Pilots and air traffic controllers are two strange and separate groups who have to deal with one another, whether they like it or not. I say separate because what pilots do and what air traffic controllers do, while intertwined, is radically different. It's like pilots and controllers live in two completely different worlds that intersect because of radio communication, radar, and regulations. About the only personal contact we have might be from recognizing one another's voice, flight number, or tail number.
If you need more evidence, consider that pilots have the Aeronautical Information Manual and controllers have something called Order 7110.65R. If more pilots read Order 7110.65R from time to time, maybe there'd be less confusion, but frankly I don't know many non-instructor pilots who regularly take the time to review the Aeronautical Information Manual.
It's no wonder that student pilots have such a hard time figuring out what to say on the radio since they don't have much in the way of context. I believe that most student pilots are continually wondering "Who is this person on the other end of the radio, what are they doing, what do they want from me, and why do they seem so frustrated and angry?" One of the most important parts of a flight instructor's job is to show pilots (students or certificated pilots) effective and efficient ways to communicate with ATC.
Though I've never witnessed in person an ATC instructor working with a new controller, I've heard it over the radio:
ATC: Barnburner 123, fly heading 140, descend and maintain 3000, and maximum forward speed.
Me: Heading 140, leaving 4000, descending 3000, best speed, Barnburner 123.
ATC: Barnburner 123, fly heading 120, join the GPS 9 Right approach course and report established.
Me: Barnburner 123 is established, you still need best forward speed?
ATC: Barnburner 123, go as fast as you can!
ATC (a different and irritated voice): Barnburner 123, disregard the last, resume normal speed, cleared GPS 9 Right approach.
I recall a new controller who sounded so bashful and intimidated while she was being trained. We empathized with her and were kind, polite, and encouraging to her as she learned the ropes, first on ground, then clearance delivery, then on tower. But lately she's feeling competent and in control and is often downright rude. Shame about that, really ...
Flying with a multiengine instructor candidate recently, he navigated to a local practice area. Rather than cutting us loose, the approach controller hung onto us and continued to provide traffic advisories. I think there's an understanding among most controllers that multi-engine training aircraft have limited visibility and given that we're often involved in complex training scenarios, they realize that we could use some help avoiding other traffic. As we did our various maneuvers, steep turns, slow flight, Vmc demonstrations, we began to drift toward another sector and the controller handed us off.
The next controller was trying to be helpful, but I got the feeling he was a newbie. He began to call out traffic for us:
ATC: Duchess 123, traffic two to three o'clock, three miles, same altitude.
Me: Negative contact, we're in a turn, request cardinal direction to the traffic.
ATC: Duchess 123, fly heading 290.
Me: Heading 290, Duchess 123.
ATC: Duchess 123, additional traffic, nine moving to ten o'clock, 3900, unverified.
Me: Negative contact, we're maneuvering, can you give us a cardinal direction to the traffic?
ATC: Duchess 123, fly heading 300.
Me: Heading 300, Duchess 123
ATC: Duchess 123, what are you doing out there, you appear to be changing altitude and heading?
Me: We're maneuvering, Duchess 123.
ATC: Duchess 123, traffic now at your ten o'clock, two miles, same altitude.
Me: Duchess 123, negative contact, request frequency change.
ATC: Duchess 123, squawk VFR, frequency change approved, use caution for numerous targets in your area.
Me: Squawk VFR, Duchess 123
So we headed to a different practice area, asked for traffic advisories, and worked with a controller who understood that a maneuvering aircraft needs to be told the cardinal direction to the traffic, like south, northeast, or west.
If there's one thing I've learned from instructing and flying freight, it's that many controllers have a thinly-veiled contempt for flight instructors, student pilots, and instructional flights. When I was a freight dog, I talked to the same controllers most every morning and every evening. We got to recognize each other's voices, radio mannerisms, and they knew my routing. Often there was a friendly recognition and I think much of that came from the realization that we were going to be talking to each other on a regular basis, so it would be good if we got along in a professional sort of way. And additional benefit was that I most always came on frequency at the same time of day with the same routing.
In contrast, my work as a flight instructor sees me flying an irregular schedule out of three or four different Bay Area airports, in a variety of different aircraft. I think many controllers don't recognize my voice and feel less compelled to be cordial or even helpful. I've heard many a controller become irritated when my student makes a request, the implication being that instructional flights are not important.
I'm not claiming that a 172 requesting a practice ILS approach should be given priority over a commercial freight or passenger flight, but I do think that controllers often fail to realize that I am a professional pilot. Flight instruction is how I make my living, how I pay my mortgage and my bills, no different from them, really. The strangest ATC interaction I've had so far came a few weeks ago and perhaps it's indicative of the type of treatment that is in store for GA pilots. After a night training flight, we came back to find that Oakland was reporting overcast clouds at 300 feet and 2 miles visibility.
Me: Norcal, Socata 123, Danville, 3500, request IFR clearance, Oakland ILS 27 Right, with Quebec.
Norcal: Socata 123, Norcal approach, squawk 5342, and verify you're requesting an IFR clearance.
Me: Affirm, Socata 123.
Norcal: Socata 123, I'm not sure I'll be able to get you in, fly heading 120, maintain VFR
Me: (somewhat astonished) fly heading 120, Socata 123.
A few minutes later, the controller inexplicably decides to put us on the approach in front of a Navajo and gives them delay vectors.
Norcal: Socata 123, fly heading 180, cleared to the Oakland Airport via radar vector for the ILS 27 Right, maintain 3300.
Me: Heading 180, cleared to Oakland via radar vectors, ILS 27 Right, maintain 3300.
Norcal: Socata 123, two miles from UPACI, fly heading 250, maintain 3000 until established, maintain maximum forward speed.
We broke out on the approach close to the decision altitude and landed in a dewy, mist. The approach controller probably had no I idea that I recognized his voice. It was the same one who didn't understand what I meant when I asked for a traffic advisory with a cardinal direction.