ATC Communications

by David Blakney ATP, Gold Seal CFI, CFI-I

atc communicationsWhether a seasoned professional or a new pilot in training, an area of key  importance is our communication with Air Traffic Control (ATC). While entire books have been written on the topic of ATC communications, the focus here will be on things we can do as pilots  to improve our skills in this important area.

 I would highly recommend all pilots research the rich history of air traffic control.  Did you know a role called “Flight Control Officers” existed as early as 1935? That in 1955, controllers separated aircraft at the same altitude by at least 10 minutes or 30-100 miles? That in 1956, then President Eisenhower appointed a group whose research revealed that as many as a half dozen near misses occurred per day? And that in 1958, the FAA was created with the first Administrator creating what was known as the “4F” Program, (Firm, Fairness, Fast and Factual).

The talented men and women in ATC communications provide an extraordinary level of service to the flying public in general, and to pilots in particular. Occasionally, the media will focus on a high profile event that will cast ATC in negative light, but to those of us who interact with them know, this is an unfair and inaccurate assessment. Harsh realities for all of us are the increased volume of air traffic creating congestion in the skies and aging equipment in desperate need of upgrade or replacement. While both of these factors are beyond the scope of this article, there are steps we can take as pilots to help make the current system as safe as possible.

Review the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM)

A most informative source of information for pilots, here you will find a Pilot/Controller Glossary. As Section 2 states, “the link can be a strong bond between pilot and controller or it can be broken with surprising speed and disastrous results”. The more common terms are printed in bold italics and, at a minimum, pilots should make the effort to know and understand these terms. Proper phraseology is essential and an understanding of these terms is critical. You will occasionally use the wrong word(s) or simply stumble in your communication and it is important to remember the most important element of pilot/controller communication is to understand each other.

One of the worst aircraft disasters in history, the 1977 Tenerife collision involving two airliners, had numerous contributing factors. There was, however, one ATC transmission that was blocked. This transmission, “standby for takeoff, I will call you”, was not heard by one of the airliners, who in a previous exchange believed had been already cleared for takeoff.

Avoid the use of Slang

Pilots should always maintain the use of standard phraseology. Nowhere in the Pilot/Controller Glossary will you find “fish finder”, “in the box”, “the flash”, “tally ho”, etc. The use of slang can actually contribute to elevating an otherwise normal situation to one that is more urgent and must be avoided.

Visit an Air Traffic Control Facility

If you ever have an opportunity to visit an ATC facility, do it! Observing firsthand how the experts handle communications with pilots is highly valuable.

Learn from Your Mistakes

I have yet to meet the pilot who has never made a mistake during ATC communications. I have, however, met plenty of pilots who became more safe, knowledgeable and proficient by learning from their mistakes. It may be through review of the AIM, attending a safety seminar, asking the controller for clarification or discussion and review of the scenario with a CFI.

FAA Safety Seminars

The FAA Safety Team (FAAST) conducts safety seminars on a variety of topics and attendance is highly encouraged. Occasionally, the topic will be something related to ATC communications or related operations on an airport. You will be glad you attended. If you are not sure if a seminar is near to you, visit www.faasafety.gov or ask your local flight school or CFI for advice on how you can learn more about these seminars.

Tips for Effective Communications

It always helps to remember a few basic rules of radio communication.

1. Relax.

2. Think about what you want to say before you say it. Consider writing it down, eg. complex taxi instructions when briefing an expected taxi route.

3. Listen to the frequency. Avoid simply changing to a frequency and pressing the push-to-talk button as a conversation may already be in progress.

4. Be patient. Controllers have a variety of tasks and very often they have heard your transmission but have simply not had time to respond.

5. Standard Phraseology and be concise. Avoid long, drawn out sentences that contain unnecessary information.

6. Ask for clarification if you do not understand an ATC instruction.

7. Listen not only for your call sign, but actively monitor all communications on the frequency. That aircraft not responding to ATC may be headed your way!

8. Never shorten your call sign, unless ATC has done it first. A simple, but often neglected fact that can lead to confusion, particularly with a similar call sign already on the frequency.

9. Ready for Departure! Avoid the use of “takeoff”, until ATC has issued you a takeoff clearance. Example, “Kissimmee Tower, Cessna Seven-Eight-One-Five Delta, holding short of Runway One-Five, ready for Departure”.

Other Options

At Sunstate Aviation, we place an emphasis on teaching proper radio communications. The CFI is an important role model in ATC communication and should always conduct themselves professionally and use standard phraseology. We recognize it is not an easy transition for everyone, whether a person is new to flight training, or has not had an emphasis on English as a language. Developing scripts for common scenarios such as requesting taxi instructions, rehearsing communications in a classroom setting, monitoring a hand-held radio while the CFI and pilot in training discuss what they are hearing are just a few of the measures taken to increase familiarity and skills in this area. LiveATC.Net is also a good source of gaining familiarity, but caution should be used as the listener will occasionally be exposed to less than ideal radio communications.

Your feedback is appreciated. Please do not hesitate to send your questions or comments.

You are now, Ready for Departure!