Let's Talk About This
Remember your first flying lesson? Sure we do. The instructor did all of the talking on the radios, and it seemed so easy for him. Then after a few lessons, he insisted that I talk on the radio. The Cessna 150 I was flying had no intercom; we did not have a head set, but only a hand mike and speaker to listen to.
He told me what to say, and I rehearsed it briefly, then punched the button on the mike and spoke my first communications with an Air Traffic Controller, the tower at Allegheny County Airport, Pittsburgh, PA. I wanted to get it right and sound “professional” like the jet jocks that also flew out of AGC. It took some work, but I finally got comfortable with ATC communications. It wasn’t perfect, and there were lots of mistakes. I even had the ground controller ask if I was a student pilot as I parked the plane after a flight. There must have been a lot of confusion on that flight during communications. When I said yes, he suggested that I call my instructor. I did, and we had a long discussion on communications.
After that, I would go to the airport and just listen to conversations between the tower and other pilots. I learned a lot. When I was working on my instrument rating, copying clearances was a new obstacle. So I sat at the airport and listened to any airplane getting a clearance, and practiced copying their clearances, and listening to the read backs. I still have to ask them to repeat some parts of a clearance from time to time.
Naturally, I ask my students to know what you are going to say, say it, and don’t keep your finger on the talk button too long. This past month I was flying around the Tucson area, and a pilot called Tucson Approach. Approach asked what his altitude was. The pilot responded: “I’m, uh, at uh, eight, no, uh, uh, eight thousand four hundred, no, uh, eight thousand five hundred.” That poor controller must have been pulling his hair out listening to that communication. How hard is it to look at an altimeter and just read the number? There were more, uh, exchanges from that pilot too, but, uh, you get the picture.
Many NTSB accident investigations also include information about pilot/controller exchanges, or lack of understanding by the pilot or controller. They will listen to the tapes and try to figure out what was going on from the communications. Poor radios add to the confusion. Also read the NASA reports and see how communications can lead to a near miss, or worse.
Waiting to take off from Marana, I watched the aircraft (Ultra Light) that had just departed. He announced that he was turning right and would land on the East Ramp. He then made a left turn and a short pattern to landing on that ramp. Could that be confusing? I just waited a bit longer before departing in case there were any other surprises.
A recent article about the success of ATC Next Gen stated that digital communications was going to be part of the new air traffic control. I’m not sure just how that will work, but I guess that ATC will send a digital message to an airline and the pilot will push a button to respond. No spoken communications will take place. The idea is to speed up communications and avoid the possibility of misunderstandings. Could this be the same as “texting while driving”? It might work in the big airlines, but I don’t see it coming to single engine planes any time soon, but who knows? With the technical advances we have seen in panels in the last 8 years, with touch screens and more, maybe digital communication is not so far away. Will it make us safer pilots? We sure hope so.
Clear and understandable communications are important in flying. Listen to the “pros” and try to replicate what they do. Sure, they make mistakes from time to time also, but for the most part, they are much better than the average private pilot. Know what you are going to say, and say it. Then listen up for the controller’s response. Don’t make more work for the controllers. After all, they are usually working several airplanes at one time.
Be sure to watch for the next Safety Seminar by your ARIZONA PILOTS ASSOCIATION, and don’t forget to “Bring Your Wingman.”