Talking on the radio at any nontowered airport I’d be a blend of Bob Hoover, Chesley Sullenberger, and Chuck Yeager. Unfortunately, that didn’t hold true at even the smallest, friendliest towered airport. Instead, I’d trip over my tongue. Stammer. Transpose my tail number. Misidentify which leg of the pattern I was reporting from. So, I came up with a solution—avoid controlled airspace when I could.
The mistake I made happened because of expectation bias. I was so expecting one thing that when something else was presented, it simply didn’t register. Our expectations become our reality. It’s actually fundamental to how our brains work, but it’s dangerous and can cause accidents.
While expectation bias can happen in any phase of flight, it’s most likely to happen during recurring operations. Ground control always assigns the same route, except today. You’re shooting touch and goes, and on the eighth liftoff, the tower tells you to make the opposite pattern.
Oddly, as I did, pilots often read back instructions correctly, but then our hands do the opposite of what comes out of our mouths. So, the trick is to take some extra time and process ATC communications before rushing to sound Hoover-Sully-Yeageresque on the radio. Think about what you have been asked to do, especially when it’s something similar to what you’ve been doing. Take a breath, pause a moment, and think. Visualize before talking and acting.
Will this slow down your response? Make you sound…stupid? Maybe, but not by much. And trust me on this: ATC would much rather we sound slow and stupid on the radio—while flying like Hoover-Sully-Yeager—than to sound great but fly stupidly.