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

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.


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