Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Demystifying ATC

How to work better with “the voice” in your headset

Pilots may sometimes be intimidated by air traffic controllers and their “all-knowing” voices over the radio. But by gaining a better understanding of what goes on in the tower and in an en route center, much of the mystery is lost, and pilots and controllers can work better together. Above, controllers work the North Complex at LAX.
It seems we all have a story, some event in our lives that brought us into the aviation trade. Twenty-two years ago, that moment happened for me. At the time, it was insignificant, a normal day for a four-year-old—at least for a four-year-old whose dad is a pilot. Sitting on my dad’s lap in a Grumman Tiger, I found myself at the controls on an afternoon flight over what I think might have been Lake Linear, Ga. There seemed to be a crazy language I heard over those headsets, a camaraderie between ATC and pilots. Even though my feet could not reach the rudder pedals, I recall feeling free as a bird. From that day on, I wanted to fly.

My dream became reality when I soloed at Page Field in Fort Myers, Fla., on my 16th birthday, and just a few years later, I would get the call to become an air traffic controller. Controllers had always remained somewhat of a mystery to me—elusive creatures that lurked in dark rooms full of special equipment and donned voice-of-god responses over radios. Who were these people and where did they come from? In the conversion from GA/corporate pilot to controller, these mystifying people would become like brothers and sisters. Ask any controller, and they’ll tell you the same thing: We love what we do and wouldn’t change it for the world. What we do on a daily basis is a dream or goal that we‘ve always wanted to attain. Every day, we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to be “the voice.”

As a pilot, I always want to know what controllers are thinking and doing. As a controller, I always want to know more about pilots, airplane performance characteristics, weather and the area I control so that I can offer the best service. On a daily basis, controllers work thousands of flights, and understanding and knowledge as a pilot can help everyone in the community work more soundly together. I sampled controllers from terminal (TRACON and Tower) and en route center (ARTCC) environments to gather tips and clarify common myths about ATCs. Here’s what they had to say.

Listen First
Often, controllers are working several sectors combined, on several frequencies. Take a moment to listen in before calling with a request. Many times, pilots will immediately check on and interrupt another transmission for which a controller has to go back and ask again, taking precious moments away from other busy tasks at the sector. When asking for flight following, simply check on with your N number and state that you have a request. Once a controller responds with your call sign, speak slowly and be concise: “November One Two Three Four, over Bowie, a Piper Cherokee at Five Thousand, Five Hundred, request flight following to Will Rogers.”


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