Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 23, 2011

IFR Communications: Serious Business

What you say and what you hear on the radio are more than mere words

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.


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