4,500 (again no feet) or, Landing Salinas.
By having your speech rehearsed with all the data in the right columns, the controller knows shes dealing with an experienced pilot and will rip off a clearance at the speed of light. Thats when you reply, Please slow down, I cant write that fast. Again, pilots arent the only ones in need of upgraded comm skills.
When youre ready to taxi, you repeat much the same sequence, only if youve already received a departure clearance (VFR or IFR) from clearance delivery you dont need to tell ground your destination. Sometimes you have to feel your way through this process, as facilities have different ways of doing things, and procedures vary from night to day.
Its not one FAA; there are lots of local quirks in procedures. Mostly, ground control wants to know whos calling, where you are, and what you want, Monterey ground, Stinson Six One Bravo, at Del Monte, with Zulu, taxi.
If youve received a clearance from clearance delivery rather than a ground controller, there should be a flight progress strip with all your departure information already at the ground controllers position. Therefore, the ground controller should hear your name, scan the stack of pending departures, and select your strip as you speak. He does this while searching for you on the ramp. When a pilot forgets to give his position it complicates the process and eats up air time with wasted transmissions, Air Force One, ground, say your position on the ramp.
Before you ever talk to ground or tower you should be intimately familiar with FAR 91.129. In there youll find the rules for dealing with a tower, particularly with your responsibility to stay clear of runways and taxiways unless cleared onto them. Runway incursions are a hot button item in the FAA so read back all hold short instructions.
When you finally get to the runway and are ready to depart, the tower should know all about you in advance. That flight progress strip has been following you around the tower cab like a bad credit rating. Clearance delivery writes it, then hands it to ground control who hands it to the tower controller (also called the local controller).
Tower knows everything about you but your blood type by the time youre ready for takeoff. So, call: Tower, Fairchild Three Two Tango, runway 12 Left. Tower will assume that when you call, positioned at the hold short lines, that youre ready to fly. Dont call unless youre really ready.
Traditionally, all jets are assumed to be ready upon reaching the hold short line and dont have to call. If you need something different – maybe you have to taxi back because you forgot your husband – then say, Tower, Fairchild Three Two Tango, runway 12 Left, need to taxi back to Signature.
The trick with ATC is to think ahead. What does the controller expect and how much (or little) do you need to say to get your request registered? In communications, less is more. Listening, as we mentioned at the top of the article, is potentially more valuable than speaking.
Once tower clears an aircraft for takeoff, some pilots go into airborne hyper-mode. They want to push buttons when they should be flying the airplane and listening for their call sign. Do not leave the tower frequency until told to contact departure.
Leaving too soon is a sure way to get your call sign and voiceprint entered into the ATC secret vendetta list. Youll never get invited to the towers Fourth of July picnic again. They will, however, talk bad about you. So, wait for tower to say, Pilatus Two Two Golf, contact departure. If youre like me, youll have dropped your flight plan under the seat along with your pencil, flashlight and granola bar. If you cant remember the frequency, just ask. Say again that frequency for Two Two Golf. Theyll repeat it. No harm.
As you climb away, your flight progress strip makes its way to the radar room, either in paper form or via computer. Either way, departure control knows youre coming. They know your destination, route and requested altitude. All they need is a verification of your mode C altitude readout. Milwaukee departure, Cessna Eight Eight Tango (never say with you unless youre crashing through the Tracon wall), leaving 1700 (dont say feet) for 4000.
Departure will take it from there. Curiously, some pilots are unprepared for an answer from departure control, a sign that theyre not thinking ahead. Expect to hear, Cessna Eight Eight Tango, radar contact, then expect a turn on course or a vector or some other route clearance followed by an altitude if youve been stopped below your requested altitude. Read it back and go. The format doesnt vary much. That way, anything unusual will stand out.
If youre filed for lower altitudes, say, below 10,000 feet, you can expect to sit quietly on the frequency for 40 miles or so until departure hands you off to Center. If youre VFR, youll receive radar service until about 20 miles out depending on the airspace. Whatever the case, sit quietly, play with the GPS, look for your flashlight and listen for your call sign.
While enroute, that can be harder than it sounds. I cant recall the number of times Ive missed calls from ATC because I was day dreaming. It happens. Instructors are the worst offenders because theyre yakking at the student and not paying attention to ATC. Thats one of the inherent flaws of two-way radio communications.
The ATC communications system is remarkably crude. Billions spent on radar, computers, avionics and pilot/controller training, and the whole system connects together through a radio system born in the 1940s. Frequencies become congested with users stepping on each others transmissions. Atmospheric conditions (lightning) can interfere with transmission quality. Your radios fry under a gyrating panel, while the pilot sweats beneath a 12-pound headset. Overall, its an awful way to communicate. But there is little alternative.
We Dont Need No Stinkin Controller
The only option is to utilize uncontrolled airfields where radios are optional and life is good. Still, even in paradise, your communication skills cant be weak. In truth, in the free-for-all CTAF world, they need to be sharper. Here, IFR mixes with VFR without the FAA referees. The lowest time student in a tail-shaking Tomahawk must blend with the Learjet circling off the localizer. You can only see so much out the windows, so the radio is almost a must.
Communications in uncontrolled airspace is a topic that needs repeated in-depth coverage. In lieu of that, here are a few hints about talking your way through this environment. First, always refer to the rule that less is more. Second, listen instead of talk. On CTAF you become the tower controller. Think like a controller. Wheres the traffic? Wheres it headed? And what is the minimum you need to say to get your message across?
There is way too much garbage verbiage on CTAF. Every pilot needs to edit his speech. While one pilot drones on giving a position report that says hes flying across the airport thousands of feet above the traffic pattern, there could be 15 pilots in the pattern ready to wring his neck.
Same way in the pattern. Try this for a clean position report: Watsonville, Arrow Two Two Xray, left base 26. Every pilot can picture where you are. No need to add extra words such as the annoying phrase, Other traffic in the area please advise. If theyre in the area, they should advise without you prompting. If they need coaxing, then their position report will probably stink and take too long to give.
When it comes to position reports, think about who might be listening, too. If youre flying into an airport loaded with primary students, it wont do much good if you report your position as inbound on the procedure turn NDB 17 approach to a bunch of people who think youre speaking Klingon.
The secret of good communications is no secret: Listen instead of talk, think before you talk, and once youve pared your phraseology to an acceptable minimum think of ways to cut it even more while still getting your message across. Of course none of this matters if you talk while chewing tobacco or havent upgraded your avionics since Leave It To Beaver went off the air.
Now, take that tape out of the recorder and, in the privacy of your hangar, give a listen. If you cringe at your own voice, imagine what the neighbors must think. Dont be embarrassed. Take a few minutes to practice into that same recorder and in no time youll be making controllers swoon at your tones. But theyll never ask for more.
You can open your eyes now.
-by Paul Berge
Paul Berge, a CFII and former controller, is editor of Aviation Safetys sister magazine, IFR.