by Harold Green
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2017 issue
For too many general aviation pilots, “radio communications” are intimidating. While most prevalent among pilots who fly from non-towered airports, the phenomenon is by no means confined to them.
When first learning to fly, it is quite natural to be reluctant to talk on the radio. No one wants to let the whole world hear them make mistakes or reveal their newbie status. The “Voice of God” coming over the headphones or the cabin speaker compounds this. The “voice” is extremely intimidating to new pilots. In fact, some folks never get over this. The result is a reluctance to use the communication facilities available, and occasionally this causes a violation of regulations due to lack of communication.
This discussion is directed to those who are still reluctant, or are nervous, about radio communications. Our purpose is not to provide detailed instructions on how to communicate. That can be achieved via the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) or the Controller Handbook FAA Order JO 7110.65. This discussion provides some background on why our procedures are what they are and hopefully, how to live with and use the system we have.
The standard radio communication procedures, as listed in the Aeronautical Information Manual, are stilted and very formal, but are considerably shortened and far less formal than just a few years ago. The reason for the formality goes back to the days when long-range communications beyond line of sight were carried out over High Frequency (HF) radios and often in Morse Code, rather than voice. Those signals were subject to a very noisy background with electronic, random, and often lightning noise. HF could pick up lightning noise halfway around the world. Particularly when using Morse Code, it was necessary to establish communication before sending or requesting information. Adding to all this was that multiple ground stations often used the same frequency. As a result, it was necessary to establish a communication link before sending information. The result of this was a procedure, which is the basis for today’s communications.
Today, those noise sources are practically non-existent in normal radio communications. Frequency allocations in the Very High Frequency (VHF) range limit communications to line of sight so there is only one station within range of an assigned frequency. When flying cross country, remote radio sites are placed around the country so we are seldom beyond “Line of Sight” of a radio site. Lightning does not affect these frequencies, either. Modern electronic circuitry has drastically reduced circuit induced noise. Therefore, we have a much-simplified procedure in practice.
The first step in communicating via radio is to know what to say. The following is an example to help clarify the remainder of this discussion. In order to plan ahead, it is necessary to understand what to expect. At first, the best way is to rehearse in your mind what you are going to say. Realize there is a limited vocabulary here. You are not going to quote Shakespeare or Dr. Suess. In fact, all communication can be reduced to a subset of the following: Who you want to talk to? Who you are? Where you are? What you know? What you want?
Let’s take this apart as you check in with approach for landing at Shangri-La.
*Who you want to talk to: “Shangri-La Approach.”
*Who you are: Aircraft type, model and registration number: “Piper Warrior N1234.” (Stating model is important to let the receiver know generally what your capabilities and limitations are.)
*Where you are: “Two west of Timbuktu at 3,500:” Don’t forget you are in an airplane and where you are is a three dimensional issue now.
*What you know: “With Tango.”
*What you want: “Landing Shangri-La.”
*What you just said was: “Shangri-La Approach” (This is ) “Piper Warrior November 1234, two (miles) west of Timbuktu at 3,500 (feet), with (information) Tango. Landing Shangri-La.” “The words within the parentheses are implied and do not need to be spoken.
They will answer with something Like: Piper N1234, squawk 4371.
Respond with: 1234 squawking 4371 (after you set the code into the transponder).
The next communication from approach will be something like:
“Piper N1234, Radar Contact three west of Timbuktu. Shangri-La altimeter 3010.”
The old “Over” and “Out” words are no longer with us for normal communications, even though in some publications they are still listed. (Actually Over and Out were never used together except in movies. You were either giving the other person a chance to speak by saying “Over,” or you were ending the conversation by saying “Out.”) Occasionally, you will hear someone say “Wilco,” which is short for will comply. That’s acceptable jargon.
The preceding is an example of an initial call up. With the exception of receipt of an IFR clearance, this is probably the most complex communication you will encounter in the air. By the time you are ready to think about receiving an IFR clearance in the air, radio communications will be old hat anyway.
As you talk, recognize you are talking to people, who are FAA employees or agents thereof. (Many operations are conducted under contract by companies, rather than the federal government.) Whoever signs their pay checks, these folks are people just like you. There is no reason to be intimidated by them. They are just doing their job and quite frankly they do it very well as a general rule. While they may sound hurried when traffic is heavy, they will be as helpful as they can.
In almost all cases controllers will only give you information relative to traffic, assign a heading and/or an altitude, assign a destination, give you a new frequency, and assign a squawk code. That’s it folks.
Sometimes we miss all or part of a communication. Do not hesitate to ask for a repeat of instructions. “Say again” is an accepted means of asking for a repeat. If you cannot execute an instruction, or feel that doing so would result in hazards to your flight, the proper response is to say “Unable.”
