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Communicating With ATCCommunicating With ATC

Learn to Talk Like A Pro

Communicating with air traffic control (ATC), at least for student and low-time pilots, has to rank right up there with stalls and steep turns when it comes to stress-inducing maneuvers. To help you overcome what has to be a universal fear of talking on the radio, let's see what's behind the words you use and how you can sound more professional while using either the VFR or IFR systems.

By listening to ATC, you can readily pick out the pilots who know what they're doing and those who seem lost, frightened, and confused by the goings-on. To put you in the know-what-they're-doing category, if you're not already there, I'd like to suggest some specific ways to professionalize your radio style and become more comfortable and adept at communicating your needs to ATC.

Let's begin with the cardinal rule of radio communications: Think first; talk second. Rehearse in your mind what you're going to say before you say it, particularly if it's anything out of the ordinary. Organize your thoughts into the "Who Am I? Where Am I? What Do I Want?" categories. Being organized will help you to make the best use of the airwaves, particularly when they're busy and it's tough to get a word in edgewise.

This rule works for any pilot, flying any size airplane, at any airport. I use the same plan-ahead technique whether I'm in an MD-80 airliner trying to get pushback clearance at LAX (Ground, Continental One-Five-Four-Two, Gate 66 with Charlie, ready for pushback, [first fix is] Thermal) or if I'm in our light twin preparing to taxi (Ground, Baron Seven-Three-Zero-Six-Romeo, Stratman Aero with Bravo, taxi for takeoff).

When you're ready to begin your transmission, don't! First, listen and make sure your radios are set properly (volume is up, you've selected the correct frequency, and the transmitter switch is positioned to the radio you're actually listening to). Then, take the amateur's classic "San Diego Ground Control, this is Cessna Two-Three-Four-Five-Charlie..." preamble and change it to the less-wordy, infinitely more professional "Ground, Cessna Two-Three-Four-Five-Charlie." From there, give your location on the airport (said as a brief description, such as "North- east transient parking" or "Big Bucks FBO") and add your request.

Less-experienced pilots stand out like sore thumbs when they give the full airport name and address with every transmission. The first time you call a particularly facility, however, it is a good idea to state who you're calling, just in case you've got the wrong frequency. Subsequent requests to the same controller should be made without the extra verbiage, since he knows who he is and doesn't need to hear it repeated by you with every transmission.

If you have a lot of information to give ATC, such as a request for a tower en-route clearance or an en-route destination change, key the mic, say the facility name (usually shortened to "Clearance" or "Center") plus your aircraft type and N number. Then wait. "Clearance, Skylane Nine-Two-Eight-Juliet-Charlie." That tells ATC you've got a relatively long message to convey and want them to call you back when they get a moment. It's kind of like their warning to you, when they have a new clearance for you to fly. Rather than shoot it to you when you're not prepared, they'll preface it with "Eight-Juliet-Charlie, Bay Approach, I have a re-route for you; advise when ready to copy."

So, if you've got a longish or complex request, take care of the prerequisites first. If you're on the ground, be sure you've copied and digested the automatic terminal information service (ATIS) before you call for clearance. That means determining which runway you'll be departing from and, if you're on an IFR flight, which departure procedure you're likely to be assigned. This is particularly important if they're using other than their usual runway or traffic flow, as your brain is likely to be spring-loaded to the usual clearance. You'll save yourself a lot of "Say again" and "What's that fix?" if you've done your homework.

When you do get the callback from ATC, you know they've got the time to listen to your longer-than-normal request. That doesn't mean they have all the time in the world. Give them the information in a concise, logical order. Let's say you want to request a tower en-route clearance to a nearby airport. There are several bits of information the controller will need to know about you. If you can provide all the data ATC needs on that second call, it will warm the controller's heart. "Clearance, Skylane Eight-Juliet-Charlie's requesting an IFR climb to VFR-on-top. We're a Cessna 182 slash Uniform, destination Monterey."

On your first call to a particular ATC facility, give them your full call sign, and say it relatively slowly so they can understand it. If they get it correct when they acknowledge your first call, then use the abbreviated form (Eight-Juliet-Charlie) from then on. If they don't get it right, correct them immediately so they don't start calling you by a wrong N number that you won't reply to because it's not yours and you're not listening for it.

When you're ready to call the tower for takeoff, tell them, "Tower, Skylane Nine-Two-Eight-Juliet-Charlie ready for departure, Runway One-Five-Left, IFR Los Angeles." It's short, sweet, and to the point. When you're cleared for takeoff, or into "position-and-hold," turn your transponder on. Now the departure controllers will see your target on their scope, know your departure is imminent, and be listening for your call shortly after you're airborne. That call, by the way, isn't a mystery or surprise to them. They've seen your target come alive on the runway as you turned your transponder on, and just as the controller tells you to contact departure control, so he lets the departure controller know you're headed his way and that he's given you instructions to switch to his frequency.

OK, you've been cleared for takeoff and the tower tells you to contact departure control. What do you say? What do they want to hear? Remember that as in any ATC frequency change, what's most important to them is to verify your altitude and make sure you understand your altitude restrictions, if any. We can take a great load off their minds and ease the congestion on frequency by combining these two factors into one simple sentence. Since it's your first call to this facility, give them your full call sign and then tell them where you are (altitude-wise) and what you're doing (altitude-wise). "Departure, Skylane Nine-Two-Eight-Juliet-Charlie leaving 800 climbing 4,600." (You can delete the word "feet" as it's obvious and just adds verbiage to your transmissions.)

Did you recognize the old "who, where, what" formula in this transmission? It works, sounds professional, and gives ATC all the infor- mation needed to verify your encoding altimeter, their radar display readouts, and your understanding of your clearance altitude. This is error management at its finest and a great piece of insurance for you.

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