Let’s Chat With Air Traffic Control

by Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman
© Copyright 2023. All rights reserved!
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine June/July 2023 Digital Issue

As new pilots, we need to learn a new language…let’s call it “pilot talk.” When we have a new addition to our family, we must learn to talk baby talk, but that is a bit different than pilot talk. It has been a proven fact that we humans are not good at multi-tasking, and it also needs to be known that women are better than men when it comes to this. I find this especially true when teaching instrument pilots who are first taught to fly the airplane on an approach and then on that 250 nm cross-country required by FAR 61. (d)(2)(ii)(A), they must communicate “CHAT” with ATC.

In the early days of flying, pilots needed to know Morse Code. Early commercial flights needed a radio operator and, in many cases, also a navigator. I learned Morse Code as an amateur radio operator, which was very handy in identifying VORs, ILSs and NDBs. Today, our navigators can decode ILS and VOR signals and verify we have the correct facility in our boxes for an approach. In the future, we will receive our clearances and re-routes digitally, and they will go directly to the navigator, hopefully, with our human confirmation.

In this article, we will cover one of the many different aspects and situations requiring communication with an ATC facility, both IFR and VFR, beginning with a simple IFR airborne clearance pickup. For this scenario, you are going on a 250-mile flight in the Midwest with the departure airport having weather of 3500 overcast and 6-mile visibility, departing from a Class G airport. You check weather and file your flight plan on Foreflight and receive the confirmation email telling you what to expect for routing, which you then program into your navigator. I usually pick a published waypoint or fix within 25 miles of my departure point in the direction of my destination to start my routing. It is not necessary to do this, but it is a habit from the past, and it works well for me. You takeoff VFR and plan to pick up your clearance airborne. I need to emphasize the importance of making sure you can depart VFR safely.

It is now time for me to share with you my patented Chat with ATC protocol.

Who am I calling?
Who am I?
Where am I?
What do I want?

This is a format which I developed over my many years of flying that I have never seen published before in any article except ones I have written, so I am claiming patented rights. Let’s see how it works in this situation and other situations as well.

Who am I calling?     Chicago Center
Who am I?                   This is Bonanza N43XYZ
Where am I?               3 miles north of KLNR
What do I want?        I want to pick up my IFR Clearance to KEGV
Miscellaneous.          Climbing through 2,500 VFR

So, what you have done in this chat was to give ATC all of the information that is usually needed in a logical order for them to get back to you and put you into the system. Their reply to you will begin with them identifying you in their system.

ATC: Bonanza XYZ, squawk 3622 and ident. Remain VFR!
Bonanza: Bonanza XYZ squawking 3622 and identing. Will remain VFR.

Once identified, ATC will give you your clearance, at which point I use the acronym “CRAFT” to help me organize my flight, which was not one of my ideas, and I do not know who has patent rights on that one. Here is how it works and what order you can expect the clearance after being identified by ATC.

C: Clearance limit
R: Route of the flight
A: Altitude cleared to
F: Frequency and/or facility
T: Transponder code if needed

Be ready to write down your clearance once ATC has identified you:

C: Bonanza XYZ is cleared to the EGV airport.
R: Direct DLL, then as filed.
A: Climb and maintain five thousand.
F: Contact Madison Approach on 135.45.
T: Transponder code (You have already been given a code.)

We have just covered one aspect of “Let’s Chat With ATC,” but it is necessary to discuss some important aspects of the flight planning that preceded this exchange.

DO NOT depart an airport VFR unless you know the weather and terrain will allow you to do so safely. I have gotten burned with marginal VFR weather and have been denied a clearance due to an IFR aircraft on an approach. Also, many accident reports have shown aircraft flying into rising terrain at night or in marginal VFR conditions. Check your approach charts and DPs (obstacle departure procedures) as part of good preflight planning. Also check to see if there are any restrictions on taking off from a particular runway, and if an instrument approach is not authorized at night at the airport.

There are many items to consider when flight planning and communicating, and experience is of utmost importance. I chose one situation in this article, and I will continue to show different communication situations in future articles.

When you pick up your clearance in the air, you eliminate having a void time to deal with as part of the clearance. Void times can be cumbersome in certain situations, especially if there is no cell phone coverage at the airport or in your aircraft. In those situations, you are often rushed to get your clearance in the airport terminal, must run to your aircraft, taxi like you’re on your way to a fire, do an abbreviated checklist, and takeoff before the clearance void time. In situations like these, I would ask ATC for a “block of time window” for departure, instead of a void time. If you are fortunate enough to have a cellphone connection and a Lightspeed headset with Bluetooth with the app on your iPad, you can get your clearance through your cell phone prior to departure and verify it on the app if there is a question. You do this after your runup when the next step is takeoff.

On your initial call-up using my patented communication protocol, you will be giving ATC the information necessary to process your requests without unnecessary back and forth chatter. You will sound like a true professional pilot and free up the frequency quickly, as it can be busy at times.

Instrument flying can be challenging, and humans are not good at multitasking…walking and chewing gum at the same time is difficult for some people. Flying an approach and making a request and reading back clearances quickly and smoothly frees up brain power to do the number one task – “FLY THE AIRPLANE.”

A superior pilot is one who uses his superior knowledge to avoid situations which might require his superior skills (author unknown).

EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman is a Certified Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) and the program manager of flight operations with the “Bonanza/Baron Pilot Training” organization. He conducts pilot clinics and specialized instruction throughout the U.S. in many makes and models of aircraft, which are equipped with a variety of avionics. Mick is based in Richland Center (93C) and Eagle River, Wisconsin (KEGV). He was named “FAA’s Safety Team Representative of the Year” for Wisconsin in 2008. Readers are encouraged to email questions to captmick@me.com, or call 817-988-0174.

DISCLAIMER: 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 instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.

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