The FAA definition of “Pilot In Command” (PIC) means: The person who has final authority and responsibility for the operation and safety of the flight. (14CFR Part 1.1 Federal Aviation Regulations.) In terms of our discussion here, this means that in the event of potential danger to the aircraft or its occupants, the Pilot In Command has not only the authority, but the obligation, to decline ANY instruction that places the flight in jeopardy. Afterwards the PIC may be required to submit an explanation in writing. That’s better than having your survivors write an obituary, isn’t it? Now the question is how do you do that? Simple: The statement “Unable to comply” will work wonders. You may get a response from the controller asking why you cannot comply. So, tell him or her why. You may also state your intentions. However, this happens so rarely that it is not a concern. The only reason for including it in our discussion here is that if it should occur, it means things are tense for you and you should know that you can handle it. However, just because you don’t want to comply is NOT justification and could result in loss of privileges.
One thing that would be good to do is to learn the “phonetic alphabet.” This is given in the AIM in Chapter 4. The phonetic alphabet has undergone several variations over the years. During World War II, the accepted jargon was Able, Baker, Charley, Dog, Easy, etc. In my lifetime, it has moved from this to Alpha, Bravo, Cocoa, Delta to what it is today, which is Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, etc. The letter “M” went from Mike to Metro back to Mike. And a few other changes as well. These changes came about as other countries became involved and had a hard time understanding the American jargon. The point to all this is that there is nothing sacred about these. The main thing is you should spend a little time learning the phonetic alphabet, but if you goof and say George for Golf, the world does not end and the controller will most likely understand you. You are more likely to be understood using something like George than “Gee,” which could be heard as zee or three for example. The question arises sometimes about how to check in with a new controller.
Let’s assume you have just been handed off by Chicago Center to Minneapolis Center while receiving VFR flight following. You have been flying at 4,500 feet in N7235. Chicago will say, “November 7235, Contact Minneapolis on 124.6.” Your response should be something like, “7235 to Minneapolis on 124.6.” You can also add, if you wish, “Thanks or Have a good day.” No, that’s not in the book, but gosh, we are two people talking aren’t we? Then, when you check in with Minneapolis, you only need to say “Minneapolis, November 7235 with you at 4,500.” (This can even be abbreviated to “Minneapolis, 7235 at 4,500,” or “Minneapolis, 7235 at 4.5.” They are going to come back with “November 7235, radar contact 5 west of Timbuktu. Altimeter 29.93.” You respond with “7235, Altimeter 29.93.” Note that in all radio communications, the airplane is the last to transmit. Purists tend to worry about whether or not the pilot, upon reporting in, should say “Level at 4,500.” The practical answer is there is no need to unless things have been changing. Frankly, however, even if there is no need to add “Level at 4,500,“ it adds a little to the communication time, so use it if you feel like it. There are times when reporting level or changing altitudes are appropriate.
For example, when contacting departure after takeoff, it is appropriate to state the altitude you are at and the altitude you have been assigned. This is so the controller can calibrate the radar and you have confirmed the altitude you are going to. This also applies when you are in the process of changing altitudes when checking in with a new controller or when you have been asked to change altitudes by the controller. A simple statement like “7235 is out of 4.5 for 6.5.” This lets the controller know you have received the instruction and are complying while confirming the altitude assignment.
In general, you should read back all clearances even while flying VFR, particularly altitude and heading assignments. Should you be given a destination, repeat that back as well.
There is one other item which the new pilot should be aware of and NOT hesitate to use. That is for student pilots to simply check in by identifying themselves as a “Student Pilot.” Controllers are very understanding and will speak more slowly and distinctly. They will also give you advice if you need it. Don’t ever be ashamed to admit your status as a learner, or that you don’t understand what was said. There is a vignette in the text we used to use in our instrument course that says it all. A new instrument rated pilot had just been given a lengthy IFR clearance delivered in rapid machine gun fashion. His response was, “Clearance, you can repeat that more slowly once or seven more times at the same speed.”
One last suggestion: Transmitters are quite sensitive these days. You don’t need to shout into them. They are definitely better than two coffee cans and a piece of string. All that’s really required is to speak in a conversational tone of voice.
The biggest problem you have in communicating is your reluctance to expose your uncertainty to the world. BIG DEAL! We all had to do it at some point and we all sympathize as you learn. We don’t look down on you just because you are learning. In fact, you’re doing a good thing. Remember, the only way to get better is to practice.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Green is an Instrument and Multi-Engine Flight Instructor (CFII, MEII) at Morey Airplane Company in Middleton, Wisconsin (C29). A flight instructor since 1976, Green was named “Flight Instructor of the Year” by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011, and is a recipient of the “Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.” Questions, comments and suggestions for future topics are welcomed via email at email@example.com, or by telephone at 608-836-1711 (www.MoreyAirport.com).
The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and other instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.