Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Head in the Game

Like basic stick and rudder skills, being sharp on the radio is the mark of an accomplished pilot. Like it or not, how you communicate is the primary way that people outside your little aircraft evaluate you. Concise radio communications are not only of benefit to a busy controller, they will almost always get you better service from ATC. Good skills set a positive example for other pilots, too. We certainly have enough negative examples out there. To get better at radio communications, you need to work at it.

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.


Head in the Clouds said...

Great post! I just got my license, and my husband is about to get his... and we have lots of conversations about what we said/should say on frequency. One constant discussion is whether we should always include the full name of the facility (Potomac Approach), include the full name on initial contact only and then drop the second part (Potomac), or drop the entire name after initial contact... oh- and how this works with handoffs.

Thanks for your blog-- we find it really enjoyable and informative!

Colin Summers said...

Fascinating. I wish you had some static pages on your site because this is an example of content that I think should be up at the front and edited and updated as needed.

I just had my first few tail dragger lessons and one of the things the CFI jumped on was "clear of the active." (There is only one runway at KSZP.) He said, "That's meaningless, the pilot landing has to confirm the runway is clear, you're not giving them any information." What say you?

He also pointed out that the AIM is not regulation, and if you make straight in you aren't (necessarily) breaking a regulation, even if the AFD says, "No straight ins."

I took a flight with Philip Greenspun (also aviation blogger CFII) and he helped a LOT with the radio work. He said that the more crisp and professional I was, the better service I would get. I actually worried about the reverse, that if I didn't sound like the (still) student I am, that they wouldn't help me. Needless to say, he (and you) are correct. The calls I make that are word-for-word in the AIM and delivered crisp and neat with no pause, they come back to me sooner and grant my requests more often.

I can't believe you supported, even a little, even as an aside, user fees. People (hi JFK Jr.) are already too scared to talk on the radio to get flight following or advisories, and making it cost money would make it worse.

I wouldn't mind separate piston controllers, but that requires better technology than we have now.

John said...

Head in the Clouds,

I don't see any problem with shortening Potomac Approach, unless the word "Potomac" could be confused with some other facility. When controllers are busy in my area, I just say "Norcal," not the full "Norcal Approach."


I think "clear of the active" is verbal litter, as is "Any traffic in the area please advise."

While the AIM is not a set of regulations, consciously ignoring it could land you in hot water if you ever became the subject of an enforcement action. Look, the AIM is a set of "best practices." I'm suspicious of anyone who claims out of hand that they are free to ignore the AIM or procedures in the A/FD. Sounds like an anti-authority issue to me ..

I'm not a supporter of user fees. Re-read my post. My intent is to point out that increasing the workload of controllers with poor radio skills does not further GA's cause in the user fee debate. It behooves all pilots to maintain proficiency and competency when requesting ATC resources.

Jim Howard said...

I endorse this post (except I say 'good morning center' if the freq isn't real busy).

I would add that listening to atc with a scanner or with www.liveatc.net is probably the best way to learn good radio technique, short of flying yourself.

Paul in the CA Desert said...

Had an argument recently about how to respond to instructions such as "extend downwind, I'll call your base". I tend to just say "Roger" (though it should probably be "wilco"?) but my friend would say "extending downwind, you'll call my base".

I say it's too much, he says the controller doesn't know that you got his instruction if you don't repeat it. What do you think?

Big Country said...


Since I do a lot of flying on Terminal Area Charts, I have been taught to use charted visual reference points (as annotated on the TAC) when talking to SOCAL or a local tower. This seems to provide a better idea of aircraft position than a general cardinal direction and a guesstimate of distance.

Example: Montgomery tower, Cessna 12345, Mount Helix (the visual reference point), two thousand five hundred for landing with November.

This isn't addressed in the AIM, but is frequently used by both the pilots and controllers.

What's your thought?

Dave Starr said...

Masterful, John, Thanks again for the time you put in here.

"Nnd if they asked me, I could write a book ..." Actually, it has been written. http://www.faa.gov/airports_airtraffic/air_traffic/publications/atpubs/ATC/index.htm
is one source for the legal-eagles who seem to want to argue about what's right rather than what we all as pilots and controllers ought to do to make life better for us all.

