As student pilots, why do we get tongue-tied with the simple press of the push-to-talk switch? It seems simple yet creates more anxiety than a nun in a smoke shop. It’s a phobia most of us have experienced at some point. In fact, we’ve all been there, done that, and lived to tell about it.
Like any phobia, brain freeze when you push the button for any audience, whether it’s for air traffic control (ATC) or simply announcing your intentions on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF), generally occurs because of inexperience and lack of forethought. This especially holds true during the early phase of our flight training. Add a dose of not thinking before speaking, and you have the recipe for an inarticulate foray into bad ATC communication.
So, how do we overcome the struggles and uneasiness and begin speaking like a pro? Like any new language that’s foreign to us, it simply takes practice. Communicating in our airspace has a cadence and vocabulary all its own. We just need to immerse ourselves in this environment, and in time the words that seemed alien to us in the past will become part of our new aviation lexicon.
According to many ATC specialists, the most popular way to familiarize yourself with their language is to listen to live control feeds from your aviation band scanner or a live service such as LiveATC (www.liveatc.com). While it will be helpful to memorize some of the common phrasing, along with the patterns and rhythm that occur in typical scenarios, nothing beats repetitive listening to better understand the ways and means of ATC communication.
The second most common suggestion from ATC professionals and experienced pilots alike, which will help your journey from novice to pro, is to practice what you hear. As you’re sitting in the comfort of your favorite recliner, listening to your live feed, simulate communication by responding to the instructions the controller gives the pilots. Respond as if you are that pilot. You will be amazed at how this simple task will build your confidence and provide a foundation for becoming a pro on the radio. Also, don’t be afraid to simulate the role of the controller. Repeat the commands as if you are controlling the aircraft. By doing this on a regular basis, your understanding of our unique aviation language will become second nature.
For those who own one of the many flight simulator programs, you might consider using a subscription service like PilotEdge, which connects to a network of its controllers, providing authentic ATC simulation while communicating in real-time along with repetitive experience in the system without ever leaving the ground.
As a student pilot, another obstacle we face is the fear of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time on the radio. While you want to make the best decisions by using the right words and phrases for the situation, don’t be so concerned about saying the wrong words that the mere thought of offering a poorly spoken phrase generates critical opprobrium. If you think before you speak, the likelihood of uttering the wrong words will dissipate faster than valley fog in the heat of the sun. In fact, thinking before speaking is probably a trait that can also be applied outside of the cockpit to great benefit.
Remember you are likely to be extremely familiar with landmarks around your home airport. However, those transient pilots transitioning to or landing at your home base may not be acquainted with them. With that in mind, avoid using landmarks in your radio calls to identify your position. For example, you may be inclined to provide your position report as “Cherokee one-two-bravo is over the rock quarry.” Instead, the best practice is to use the distance and direction of flight, such as “Cherokee one-two-bravo is 3 miles southeast heading northwest, landing runway three-zero.”
This paints an exact picture of your location without knowing the location of the rock quarry. This is helpful to everyone, especially the transient pilot with little knowledge of your area. And since we aviate in three dimensions, it’s also a good practice to include your altitude in the transmission. This gives all aircraft in your vicinity a three-dimensional picture of your location.
One of the most important tools we as student pilots possess when communicating with ATC is admitting we are student pilots. While you may be reluctant to do so, in the busy world of ATC, letting a tower know you are a student will give the controller the insight to slow the cadence and provide a reassuring tone and tempo to allow better absorption of the spoken words. Remember to read back any instructions provided by the controller. This will enable you to understand and remember what was said and confirm that what you heard had the correct intent.
Be clear and concise, using standard phraseology. This applies to communication with an ATC facility or on the CTAF at your local, nontowered airport. How can you avoid being that rambling, unprofessional talker on the radio? Avoid the all-too-common mistake of using nonstandard terminology in your communications. For example, the reply “roger” is not meant as an answer to the controller’s yes-or-no question. Instead, “roger” confirms you have received all of the last transmissions—nothing more.
How many of you have heard of the hapless pilot, who reports his position relative to the nontowered airport he is approaching, requesting, “Any traffic in the area, please advise.” This nonstandard phrase serves no useful purpose while taking up valuable bandwidth on the shared CTAF. Remember to say what you mean and mean what you say. Say it clearly with standard phraseology (an excellent reference for standard aviation terminology is the Aeronautical Information Manual), using the least amount of spoken words necessary to convey your intent clearly and concisely.
And for those on the journey with a flight of two or more, wanting to communicate with your other airborne $100 hamburger hunters, remember that for air-to-air communication the FAA strongly suggests you use the frequency of 122.75 MHz. For helicopters, you should utilize 123.025 MHz. While those are the FAA-suggested frequencies, you instead might be guilty of using the “fingers” frequency of 123.45 MHz (if you count that out on your hand, you will notice how that frequency became known as “fingers.”) Although that may be an easy-to-remember frequency for air-to-air comms, it’s utilized and explicitly reserved for commercial aircraft flight testing.
In the grand scheme of things, while necessary, communication should take third place to “aviate and navigate.” Don’t be so consumed by communicating that you forget to do either. However, there have been several accidents documented that could have likely been prevented by simply communicating. Whether that communication contains critical position data and thereby avoids a potential midair collision or conveys a potential emergency developing in the cockpit to ATC professionals on the ground, keying the mic could be your key to continued safe flight.
The Right Words Matter
Here are three powerful words and phrases pilots can use that could positively impact comprehending instructions from ATC or, ultimately, the successful outcome of a flight:
If you did not fully comprehend the instructions from the controller, simply ask them to “Say again,” which is the standard terminology for requesting someone to repeat the instructions.
If a controller asks you to do something challenging to accomplish safely, simply say “Unable.” Remember you are the pilot in command and can refuse an instruction that puts you or your aircraft in danger. While controllers are rightfully revered, they may not be familiar with the performance of your particular airplane and may request something that simply is not doable in a safe manner.
An excellent example of this might be a request to maintain too high of an airspeed for your final approach. Or perhaps a rate of descent that is outside of the performance envelope of your airplane (or your capabilities). Stating you are “unable” provides the controller with the knowledge that their request is not within the performance parameters of your aircraft or personal capabilities. Or, even more importantly, it may be a case of the controller instructing the pilot to turn to a specific heading that, unbeknownst to the controller, will put your VFR aircraft smack-dab in the middle of a cloud.
Have you ever had someone speak to you just at the moment you were about to sneeze? Goodbye, sneeze. They ruined the moment. The same ill timing can occur when a controller makes a request or provides you with an instruction. Maybe you are aviating, navigating, or doing some other task requiring total concentration. Simply reply, “Stand by.” This tells the controller you heard them but are unable to respond to their request immediately. You can return the reply within a reasonable period and ask them to “say again.”
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Plane & Pilot magazine.