By John Wyman, EAA 462533, Chapter 266 Montreal
One of the first things you notice about flying to Oshkosh is that “chatter” on the airwaves is kept to an absolute minimum — all in an effort to speed along the movements of airplanes and keep said airwaves “open” for a pilot who may really need to say something or a controller that’s having a particularly hard time funneling an aircraft into the pipe. In fact, it’s even discouraged for the incoming pilot to say anything at all. All the ATIS says is to maintain a strict listening watch for your aircraft type and color to be identified, waggle your wings in acknowledgment, and then proceed as you are passed onto the next waypoint or tower frequency without responding on the mic button — e.g., “Listen, but don’t talk.” It works like magic. Of course, reading the notice before you get to this point is paramount! There is a lot of information in there about this. The controller’s voice has an air of authority. Their tone says, “If I ask you a question and you’re forced to push the mic button to reply to it, then I’ll allow you that much air time, but otherwise, a wing-wag, roger, or wilco will suffice.” However, what puts the icing on the cake is that when you do land on that very active runway, the same busy controller finds the time to add those memorable words, “Welcome to Oshkosh!”
There’s no doubt that it takes time to get accustomed to radio banter. Some pilots pick it up quickly, while others have to really work at it. We can all remember what it was first like speaking to someone in a tower, when all you did before that was broadcast your intentions out into the atmosphere with the idea or “hope” that someone was indeed listening to you? Along the way it takes good instructors or other pilots to point out what you say and how you say it to hone your craft. That’s true for just about anything, but especially so for radio work. If you start out with a particular expression that you find comes easily off your lips and you think it’s understandable, then you’re likely to stick with that phrase at least long enough until someone else comes along and coaches you into making it shorter or changing it up for something else. Sometimes, these habits take a while to pick up or take a long time to get rid of if it’s too engrained. Just the idea of making a “traffic broadcast” over a Unicom frequency at an uncontrolled airport takes some time to grasp. Most people think that an airplane is always broadcasting to a tower or controller and the thought of an airplane flying without a radio is way beyond their scope! But yet, when we first learn to fly, it’s not that important to learn how to talk on the radio — you should instead be more focused on flying the airplane. The radio should come a distant second and when you do first start broadcasting your intentions in the circuit, it takes some practice to keep it short and sweet.
I’ve always said that more can be said with less and it’s up to the student to practice it. Whether looking at an airport on a map (a small dot for an airfield or ring around it for a controlled airport) or just staring at a blank wall — reciting what you’ll say is good practice before you try to wing it in the plane. Think of what you have to say, rehearse it first, then click the mic. State the three Ws and skip the other two. That is; who are you, what are you doing, and where you are. An example of this might be — “Pitts Special, AZJ, left downwind, landing 25, Alexandria.” If there is a real need to add any more information — fine, do so, the airwaves are free — but time is precious. Most pilots can figure out the smaller details about how long it’ll take you to get to the airport (if you’re reporting a few miles out) or how long till you announce final. Know your airplanes. A Navajo or Harmon Rocket hums along fast! If you can, heck, skip the base leg report. How long does that take anyway? You’re not there long. At least get two calls in the circuit, wherever they are. Now that we are on the subject of avoiding long speeches, have you ever noticed the reluctance of some controllers to give you the time of day if you say too much on their airwaves? They’ve got a job to do, too. You can only split so many clicks of a mic into a minute to address everyone’s intentions. They don’t want to know all of the finer points about how much fun you had on your fishing trip. Their focus is more on who came first on the radio — are they sticking around, coming in, or going out? Keep it point form.
There are a couple of elements to keeping it clear and understandable. You might want to make your first contact with someone starting only with your registration. Establish communication. Did they note your registration? Can you keep the rest of the communication to only the last two letters? That makes life easy. Did the radio transmit? Starting off into one long ramble doesn’t help anyone. Another is the volume of the radio. Have it turned up a bit higher than your normal comfort zone, initially, when you first start talking. Get a feel for what’s being said by whom — before you click the mic! The intensity of the transmission is also a hint about the proximity of an aircraft. If it sounds loud, then it’s certainly nearby. Garbled or weak indicates that it’s either far away or a bad radio — there’s probably a higher chance of it being a long way off versus the latter. Get a mental map established about who is where and what they are doing. The voice and radio etiquette probably indicates where they are at in their flying lives. Again, the shorter the better, but be clear about it. One particular trend I have noticed lately is for pilots here in Quebec, stating their position relative to the “airfield” without saying which airfield? What is the good of that? If you’re the one doing the talking, ask yourself if it’s really necessary to be broadcasting every three minutes if you’re only trucking along at 80 knots? It just gobbles up a lot of airtime that might be free otherwise for someone who really needs to get the latest information via a FSS station about the weather at their destination. Yes, today, with some fancy SIRIUS WX subscription, that info is available on your GPS receiver, but not everyone (like me) has it and if someone from the “system” is there to help out, then I’d like to be able to talk to them. Heck, it’s supposed to part of the user fees I pay each year to fly — so I’d like to speak to someone now and again!
