Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Demystifying ATC

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

Be Prepared
Pilots sometimes take off VFR and pick up an IFR clearance in the air. But be aware that a controller may not be able to give you an IFR clearance right off the ground; there may be an aircraft on approach or already given an IFR clearance that will tie up the airspace until positive separation is ensured. Sometimes, controllers can’t give you direct routing due to the minimum en route altitude (MEA), minimum vectoring altitude (MVA) or because of a military operations area (MOA), as examples. So before you leave the ground, a major consideration should be given to marginal VFR, particularly if you’re unsure that you can remain VFR.

Be Thorough
When VFR pilots find themselves in adverse weather conditions, it’s usually because they didn’t receive a complete weather briefing from flight service. Prior to every flight outside of the pattern, check weather online in addition to calling for a briefing. In the en route environment, our weather displays are based on NEXRAD weather radar and sometimes have up to a six-minute delay between refreshes. Approach controllers have a display that’s based on the terminal radar and updates more frequently.

Ask For Help
If you need help, ask for it. When I was first learning to fly, I found myself over the Everglades at 4,500 feet in a dense layer of haze with the sun in my face. Conditions were marginal VFR, and I became unable to see the ground clearly for navigation. I asked for help and received vectors from ATC. A few minutes later, I was able to navigate again, but I had flown almost 40 degrees off my route. As a pilot, if you find yourself in a situation or feel like something isn’t going right, let it be known. Even though our egos often get the best of us, asking for help is sometimes necessary, and controllers are there to help. While many controllers have flight experience, not all do. Make sure when asking for something that you’re clear and concise.

Be Concise
When checking on frequency, asking a question, or picking up IFR clearance—the list goes on—be brief. Sequences of events can happen very fast in a controller’s world, and a pilot with a lengthy discussion can take away precious moments from the controller who might need to work on something else. Being concise and straight to the point will make for an easier flight with less stress for both the pilot and controller. Controllers may be working several sectors or positions at once, fixing possible conflicts and taking landline calls all at the same time—being brief can help all of us do our jobs better.

Say It All
Controllers are under scrutiny all of the time for phraseology and for listening for readbacks/hearbacks. Even the most experienced pilots can make mistakes or misstate a clearance; however, controllers usually are the ones who get reprimanded for the missed call sign, readback or phraseology. According to the FARs, there isn’t always a concise formula for reading back clearances, but as a pilot/controller, I always read back exactly what was said by the controller.

One critical example is that, when switching frequencies, many pilots will just state the frequency and proceed with the switch. While a seemingly small event, it leaves controllers not knowing whether the correct aircraft took the correct switch. Again, it makes it easier for everyone involved if the pilot reads back the entire clearance with call sign, every time. This is important even for a code change. As controllers, we only have the headset, radar scope and view from the tower to go by, and we’re constantly under the gun for making sure every pilot says the right thing.


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