Last Saturday, one radio performance after another made me cringe. The ground, tower, and approach controllers were very busy, yet mostly patient and they certainly deserved better. A few of the screwed up calls I heard were from student pilots, but most were from pilots who should have known better. Instructors need to teach and then drill their students on correct radio procedures. When an instructor gives solo privileges to a student pilot to fly in complex airspace without ensuring adequate radio skills, it does more than just litter the airways; it may be putting the student at risk.
This also made me think about the arguments for user fees. Listening to the near constant stream of botched calls and misunderstandings, I was hard pressed to come up with an argument for why these pilots should waste controllers' time for free. The thing is, most of that cacophony and confusion can be prevented if pilots (student, private, and professional as well as flight instructors) make the effort to prevent it.
If you don't get to fly very often, stop to think about what you're about to say before you key the mic. I often write out a script for student pilots that contains the sequence of communications they'll have with the various controllers in the order in which it will occur. This gives them the opportunity to hone their words so that their requests are clear and simple. It also relieves students of having to memorize phrases during the learning process.
Imagine you're at the GA ramp at a towered airport, you have the listened to the latest weather observation and you want to depart under visual flight rules. Here's a template of how you could concisely make your request with ground:
facility name, tail number, aircraft type, location_on_the_field, taxi runway number, VFR destination, information ATIS letter.I have one student who created a communications cheat-sheet with these sorts of templates. Before each flight, he fills in the blanks by writing in the name of the airport, the tail number of the aircraft he is flying that day along with any other details specific to his flight. Then all he has to do is key the mic and read what he has written. This does wonders for reducing mic fright. This student also printed a PDF taxiway diagram on the back of his script: Exactly the sort of initiative I like to see.
Fill in the template above and it could become:
Stockton ground, Cessna 123 Foxtrot Charlie, a 172, transient parking, taxi 29 right, VFR Oakland, information Quebec.What do we usually hear?
Ah ... Stockton ground, this is Cessna 123 Foxtrot Charlie, we're ready to taxi for takeoff with the numbers.A lot more words and a lot less information, forcing the controller to interview you and waste time. If the frequency is quiet, this is just an annoyance. If the frequency is crowded, sloppiness is a real problem and can even compromise safety.
Cessna 123 Foxtrot Charlie, Stockton Ground, say your position on the field and verify that you have information Quebec ...Here are just a few suggestions to consider when communicating on a busy frequency in complex airspace.
Poor radio technique is like a virus and you don't want to get infected. Just because you hear another pilot use a cool, non-standard phrase does not mean you should follow suit.
Flying an aircraft and talking on the radio has been likened to playing a game of chess. Be on your toes, paying attention, and thinking at least two moves ahead.
Test your radio's squelch and volume before you transmit. Few things are more embarrassing than not being able to hear a controller's response.
Don't try to talk to a controller when they have just asked another aircraft a question or given them instructions that need to be read back.
On initial contact on any new frequency, use your aircraft manufacturer's name and full tail number, omitting the November if you are a U.S.-registered aircraft in United States airspace. Controllers may refer to you as "November 123 Foxtrot Charlie," but pilots should not include the November part. Flying outside of the U.S., include the November in your tail number. Never shorten your tail number until the controller does so. For more information, see the AIM section 4-2-4.
When two people transmit at the same time on the same frequency, the result is a squealing, unintelligible mishmash of sound. Think of talking on frequency as a game of jump rope where the pilots and the controller take turns. This requires pacing and if you don't get the feel for the tempo of the frequency (fast or slow), there's a good chance you'll transmit when the controller has either decided to repeat a question for you or has temporarily given up on you and is now trying to talk to another aircraft. When a controller says something to you, you need to respond in a timely fashion.
When you're handed off, the next controller has already accepted the handoff from the previous sector and he or she knows about you. If you can't get a word in edgewise on the new frequency, one strategy is to just wait for the controller to contact you. If your altitude has been restricted and you need to go higher, then do you best to check in and make your request.
Norcal, Cessna 123 Foxtrot Charlie, two thousand, request five thousand five hundred.You've thought about the altitude you'll want while you were still on the ground, right? Right? Don't add extra words, no "with you" or "on your frequency" or "good morning," just your current altitude and the altitude you want.
If a controller asks you to "ident," simply press the ident button on your transponder and your aircraft's target will change appearance on the controller's screen. You do not need to respond on the radio to a request to ident.
When a controller calls traffic for you, there are just two responses: "Traffic in sight" if you see the aircraft, "Negative contact" if you don't. "Have the traffic," "looking," "scanning for traffic," "no joy," "got 'em on the fish-finder" are verbal litter. The regulations always require you to look for traffic. The controller won't be offended or surprised if you don't see an aircraft and simply say "negative contact."
When approaching a busy airport, listen to the surface weather in advance and then tell the approach controller that you have the current weather. You'll be doing the controller a favor because they are required to ensure that you have the current weather.
Socal, Cessna 123 Foxtrot Charlie, three thousand five hundred, with Montgomery Xray.When handed off to the tower controller and in radar contact (squawking something other than a VFR code), simply tell the controller your altitude and intentions.
San Jose tower, Cessna 123 Foxtrot Charlie, two thousand, landing with Foxtrot.When contacting a tower and squawking VFR, tell them your cardinal direction and distance from the field, altitude, your intentions, and the letter of the current ATIS:
Santa Rosa Tower, Cessna 123 Foxtrot Charlie, 10 miles northwest, three thousand five hundred, landing with Xray.After you have landed at a towered airport, remember you don't switch to the ground control frequency until the tower controller tells you to do so (see AIM section 4-3-20(c)). If necessary, remind the tower controller that you'd like to switch to the ground frequency. When you contact the ground controller, tell them your position and intentions. You have a taxiway diagram at the ready, right?
Santa Rosa Ground, Cessna 123 Foxtrot Charlie, clear runway 30 at Charlie, taxi transient parking.Don't use the phrase "clear of the active" because it is meaningless: There may be several active runways, so just tell the controller (or the other pilots at a non-towered airport) exactly where you are.
Rio Vista traffic, Cessna 2 Foxtrot Charlie, clear of runway 25, Rio Vista.These are just a few suggestions, but the overriding goals of radio communication are to be brief, concise, and clear. Instructors, teach your students to use the radio effectively and don't accept or condone sloppy technique. With a little thought and practice, you can make a good impression, set a good example, controllers will give you better service, and we'll all breathe a little easier.