“Portland Tower, Cessna 123 Delta Chili, uh, Charlie …” We’ve all had bad days on the radio. Nonetheless, clear communication in and out of the cockpit can have serious consequences.
We Have Clearance, Clarence
Radios are still not uniformly required for flight in U.S. airspace. Nonetheless, in a busy terminal environment, good radio communications are essential and poor radio habits can make everyone’s day difficult. Misunderstandings between pilots and controllers or pilots and other pilots can compromise safety and lead to aircraft incidents. Clear communication is something all pilots should treat seriously.
We all know radio communications are a critical link in the ATC system. It can be a strong bond between pilot and controller or it can be broken with surprising speed and sometimes disastrous results. Having good radios, a good audio panel, and a good ANR headset are just the beginning to clear communications with ATC. The use of proper radio technique and standard terminology and phraseology are equally essential.
What’s Our Vector, Victor?
Here’s a real story of the importance of proper comms:
Pilot: “Allegany Tower, Piper Cherokee XXXX, 8 Miles to the Left of the airport for landing…”
Tower: “Ummmm…That’s great, but not too helpful. Where are you again?”
Pilot: “6 miles now, left of the airport.”
Tower: “Let’s try that again… What’s your compass say?”
Pilot: “Oooooohhhh….Piper Cherokee XXXX, 5 Miles to the EAST of the airport for landing…Sorry”
The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) covers “Radio Communications Phraseology and Techniques” and most of it is common sense. It’s very useful if you’re just starting out as a pilot and it can be a good review if you are a pilot who takes the winter off. It covers the basics of radio technique, contact procedures (including the elements contained in any initial ATC contact), frequency change procedures, and proper use of aircraft call signs.
A fellow pilot writes in:
I have to admit learning to fly in Hood River, Oregon, I didn’t have a ton of towered airport experience beyond the minimums to get my ticket. I was flying in Santa Maria, CA [towered] and there was a lot of traffic. I was on the left downwind for 30. The controller told me that I needed to turn base immediately as there was a jet on long final. I was not in my airplane, but in a friend’s, so between a new N number and the direction from the controller I said “9505M Basing”. (I know…”basing”?) Someone in the tower laughed on frequency and then contacted the jet on final. The jet responded with “United 1234 Finaling for 30.” To which I said, “You guys are mean”. I still get a giggle out of basing and finaling.
The AIM also recommends that student pilots identify themselves as such on initial contact with each ATC facility. This will permit ATC to provide student pilots with extra assistance or consideration as necessary. Don’t be shy about identifying yourself as a student – ATC (and everyone else) is there to help. Example: “Dayton tower, Fleetwing one two three four, student pilot.”
Once, a student pilot landed at a controlled airport without talking to the tower and getting a clearance. He finally spoke when on ground:
Tower: Cessna XXXX, who gave you permission to land at this airport?
Pilot: My flight instructor
Tower: Well, write this number down so that I can have a chat with both of you…
Also, abbreviated call signs are ripe for misunderstanding. One of the aircraft I fly regularly was manufactured by the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia, PA. Its radio call sign is “Navy 123XYZ.” I abandoned this practice a few years ago when I was asked to keep my speed below 200 knots (that aircraft cruises at about 80). I use “Naval Aircraft Factory” now – it’s still a great conversation starter with ATC!
Another piece of reading worthy of attention is the Pilot/Controller Glossary in the AIM. Proper radio procedures are an essential foundation to good communications. The addition of standard phraseology permits both understanding and brevity.
Cleared for the Option – this is ATC authorization for an aircraft to make (1) A touch-and-go, (2) A low approach, (3) A missed approach, (4) A stop-and-go, and (5) A full stop at the discretion of the pilot. Notice that this term refers to five specific types of “approach” and the pilot need not specify which one is to be used prior to execution. This clearance is obviously useful in the training environment.
Go Ahead – Proceed with your message. This is not to be used for any other purpose. It should be obvious why there should be no misunderstanding between pilot and controller with regard to the use of this term!
Negative Contact – Used by pilots to inform ATC that: (1) Previously issued traffic is not in sight, and (2) They were unable to contact ATC on a particular frequency. Here we have an example of a dual-meaning term. The meaning should be obvious from the context.
Understanding between pilot and controller is primary. Brevity of communication, particularly in a busy terminal environment, can be a very close second consideration with regard to its effect on understanding.
Nonetheless, we all have bad days and pet peeves, and ATC is not the only communication going on in the aircraft.
“Rich” was a UPT student in the Air Force learning to fly the T-37 and having a really difficult time trimming the aircraft on this particular sortie. Disgusted, the IP took the controls, trimmed the aircraft, and blurted out “There!” Rich thought the instructor was saying “There, that’s what it should look like!” The two pilots sat silently as the beautifully trimmed aircraft headed for the runway threshold as if on a rail. Unfortunately, what the instructor meant was “There, I trimmed it for you, take it back!” So the aircraft continued pilotless to the threshold, where it hit nosewheel first and entered the mother of all PIOs.
Fortunately, the only thing damaged that day was a pair of egos.
But it’s not always those flying. Here’s one from the Tower Frequency during a VFR arrival at AirVenture a few years ago:
Tower: “Red taildragger, you’re my guy! You’re leading the next group, so I’ll call your turn to final and the rest will follow you. Ok. Red Taildragger, turn now! Ok…now! Red taildragger, turn onto final please, everyone else, follow… Ummm…ok, maybe you’re not coming to the show after all. BLUE HIGH WING… You’re my guy!”
And sometimes, we just misspeak with hilarious results. A friend wrote in to say:
I was flying in to South Lake Tahoe airport for a conference. I was descending over the lake and made the following position call, “Lake Taco area traffic red and white Mooney descending over the lake, inbound.” That’s right Lake Taco. I was mortified and the butt of many jokes at the dinner that night.
Fly safe and make yourself understood! This short video is the gold standard for in-cockpit miscommunication.
Be sure to share your favorite stories like these in the comments below.