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Saying it right

Controllers don't care what you had for lunch

As part of the current ASF safety seminar on effective radio communications, air traffic controllers from local facilities attend and answer questions from pilots. The arrangement, facilitated by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, has been highly popular. In Southern California, 18-year veteran controller Paul Langston delighted ASF audiences with his quick wit and insight into pilot/controller relationships. In this piece, Langston explains the key points for best communication.

During the AOPA Air Safety Foundation "Say It Right" seminar, someone would always ask, "What is the best way to request VFR flight following?" This question reminded me of a situation that happened recently.

I was working a fairly busy sector during an evening rush to some of our local airports. I had a traffic situation I was trying to resolve between two jets and just as I'm ready to key my mic, a voice comes on frequency. "SoCal Approach, this is November-One-Two-Three (obviously, not really the call sign) and we just departed Corona, about 10 minutes ago, en route to Carlsbad; we filled up the tanks because, ya know, the gas is cheaper up there and we're cruising on down here at about 5,500 feet, my wife really doesn't like flying all that much but she comes along with me anyway, so we were just wondering if you might have time to give us flight following back home, we're kind of in a hurry because she forgot to feed the dogs before we left this morning."

All right, maybe I'm exaggerating just a little bit (actually, not much).

So, after I scrambled to pry the two jets apart and got my heart rate back under control, I said, "There was an aircraft calling with a VFR request and told me everything except what they had for lunch today."

To the pilot's credit, he came back and said, "It was a cheeseburger, but does that mean we can't have flight following?"

The point of the story is, when you are calling for flight following, there is a certain protocol involved:

Get the controller's attention. "SoCal Approach, this is November-One-Two-Three." This does several things. First, the controller isn't surprised by too much information. Remember, he or she has to type everything into the system while you are talking. It also gives the controller the option of performing a higher-priority task before he answers you. It also reduces frequency congestion.

When the controller answers you, keep it short and to the point. There are three things that a controller needs from a pilot to provide flight following:

  • Your call sign
  • Your type aircraft, and
  • Your destination.

That's it! Everything else is extraneous and creates more workload for both you and the controller.

Put in the transponder code and the controller will say, "Radar contact." You now have an additional set of eyes looking out for you. The whole process should only take a minute or so. Don't forget that even when you are receiving flight following you still need to be vigilant for other aircraft and see and avoid.

So, the next time you call for flight following, remember--the controller doesn't care what you had for lunch!

An air traffic controller for 18 years, Paul Langston is an instrument-rated commercial pilot who is working on his CFI.

By Paul Langston

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