The same can be said about position reports. I’ll agree, they can be important — but, for the most part, it’s just letting a lot of steam out, especially if you are already maintaining a listening watch. This is really hard to do these days. There is just too much talking going on 126.7, so much so that a lot of pilots I know abandon it altogether, or leave the volume down really low so that they won’t enter the madhouse.
Remember, radio waves travel a long way if you’re up high. The pilot who likes to tell the world what they are up to ends up blocking other transmissions by either not listening first before transmitting, or worse, they are out of range and don’t know that they are stepping on someone else when broadcasting. This happens most just when the controller is trying to get his important clearance to another aircraft. Other airline pilots often jump back on with “Blocked!” when that happens — to advise either the controller or pilot that the message was missed and that you’re stepping on one another.
Less is More
Some airports encourage too much talking. A pilot friend recently got into a bit of a heated debate about this (and traffic in the pattern flying wide circuits) with someone at a local airport that mainly caters to training pilots. That particular sunny day there were only a few airplanes in the circuit yet it sounded like Chicago O’Hare International with the number of traffic broadcasts far exceeding its movements. This can be avoided if it’s stressed how important radio protocol is. Do you really need to say you’re clear of the runway if the airplane that’s facing you on the threshold (about 300 feet away) is ready to take-off? If they’ve been patiently waiting for you to exit, then I think they’ll know when they can apply power.
These are also stressed a whole bunch at airports (in general), but I question sometimes their efficiency in the overall scope of things. Busier airports like Toronto have layouts which can cause confusion — so, in general, pilots are encouraged to read back all clearances to remove any doubts that the taxi instructions were understood. It’s evident that this is a good idea because (believe it or not) some airline pilots don’t have a good command of the English language. By law they should, but occasionally they don’t. I once heard an exchange between an Air France flight and Toronto Ground control that would have made your hair curl! The guilty pilot was literally unable to read back ATC’s full instructions (I’ll admit that the clearance was really long) and was later asked to call their office. This particular pilot should not have been on the radio. His command of English was so poor, that I was relieved not to be a passenger in his airplane that day! This is an exception rather than a rule. The U.S. tends to give crews a little bit more discretion getting around especially if there is room for that. I like their approach based on traffic volumes and a pilot’s familiarity with an airport — e.g., crews are offered a bit more leeway if they know the layout. The best example I have seen of that was several years ago when an Orlando ground controller said to me, after exiting the main runway, “You’re cleared to the gate.” Things were slow at that moment, so why issue a complicated clearance? Sometimes this isn’t the case, and as you’re still trucking along at 20 knots exiting the runway, the ground controller whips off a clearance that has your head spinning! In Canada, though, the opposite is sometimes true where two airliners on the apron make an otherwise slow moving airport look (again) like Chicago — and trust me, KORD is a busy place! Just drop in and listen to them on your way back from Oshkosh going around Lake Michigan (if you’re headed east) and you’ll agree, they have their hands full.
While I touch on that subject of listening in — if you do have a hard time focusing on what’s said over the airwaves — Live ATC on the web or via the app of the same name is a great way of tuning your ear to the radio to understand what’s said. Every controller and pilot has a different style. After a while you should be able to catch the rhythm of the exchanges. You can do this for any number of airports from around the world. From the airport code or frequency, you can access all the different control centers recorded logs or listen in live. You’ll hear what the difference is between keeping it short and sweet or saying too much, especially when the controller is really swamped with traffic.
John’s a self-proclaimed airport bum. When he isn’t in the saddle at an airline, he can be found out at the airfield doing any number of things. He likes to fly gliders, practice aerobatics, work on airplanes and fix stuff.