Radio pros and clods

April 1, 1995

Have you ever said something on the radio and wished afterward that you'd said it differently? On almost every flight you will hear something that could have been said more professionally. There are a few simple rules and a couple of techniques that will have you sounding like a pro in almost no time.

On a recent flight, the Atlanta Approach frequency was treated to this phraseology misadventure. "Ah, Atlanta Approach, this is, ah, Seven- Two-Three-Six-Whiskey [not the real tail number], ah, about 30 miles out and I, ah, would like to land, over." It was four o'clock in the afternoon and approach was very busy with inbound aircraft to Atlanta Hartsfield International and DeKalb-Peachtree airports. The controller made a tactical error by ignoring the first call, which meant an encore performance.

The ensuing conversation required several interchanges to sort out the pilot's location, aircraft type, and altitude. To complete the quiz, the controller needed to know where the flight was going and whether it had received the ATIS information for DeKalb-Peachtree Airport — which, it turned out, was the destination. Had our friend read the section on radio communications in the Airman's Information Manual, it might have gone something like this. "Atlanta Approach, Bonanza Seven-Two-Three-Six- Whiskey, 30 northwest, 4,500, landing DeKalb-Peachtree with Charlie [the ATIS information]."

The principles are very simple. Answer the logical questions: Whom are you calling? Who are you? Where are you (and how high)? What do you want to do? Include any other pertinent information. Notice that we aren't using any "This is" Bonanza 7236W or "at" 4,500, landing "at" Peachtree or "over." Why not omit all those linking words? It takes more time and doesn't add anything to the conversation. The use of verbal pauses — "ah" — may sound dramatic. Some pilots have raised the length and frequency of the verbal pause to an art form, but it shows that you're really not ready to communicate.

Let me be the first to say I haven't always achieved the high standard set here. There is a learning curve, but when you strive to learn the right way to communicate, you will be amazed at the service available from ATC. On a trip into Dallas-Fort Worth some years ago, I fumbled the initial call. This was against the backdrop of a steady stream of crisp airline types reciting the litany in unbroken baritones. From that minor faux pas the controller surmised that an amateur was approaching and should be handled accordingly. We were ordered to a far corner of the galaxy to be called upon when the action slowed a bit. Fortunately, my mentor intervened with a businesslike request for clemency, which cut 15 minutes off our penance for my being a communications clod.

Listen on any busy frequency and you can hear the communications pros. Not only do they usually follow the format just outlined, but the cadence of the message is just right for listening. Some pilots say their piece so fast that the controller misses it and then it all has to be repeated. Would I be remiss in saying that there are more than a few controllers who speak at 60 with gusts to 90? Naturally, the pace picks up when the action's hot, but that is precisely the time to keep a cool tongue. Both sides need to remember that there is a moderately busy person on the receiving end who's trying to sort out the message while doing at least three other things. The flip side is not to drone on like a filibustering senator.

Wait for an opening. Just as it's impolite to interrupt someone when entering a room, the same courtesy applies when coming onto a frequency. Listen for a bit before keying the mike. That will keep you from blocking someone else's transmissions. The collision between two transmissions is not a pretty thing to hear — sort of like fingernails dragged across a chalkboard.

While we're talking about patience, if you've made a call, wait for a moment before figuring ATC missed it. Frequently the controller will be coordinating with another ATC sector or talking on another frequency and will respond shortly. If distance is a factor (i.e., you were too far from the ground antenna), give it a minute or so before calling again. That extra few miles you covered might just do the trick.

Class B, C, and D airspace, and active restricted airspace require communication with ATC before entering when operating VFR. You will show yourself to be a communications pro by tuning the appropriate frequency well in advance. I've had some tense moments when VFR and the border of communications airspace were only a few miles ahead. You can reduce the tension by listening on the frequency at least 15 miles out and calling before the last possible minute. Chances are you found out what runways were in use, learned about any weather in the area, and were able to gauge the traffic flow. Granted, this is not always possible but it's something to strive for.

When going into a busy area, it's a certainty that you'll be talking to approach control. The pace will only get more hectic as you get closer. Listen to ATIS and automated weather broadcasts well in advance of the frequency change to approach. If you're already talking to a controller, you'll have to listen on two frequencies at once. It may take several times through on the recording, since you'll need to turn down the volume on the ATIS when the controller is talking.

The same concept applies to unicom for traffic advisories at non- towered airports. Start listening on the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) 10 to 15 miles out. In busy places you probably won't have to call for an advisory since someone in the pattern will already have announced his/her position and the runway in use. When you're ready to start announcing your location, the same phraseology pattern works just as well in non-towered communication as with ATC.

"Newton traffic, Bonanza Seven-Two-Three-Six-Whiskey, entering downwind Runway 18, Newton." As always, although you may be talking, squawking, and listening, a sharp lookout in visual conditions is excellent insurance against traffic in your airspace.

There are several ways to learn the communication ropes. If you have a handheld radio and can receive an approach or center frequency at home (an IFR chart will have the frequencies), you will often hear the air carrier or corporate crews who are generally the best communicators. You will also hear how not to do it. Slang and CB radio lingo doesn't equate to "cool" in the aviation world.

When you get ready to practice your new skills, spend just a few minutes with an instructor as a dry run before mounting the aircraft. Get out a chart and mentally place yourself in the location where you would be making the call, say 30 miles out from the terminal. Then say exactly what you would say to the controller (who, where, how high, and what you want). The CFI gets to play ATC. The instructor should "talk" you all the way into your parking spot, simulating the tower and ground controllers.

Use the same concept when departing from a tower airport: "Raleigh Ground, Bonanza Seven-Two-Three-Six-Whiskey, north ramp, VFR, westbound with X-ray, ready to taxi." The controller will respond with a heading, altitude, frequency, and transponder squawk. It's all very predictable. Read it back in exactly the same sequence in which it was given to you, using the same phraseology. This is one place where being creative or original is not appropriate.

One skill that will help is a clearance shorthand that any experienced pilot or instrument flying book can provide. The other trick is not to think about the clearance and what it means while copying. Just get it written down and then figure out if it makes sense or whether some negotiation is needed. If you need some extra time before giving the readback, ask the controller to stand by.

Many pilots are uneasy about going anywhere that a radio is required, but anyone can sound like a pro. If you flub it a few times while you're learning, so what? With just a little experience and guidance you'll find good communication is much like cocktail party conversation. There's a pattern and you say pretty much the same thing every time.


See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.