A Pilot's Guide to ATC Communication

Communication with Air Traffic Control can be stressful. Here are a few tips for students and experienced pilots alike to work on their ATC communication skills.

May, 18, 2021  |  Posted in: Flight Training

Tips communicating atc pilots

For some students, the most challenging part of flight school is learning to talk on the radio. There's a particular stage fright that all pilots initially feel about keying the mic and speaking to the experts on the other end — those dreaded air traffic controllers.

After a few flights, the stage fright passes, and the real learning begins. Once you have the confidence to key the mic and say your mind, you can focus on exactly what words to use and when.

Professional pilots and even the air traffic controllers themselves are continually learning how to communicate better. The rules are constantly evolving as better practices are found and phraseology standardized globally.

Here are a few tips for students and experienced pilots alike to work on their ATC communication skills and for finding your radio voice...

Do Your Homework

The number one source for correct radio procedures is the Aeronautical Information Manual, or AIM. It's a fabulous book that is entirely underrated by students and instructors alike. In Chapter 4, Section 2 you will find everything you ever wanted to know but were too afraid to ask about radio communication procedures.

Another important source to know is the Pilot/Controller Glossary. This document is tucked in the back of your paper FAR/AIM, but it's also available online. It is a glossary, organized in alphabetical order, with nearly every term and phrase you might hear an air traffic controller utter.

The problem with that, though, is that it's not easy to read. Still, an hour or two of skimming over the terms and phrases at various points during your flight training is invaluable. Nearly every time you open the pages, you're almost guaranteed to learn something new.

Listen to LiveATC or with a Handheld

One of the best things you can do to better your comm skills is to listen while not flying. LiveATC allows you to play recordings from nearly every tower and controller in the world. You can find everything from your local home field control tower to bustling JFK or Heathrow.

It's much more valuable than it seems. When you're flying, there's so much to take in. You're trying to work on flying skills, getting feedback from your instructor, looking for traffic, your monitoring plane systems, programming automation, and navigating through airspace and watching for landmarks — all at the same time.

By switching on ATC voices on the ground, you're able to concentrate on what they're saying and how they're saying it. Write down phrases you don't understand and look them up in the Pilot/Controller Glossary later.

Practice on the Ground

Listening is a one-way street, though. To nail your next chat with ATC, you'll need to practice what you say. It's a normal part of flight training to practice with your flight instructor on the ground. Some flight schools organize their students into traffic patterns of planes walking around the room. The instructor dictates instructions, and the pilots respond accordingly. It's a great exercise.

There are also several apps that can all you practice with ATC in real-time. PlaneEnglish is an aviation radio simulator for your smartphone, while PilotEdge adds real ATC to your flight simulator experience at home.

Don't Worry About Sounding Cool

It's a fact that pilots put way too much emphasis on how they and others sound on the radio. No one wants to sound like a beginner, and no one wants to make a fool of themselves. But the fact of the matter is, radio communications are simply about communicating.

Once you learn the jargon and figure out how to use the equipment correctly, there is nothing technical about radio communications. Simply think before you speak, and try to keep your transmissions shorter rather than longer. Brevity is important, especially in busy airspace, but clear communication is more important.

Making sure that everyone is on the same page is the goal. Don't try out new ways of saying something. Sometimes you'll hear pilots--and sometimes even controllers — try out a new saying simply to sound cool. Once spoken by an airline pilot, every student pilot in a 100-mile radius starts using it. If you're the professional pilot, don't be that guy. And if you're the student pilot, ignore that guy.

Sounding cool comes very naturally once you know what to say. And saying things correctly is what makes it all sound cool.

Always Ask for Clarification

Maybe the hardest thing to do is admit that you've made a mistake or don't understand something. But doing these things is critical in radio communications. If you aren't where you said you'd be, or you don't understand what it is the controller wants from you, you've got to speak up.

Never hesitate to say "say again" when you didn't quite catch a communication. But remember, the controller is likely to repeat their exact words. If the problem is that you heard but didn't understand what they meant, you need to say, "I don't understand."

If there's ever a problem and a controller starts to get upset, you have an ace up your sleeve. Simply tell them, "Sorry, student pilot. Can you try that again?" They'll immediately understand the situation and go easy on you. Professional turbine pilots have been heard trying this tactic, so giving it a shot from a Cessna is a no-brainer.

Always Listen Before You Speak

Learn to master the art of when to press the radio transmit button. Yes, there's actually an art to it.

If you key the mic while other people are transmitting, it creates a nasty squeal that blocks everyone on the frequency. You must listen to what's going on and figure out if there's an opening for you. If the tower calls a pilot and gives an instruction, you can't key your mic when they're done talking. Why? Because the pilot that they were talking to is going to respond first.

Knowing the patterns in pilot and controller communication takes practice, but pay attention to the cadence of how it all happens on the frequency. Things happen fast in busy areas, but there's still no reason to step on other people's transmissions.

Make a Visit to Your Local Tower

A trip up to the tower cab at your local airport is a trip every pilot should take. For the most part, pilots are allowed to visit control facilities with prior permission. Usually, a simple phone call to arrange it, and you can stop by for a visit. The FAA calls this "Operation Raincheck," but the controllers are happy to visit with pilots and share their perspectives in most places.

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