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Hearing and Doing

AdobeStock 18445391 Olga Gabai scaled

It’s not just me. Many of the pilot population in my circle confess to having the same difficulty: understanding what the heck ATC is saying, and what they want us to do. Controllers seem to talk faster, using lots of words. We hate to ask them over, but we also don’t want to misunderstand and mess up.

In recent years, the problem has been exacerbated. It used to be that pilots and controllers communicated in a fairly simple fashion, resorting to plain language when it suited. I recall attempting to affect an airline captain’s “Ah’, roger” drawl after obtaining my commercial certificate 60-odd years ago. Maybe I threw in a “Wilco” once in a while, signifying “will comply.” Instructions and requests were traded in a relatively clear manner.

We called ground control with an “On the ramp, ready to taxi” and got a terse “Taxi to one-eight.” If we wanted help finding our way, we could ask, otherwise, it was expected that we knew where the runway was and would call the tower for takeoff in due course. The frequency remained relatively uncongested. 

But pilots botched up from time to time, blundering into blind-alley taxiways or heading across an active runway. So taxi instructions gradually got more complex and wordy, first with a mandate to read back all “hold short” instructions and then with specific designations for a full-route clearance, all to be repeated verbatim. 


“Taxi to one-eight” became “Taxi to Runway 18 via Juliet, Alpha, and Romeo, hold short of Runway 31, confirm you have information Delta.” We soon learned we could get away with parroting “Taxi 18, Juliet/Alpha/Romeo, hold short 31, we have Delta.” 

Back in the beginning, we simply acknowledged receipt of a clearance by replying with our N-number, clipped to the last three ciphers if the tower had so stated it, just enough to assure that the right airplane heard the word from above. In all cases, the conversation was being recorded, and confirmation was important in the event of an investigation.

At this point, the controller’s manual requires controllers to state so many more advisory reminders, much of which we dutifully repeat back, that the frequency is filled with rapid-fire, nearly unintelligible verbiage, filed away in our mental cavities but not truly listened to. But, duty must be done.

The danger is that habitual repetition leads to hearing what we expect to hear, not what was truly said. 

“Cleared for the visual, report three mile left base for Runway 31,” becomes “Cleared to land, 31” in our mind, even though we read back the visual and report instructions. Or, as in the case of the Hawker crew at Houston recently, “Line up and wait” was interpreted as “Cleared for takeoff,” leading them to clip the tail of a cross-landing Citation. The old pre-ICAO “Position and hold” instruction was much more declarative, in my humble opinion.


My associates and I are now given to speaking slower, at the risk of overstaying our welcome on frequency, in hopes that ATC will reciprocate in intelligible delivery. Even so, well-meaning imposition of advisories and southern-exposure protections burden controllers with so much “New Speak” that we long for the days of shorter communication.

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