Sounding good on the mic
A radio frequency is a stage. It’s a solo act that all pilots perform for the world’s harshest audience—other pilots and air traffic controllers. Little wonder, then, that almost every student experiences some form of mic fright, the dreaded act of pushing the microphone button that is not unlike its stage-derived namesake.
Thankfully there are ways to ease the jitters. With technology and a little practice, mic fright can become a thing of the past. Today it is possible to learn perfect phraseology through interactive voice-recognition technology—and experience what it’s like to talk to another person on a frequency—without ever leaving the ground, through live, virtual air traffic control.
Learning to properly talk on the radio involves learning two very different skills. First you must learn the proper phraseology, or pilot-speak. Then you must perform on the stage in the air traffic control arena. In practice, most of us learn these things together in the airplane, but with technology, there are now tools to address both skills in simulation.
Redbird Flight Simulations is best known for its relatively low-cost, full-motion simulators. The company continues to innovate, and Parrot, its voice-recognition communications training software, promises to do for radio communications training what its simulator line has done for flight training as a whole.
Parrot can be added on to or act as an integral part of any Redbird simulator and provide an equivalent level of air traffic control. Since it’s a computer voice and recognizes only proper phraseology, it will train you as you go. Here’s an example scenario. Let’s say you are flying out of Deer Valley Airport on the north side of Phoenix. Your instructor will set up the airport, the weather, and the runway to start the simulation, as you would for any simulator session. Parrot will recognize these parameters and respond just as the ATC system would when you provide the proper inputs. Tune in the automatic terminal information service and it will reference the current simulated conditions. Then you tune in the tower frequency and request a takeoff clearance. It goes like this throughout the flight.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of Parrot to new students is its complete intolerance for bad phraseology. Say, “Tower, I’m ready to go,” and it will respond with a simple, “Say again.” But say, “Deer Valley Tower, Redbird One-Two-Three, ready for takeoff on Runway 25 Left,” and it will say, “Redbird One-Two-Three, Deer Valley Tower, cleared for takeoff Runway 25 Left.”
Because Parrot is used in curricula that include self-study in simulators, the system isn’t a complete and total dictator. Key the microphone, say “Help me,” and it will guide you along.
Learning pilot-speak is only half the battle. It’s like learning French and never going to Paris, or even Canada. To be a master you must be comfortable in the environment, and that takes practice. Until recently, there were very few options to get that practice, other than to go fly at hundreds of dollars per hour, or listen to a scanner and talk to it like a loon. Pilotedge brings sanity and ingenuity to the task.
The Internet has allowed for many wonderful advances, including voice over Internet protocol (VOIP)—the ability to talk over high-speed connections. By taking that technology and pairing it with a simulator network, Pilotedge provides live air traffic control without leaving the ground. It works like this: Anyone running a device with certain versions of Microsoft Flight Sim or XPlane downloads a small program, connects to the Internet, and starts flying. It’s nice to have a dedicated push-to-talk switch, rudder pedals, a throttle quadrant, and the rest of the kit. But those are not necessary. You just need a computer headset and you’re on your way.
Trained air traffic controllers, some of them off-duty active controllers or already retired, run the simulation through radar scopes on their computer screens. They are available 18 hours a day. No need to schedule or let them know what you’re doing; just fire up and go. The only area currently available for the service is Southern California, which is fine considering that it includes some of the most complex airspace in the world.
While anyone with a computer can join Pilotedge and practice at will, some of the greatest benefits come during simulator training with an instructor. Aero Safety Training at the Lincoln Park Airport in New Jersey is one of the first schools in the country to install Pilotedge on its Redbird Flight Simulator. Chief CFI Matt D’Angelo says that if the simulator is running, Pilotedge is running with it 95 percent of the time.
“It helps with all the new SRM [single-pilot resource management] issues, especially situational awareness,” D’Angelo said. The need for situational awareness is evident when the student can both see other Pilotedge traffic on the visual display of the Garmin G1000’s TIS, and hear them on the radio. Because of the benefits, Aero Safety Training uses it for much more than simply calling the tower for takeoff prior to a lesson on stalls or other air work. “It’s great for airport signage,” he said. “We’ve even done taxi-only lessons.” The ability to gain confidence by flying in to Los Angeles International Airport in a nonthreatening environment is too enticing for many students to pass up.
Nick Nicastro was at Aero Safety Training the day we visited. Nicastro has been “flying” since he was maybe 7 or 8 years old. He even learned to fly IFR before VFR. All this was done through simulation. Now 15, Nicastro can’t yet solo, but he can fly the simulator all around the Los Angeles basin, interacting with air traffic control as he goes. “I get in the sim once a day, at least,” he says. That includes his home setup, which he uses to supplement his flight school experience.
It’s common knowledge among instructors that airplanes are great teachers but lousy classrooms. Programs such as Parrot and Pilotedge provide the same caliber of teacher, but in a much better classroom. Yet, many instructors and flight schools continue to bemoan simulation strictly for the fact that students can’t log all the time.
Pilotedge creator Keith Smith obviously feels differently. “Logability isn’t the key,” he says. “Reducing the cost to train is the issue.” That narrative is starting to make headway into the flight training market, but it’s taking time. For his part, D’Angelo said Aero Safety Training is trying to get Pilotedge in its approved Part 141 curriculum and create a syllabus that calls for certain lessons to be in the simulator and certain lessons to be in the airplane, regardless of logability or weather. He said students are already doing their first tower work in the simulator in Southern California, which requires them to use charts, plan ahead, and do everything else that’s required in the airplane.
After learning proper pilot-speak and practicing in the virtual world, the only thing to do is perfect your authoritative, yet calm pilot voice. No technology yet exists to help with this, unless you count cocktail parties.