Instrument flying can be a busy time. Efficient radio communications and an understanding between pilots and controllers is critical for safety.
I listened carefully to the clearance on the first go-around, shook my head in exasperation, and wondered if the controller had been a trumpet player in a previous life. He had triple-tongued his way through the clearance twice at roughly the same speed, despite my admonition to, “Say again all after ‘ATC clears.…’”
Yes, I’m aware those folks are very busy and, yes, I know they’re sometimes trying to juggle two radio frequencies and a telephone at the same time. The reality is I can’t go anywhere—and they can’t get me out of their hair—until I get the clearance properly copied and understood.
The huge majority of controllers are thoughtful, conscientious folks who are just trying to do the best job they can with often antiquated equipment and conflicting tasks. Still, we’ve all had instances (fortunately rare) when a controller seemed determined to irritate and confuse every pilot on the frequency.
We have one of those folks at my home airport in Southern California, a controller who’s almost universally disliked. No matter how often we complain to his supervisors, it seems no one can induce him to change his attitude. (Please note that all the other controllers at the same airport are very professional at their tasks, and I have it on good authority they’re as disturbed by the one bad seed as are the pilots who are forced to deal with him.)
This article is NOT directed at those rare controllers who refuse to learn. Rather, we hope this might help some controllers and pilots understand the problems and appreciate that neither party is necessarily wrong. They simply may not understand each other.
That’s the primary reason pilots are required to read back all IFR instructions. When weather conditions make it difficult or impossible to spot traffic visually, IFR rules require that everyone in the system acknowledge they’re on the same page. That’s one of the major differences between VFR and IFR. VFR allows you to do pretty much your own thing. IFR requires you to fly to tighter standards and follow your clearance to the letter.
Recent problems with runway incursions have inspired the FAA to insist that pilots read back all taxi instructions as well, no matter what the weather.
For most of us who don’t fly hard IFR on a regular basis, instrument flying can be a busy time. Anything that distracts a pilot from the task of simply keeping the airplane where it’s supposed to be can be a dangerous digression.
Accordingly, here’s our list of the inevitable 12 dos and don’ts for efficient IFR radio communications. This won’t guarantee a safe flight every time, but at least, you can be reasonably assured you won’t get anyone mad.
1 Much of the trick of handling an IFR clearance is knowing what to expect. I used to give short shrift to SIDs and STARs, but I learned from hard experience that they can be a welcome key to efficient operation, whether you’re flying out of/into Sioux City, Omaha or Dallas/Love. I sometimes wind up filing IFR out of Long Beach, Calif., and I’ve become religious about looking up the expected SID that will probably apply for my direction of travel even before I file a flight plan. This helps prime me for the clearance, so I have an idea how I’ll be cleared out of the area.
2 If the clearance doesn’t happen to be what you expected, don’t question it on the ground unless there’s some reason you absolutely can’t accept it. Clearance delivery and/or ground control are merely messengers. Even if the clearance starts you off in the wrong direction, it’s better to depart and request a modification once you’re handed off to the center controller. He may be able to do something about it other than transfer your complaint to someone down the line.
3 One way to expedite both the controller’s job and the pilot’s is to form a mental picture of traffic in the local area. You can sometimes conjure this based on simply listening closely to radio communications, but if you have TIS or some other form of traffic alerts, you may be a step ahead at visualizing how you’ll fit into the traffic flow, either outbound or inbound.
4 Approach-control and departure-control frequencies are busy places, so the best rule to follow is “He (or she) who talks least usually talks best.” Everyone on the frequency appreciates it when pilots use intelligent abbreviation to get their message across. There’s usually no need to repeat your full call sign on every transmission; the last three alpha-numerics will usually do just fine unless the controller responds with your full call sign. In that case, he may be working two similar call signs and feel he needs to spell out the full call to make certain everyone understands whom he’s addressing. (Conversely, don’t click the mic button as a substitute for “Wilco.” Even if the frequency isn’t busy, the controller can’t know for sure that you received his message unless you actually acknowledge it.)
5 Similarly, don’t tell the controller anything he doesn’t already know or doesn’t ask for unless you have a good reason. If he establishes radar contact and directs you to climb to 11,000 feet, there’s usually no need to remind him when you’re “level at 11,000.” He can see it on his radar screen. If you’re number one for takeoff at a busy airport, the controller clears you for departure, and you can’t get a word in edgewise to acknowledge, don’t worry about it. Take the runway and leave town. You’ve been cleared; he can see that you’re leaving; there’s no need for further adieu.
6 Conversely, don’t hesitate to correct a controller if he gets it wrong, on the ground or in the air, and definitely don’t be afraid to correct your N-number if he/she misreads it. In this age of personalized registrations, it’s especially important to make certain everyone knows who the controller is talking to. Remember that while you’re only talking to one controller, he may be working a dozen or more aircraft. If there are two with similar call signs, it can be critical to make certain the proper message goes to the correct aircraft.
7 The dreaded vocalized pause, “Uhhhhh,” is one of the banes of radio communications. Think about what you plan to say before you say it, rather than starting your transmission with, “Uhh, Albuquerque Center, ummm, Malibu 3274 Bravo would like to, uh, get some weather. Can you, uhhh, do that or should I use another frequency?” Use the mental five Ws (who, what, when, where, why) to remind you how to compose your message. “Albuquerque, 74 Bravo needs to leave the frequency for five minutes to get some weather. We’ll call when back on.”
8 Remember that there’s a reason the famous six Ts of an instrument approach (aviation does love its multiple single-letter cues)—time, turn, tach, track, tune, talk—places communicating with the controlling agency at the absolute bottom of the list. Controllers are good people, but they serve a strictly advisory function. A controller can’t help you fly your airplane. You’re responsible for the aircraft and its passengers. It’s important to remember that the maximum hazard a controller can face is falling off their chair.
9 If you do have a disagreement with a controller, the radio is NOT the place to resolve it. You’ll only hold up communication and make everyone’s life more miserable by hassling a controller on the radio. Make a mental note of the frequency and the time of the disagreement, then drop a note to the appropriate control agency when you’re back on the ground. The Feds are well aware of the importance of proper radio protocol, and you can rest assured they’ll bring it to the controller’s attention.
10 Fortunately, IFR operation demands that at least everyone speak the same language, or so it says here. ICAO regulations establish the international language of the sky as English, but it seems some overseas controllers ignore that regulation on occasion. Some countries are worse than others, but in general, almost everyone speaks English.
11 Another rule the pros subscribe to is always listen before you talk. Sometimes, you can answer your own question if you listen for a few minutes. Whether you’re communicating with clearance delivery, ground, tower, center, departure or approach, make sure you have a clear space before transmitting your message. Always allow the previous communication to complete before you press the PTT or mic button. That’s not always easy, but it’s simple courtesy.
12 Most of us who have been flying IFR for a number of years appreciate that controllers have bad days just as pilots do. When that happens, try to be a little tolerant, and perhaps more than a little encouraging. If you feel you receive poor service, don’t argue about it, but good service may deserve a compliment.
I was flying a new Seneca north from Florida to Maine a few years ago in preparation for a crossing to France, and the New York controller was definitely not in a good mood. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, just barking at everyone, and some pilots were barking right back.
At one point, the harried controller issued me a vector and a new frequency, and I replied, “Seneca 26A, heading 020, 120.75, maintain 11,000. You’re doing a great job, New York. Have a nice day.”
The controller didn’t lose a beat. He came back with an immediate, “26A, unable.”