License to learn: Steppin' in it

Everyone makes mistakes on the radio now and then

October 1, 2012

Rod Machado

Are you hesitant to talk on the radio for fear of making a very public mistake? If so, you’re not alone. Many low-time pilots or pilots who typically avoid interacting with ATC worry about saying something embarrassing on the radio.

Everyone makes mistakes on the radio now and then. Yes, even highly experienced flight instructors and pilots can say and do goofy things when they key the mic. If you understand that, it should partially ease the discomfort when your lips make slips because your brain lobes dipped.

One clear evening many years ago, on a cross-country flight with a student, I responded to a center controller’s request for a turn. I immediately spotted the candela-maximus landing light from one apparently very big airplane bearing down on us. Clicking the mic I squeaked, “Center, do you have traffic for Two-One-Three-Two-Bravo at 12 o’clock?”

The controller, knowing a bit more about astronomy than me, replied, “Two-One-Three-Two Bravo, that’s Venus.”

Oh, man. I stepped in it big time.

We all handle embarrassment in different ways, but there was no room to hide under my Cessna’s seat. So I clicked the mic and said, “Roger [long pause], request avoidance vector.” The controller had a good laugh at that one. I did, however, imagine him summoning all his controller buddies on break and reenacting the entire scenario beginning with, “You won’t believe what this guy said....” I doubt he did that, but I was nevertheless happy that he didn’t see me dive to avoid a planet 25 million miles away.

Trust me when I say that even the pros occasionally make radio mistakes. So let me tell you how most folks handle it when they do. It’s an old and tested remedy for these situations and it works well. It is, in fact, the same strategy that offers the best chance of avoiding a police officer’s ticket for a moving violation. It’s called fessing up to messing up. You simply apologize and confess that you made a mistake when you’ve made a mistake. This works well both on and off the radio, by the way.

Fessing up is akin to making a public apology, and public apologies are the quickest route to compelling others to forgive and forget our transgressions. Apologies make us appear more human, which explains why we’re often so quick to forgive someone who says, “Oops, I made a mistake, my apologies.” Admit it and they’ll usually forget it.

One night many years ago, I was training an instrument student and made the following pop-up request to Ontario, California, Approach: “Sir, this is Two-One-Three-Two-Bravo, Cessna 172, 4,500 feet, Paradise VOR, we’d like the ILS into Riverside with a missed approach, then VOR approach into Chino with a missed approach, then the ILS into Ontario via the HYGRO transition for a full stop.”

Suddenly I hear, “Two-One-Three-Two-Bravo, I’m not a sir, I’m a ma’am.”

Uh, oh.

I clicked the mic and said, “I do apologize for that...and [long pause here] I guess we’re not getting those approaches, right?”

I recall the controller chuckling while saying, “Well, that all depends. Do you want them from a sir or a ma’am?”

“We’ll be happy to take them from a ma’am, ma’am.” She had a good sense of humor about this. Then again, maybe I’m just paranoid, but while her mic was still keyed I thought I heard her whisper to another controller, “It’s that Venus guy again.”

Let me be clear by saying that the type of mistakes I’m talking about are your normal “no infraction of the regs” type of mistakes, which are simply embarrassing. Mistakes-maximus are another story. Receiving instant absolution by offering an aural aerial apology after you stampeded a once-orderly herd of airliners with an unauthorized entry into Class B airspace isn’t likely to happen.

Find some solace in knowing that radio mistakes can be embarrassing for everyone, and nearly everybody makes them now and then. The next time you step in it, step up and offer a quick apology. It’s an effective means of ameliorating your embarrassment and compelling others to forgive and forget your faux pas.

The worst that can happen is that you receive a planetary nickname of your own.

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