Without taking a breath, and with a speed that would put an auctioneer to shame, the controller rattled off: “Piper Niner-Two-Eight-Two-Charlie cleared for north departure course three-three-zero climb and maintain six thousand five hundred departure frequency one-three-five-decimal-niner squawk four-seven-six-three taxi to two-five via bravo four bravo one cross Runway Eight Right at charlie three proceed…”
I sat frozen in the left seat, my pen hovering over my kneeboard. I’d only managed to jot down “cleared for north departure course three ze…” before the flood of instructions overwhelmed me. A newly minted 19-year-old private pilot working on my commercial ticket, I now regretted my decision to “play with the big boys” at Colorado’s Stapleton International Airport—Denver’s major airport back in the early 1980s.
Of course, none of this would have happened if I’d been properly taught how to copy down a clearance. When your instructor tells you to write down your clearance, she doesn't mean you should write down every word, which was exactly what I did—and what many student pilots to this day try to do.
Instead, what you need is a solid grasp of shorthand. Not the Pitman or Gregg shorthand your grandmother learned in steno school, but a personalized code that will let you quickly and accurately record instructions. For instance, don’t write out “bravo four,” instead, simply “B4.” Instead of “cross” you can simply make an “X.” “Proceed” can be an arrow.
There’s no correct or incorrect copy clearance shorthand. Develop your own, one that makes sense to you. Use abbreviations. Single letters. Numerals. Symbols. You can write it left to right or top to bottom on your kneeboard. This will let you keep up with the largest flood of words from the most hyper controllers. Then, calmly key your radio and read back your clearance, translating back into English from your shorthand as you go.
Even if your voice cracks, you’ll still sound like a pro.