January 2005Commentary

Continuing Ed

Something to talk about

The pace and flow of communications

Aviation is a relatively small fraternity -- count yourself one of approximately 625,000 active members, or about one in every 472 Americans. For comparison's sake, an estimated 875,000 physicians practice in the United States, while 2.27 million people in the country are considered millionaires. Not bad small-group company.

A very small fraction of those 625,000 pilots may be in the air at any one time. We typically see few to none of our compatriots when we're flying along in cruise away from an airport. While we may not see them, we know they are there because we can hear them on the radio. The transceiver in the panel essentially is a wireless party line that we sometimes talk on, but mostly listen to.

On paper the air traffic control communications system doesn't appear to be of very sound design. All voice communications between pilots and controllers in a defined block of airspace (airport terminal area and approach/departure/en route sector) must be broadcast on a common frequency shared by almost everyone in that airspace. (Exceptions include when a controller is handling more than one frequency, or also is handling military pilots who use a UHF frequency.)

It's an inherently inefficient system that is at the mercy of the simplest mistake. A stuck mic, two people talking on the same frequency at the same time, a pilot lacking skill or discipline in radio communication, missed or misunderstood calls -- any number of problems can disrupt the pace and flow of communications. A communications problem is a big problem for controllers trying to separate and route airplanes, and pilots trying to fly them safely.

Another major flaw in the design: The system works best when it's needed least -- in good weather and light traffic -- and worst when it's needed most. When the weather stinks and traffic is heavy, such as when thunderstorms are popping during arrival or departure rush times in an airport-rich city, communicating with controllers can be a stressful experience. The party line is jammed with pilots requesting to deviate from their assigned routing to avoid the cells, and controllers trying to accommodate them while still maintaining separation standards.

Airport control tower frequencies and, especially, unicoms at nontowered airports also can be communications choke points when a handful of pilots all want to say something at the same time.

High-density traffic isn't the only source of snarl on the frequency. Technique also is a factor. Some pilots talk faster and more succinctly than others. Some jabber away with unabridged, the-more-I-say-the-better responses to controller requests. Some pilots are more precise, some more relaxed in their use of aviation's unique language code. It's safe to say that technique -- or the lack of it -- is more of a pilot issue than a controller issue. Controllers get formal, by-the-book training in communications procedures, protocol, and phraseology. Communicating with pilots is what they do.

We pilots are formally trained to fly the airplane. Communicating on the radio is a part of that training, but it's only a part, and it's learned mostly by OJT. Flight instructors get us started with the basics, but we learn to use the radio mostly by listening and doing. Mistakes are inevitable, but educated practice is what makes us better pilot communicators.

The official guide is the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), which you can find in the members-only section of AOPA Flight Training Online. The AIM is not, however, the kind of page-turning read that will keep you up at night to find out if the ATC use of no transgression zone is as suggestive as the term implies. (It isn't, so go to sleep.)

Does proper, by-the-book radio procedure really matter? After all, the system seems to work reasonably well despite the great variety of styles and substance practiced by pilots and controllers. The answer is yes, it does matter. There is no substitute for doing it right. A pilot who uses by-the-book procedures and phraseology when communicating with controllers can expect prompt, professional service from ATC.

A good example of what can happen when formal procedure isn't known -- or followed -- has to do with operating in foreign airspace. In the United States we're used to hearing a tower controller clear a pilot onto the runway with "Position and hold." It means "Taxi onto the runway and stop to await further instructions." In many foreign countries that clearance is given as "Line up and wait." Imagine the confusion if you aren't prepared for that phrasing.

The AIM is your official textbook, but real life contains some rules of thumb that will make radio work that much smoother and productive for all concerned:

  • Know what you are going to say before you say it.
  • Have a good idea of how the controller will respond to your communication. Doing so will help you hear more accurately.
  • But don't anticipate to the point that your brain hears something different than what goes in your ears. This is a common mistake.
  • Be concise. When announcing your position at a nontowered airport, give the last two or three alphanumerics of the airplane's N number and the airplane type. That gives those listening an easily understood call sign for responding, and airplane type for visual identification.
  • Listen up. It's amazing the knowledge you'll gain -- traffic, wind, active runway, problems, NORDO aircraft -- just by lurking.
  • Avoid the temptation to argue with another pilot on the air. It's dreadful. It ties up the frequency, raises everyone's blood pressure at the most critical times in a flight -- takeoff or landing -- and in the end accomplishes nothing. If egos demand it, the combatants should duke it out on the ground. Better yet, drop it, and when you've calmed down think back about what precipitated the verbal confrontation, how it escalated, and how it could have been avoided.
  • Avoid long pauses when using the radio. I'm guilty of this, says my CFI son. "Dad, you always start off with 'Uhhh'&." I've cured myself of that. Now I start with "Awright&."
  • Listen up for your call sign. That's stating the obvious, but missing a call from ATC is a common mistake.
  • Make sure the volume is high enough to hear. This is another common mistake.
  • Make sure you've configured the audio panel so that you are communicating on the correct radio and frequency. How many times have we heard a departing pilot get handed off to departure control and forget to change radios or flip-flop the frequency? How many times have we done it ourselves?
  • Don't hold down the mic button unless you intend to talk, and check periodically for a stuck mic. This may be the most annoying, disruptive problem in ATC communications.

Finally, be tolerant of your fellow pilots' mistakes. Controllers certainly are, and for that they deserve credit. They are the conductors in this symphony, and they must deal with beginning amateurs and seasoned professionals alike. Each of us begins as the former, but we should aspire to the latter.

Mark Twombly is a writer and editor who has been flying since 1968. He is a commercial pilot with instrument and multiengine ratings and co-owner of a Piper Aztec.