The script idea is great. Back when I worked in aircrew training for the USAF, we maintenance techs had the additional duty of providing simulated ATC services for or crews in training. the missions were all carefully scripted and all we normally had to do was read the script. Many visitors would watch for a while and marvel at the knowledge of ATC procedures we displayed. Hardly. But writing it down in advance can make a big difference.

Another thought I'd like to throw out on the subject is Microsoft Flight Simulator. It's not often talked about by "real" CFI's and students because, of course, it isn't a tool that one can actually use for any official flight instruction and experience requirements. The ATC simulation included has bene rightly critisized for not always being spot on as well. just a toy.

But it costs less than a very few minutes of "real" flight instruction and seems to me to be an valuable rehearsal tool before an actual instructional flight, or a useful debriefing tool that the student or the student and instructor can use to review the approaches and other tasks just performed and what the simulated ATC said versus what was said, or should have been said.

And my good friend Don Brown
a retired senior FAA controller and union safety rep comments often in pilot-controller communication and used to write some great columns for AvWeb. he recently mentioned the last "practice tool" I'll bore you with .. VATSIM. this is a world-wide hobbyist net connecting ATC "wannabes" with flight simulator pilot "wannabes" and has evolved into a world-wide simulated ATC world. It's even cheaper than MSFT Flt Sim itself ... free ... and allows listening in or participating in all sorts of ATC scenarios.

Can anything replace your "real" instructor? Hardly. But let;'s say you wanted to be a great golfer and were able to hire Tiger Woods as your golf instructor. Even though you'd obviously be rich beyond belief, you'd only be trowing your money away if you didn't spend hours on the putting tee or the driving range rehearsing basics so that when your time with Tiger came around he wouldn't have to teach you which end of the club had the handgrip.

John said...


When deciding on how much to read back, you need to consider what will communicate to the controller 1) that you understand what you've been asked to do and 2) that you, as PIC, can accommodate the request without compromising safety of flight.

They usually ask you to extend downwind in order to prevent a conflict with another aircraft. Saying "roger" just means "I have received your last transmission." If the frequency is really busy, I'd say "Extending downwind ..." to indicate I understood and that I'll comply, which is what the tower wants to know.

I know some pilots who claim absolute economy of words on the radio is paramount and they'll just say their tail number as a response to virtually every instruction from ATC. There's a tension between brevity and communicating effectively, so it's better (in my opinion) to communicate effectively, even if you have to use more words to achieve that goal.

Big Country,

Of course, use VFR reporting points when you can. You can also use obvious landmarks, as long as the controller knows where you are.


Thanks for your suggestions, but I'm not a big fan of MS Flight Sim (though I have not used the latest version). Why? One example: you use the canned ATC and the controller gives you an altimeter setting, but there is no canned response for the pilot. In real life, when a controller gives you an altimeter setting they expect you to acknowledge it. I often hear pilots who don't respond when given an altimeter setting and I think "started with MS Flight Sim?"

Speaking of practicing when not flying, I used to rehearse talking to ATC while driving.

Paul in the CA Desert said...

I think some of my brevity comes from my IFR training - "altitudes and headings only" was a big lesson. We often get instructions from which we only repeat a little of. Obviously I don't stick to that but maybe I can be overbrief at times?

Your comment about repeating altimeter settings is interesting. I have never been taught that and it was only after flying solo IFR that I noticed others doing it, and decided to copy it.

Good article, made me think some which is always good. Especially with my flight review on Monday!

Mike said...

Eloquent post, John.

Sometimes I wonder if more focus should be placed on communication. Maybe some bad habits would be nipped in the bud.

The other day a friend and I were discussing how annoying it is to be stepped on continually. Student pilots can be excused because they have yet to learn the flow of aircraft communication. Professional pilots...now that's another story. A little AIM review might be good once in a while. Now where did I put my FAR/AIM '07?

phik said...

Regarding altimeter settings, I used to acknowledge the transmission but never read them back -- until I flew in Australia, where it was clear that QNH readback was mandatory.

Even after I returned to the US, the habit stuck, and I'm a fan.