Effective communication between pilots and air traffic controllers (ATC) is critical to aviation safety. But all too often, communication breakdowns occur, leading to costly mistakes and dangerous accidents that might have been otherwise avoidable. For many pilots, learning to talk on the radio is difficult and uncomfortable at first. The fast-paced, back and forth communication between controllers and pilots can be intimidating, especially for student pilots just starting out.
So, how can pilots improve their ability to communicate with ATC with more professionalism, comfort, and confidence? Check out these tips for good radio communications technique:
Learn the language
The phraseology used by pilots and air traffic controllers is highly standardized to ensure all communication is as unambiguous as possible. Using non-standard phraseology can lead to confusion for pilots and controllers, which may have serious safety consequences. For this reason, all pilots can benefit from reviewing the Pilot/Controller Glossary every once in a while to brush up on their communication techniques. If you’re a student pilot starting to learn aviation phraseology, try to listen to live ATC communications as much as possible. Head to the nearest airport with a hand-held aviation radio or check out the LiveATC website to tune into frequencies around the world. As you gain exposure to aviation radio communications, you’ll feel more comfortable recognizing and using the language.
Listen first, then speak
You don’t always need to pick up the microphone to get the information you need from ATC. Many times, you can find out what you need just by monitoring the radio frequency. Pausing to listen before you transmit will also help you avoid “stepping on” another pilot’s attempt to transmit. If you need to switch frequencies, first pause and listen to make sure the frequency is clear. Keep the microphone close to your mouth and speak clearly, in a normal, conversational tone.
Know what you need to say
One mistake student pilots often make is punching the mic button to speak without taking a moment to form their thoughts. This usually results in wasted time for ATC and the pilot as they try to remember what they wanted to say. Remember, it doesn’t hurt to write down what you want to ask ATC before pressing the mic. Doing so will help you plan out what you need to say in a short, concise way.
Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or help
It can be intimidating for pilots to ask ATC for a repeat transmission or clarification on the instructions they were given. However, it’s not uncommon for transmissions to be garbled, cut off, or “stepped on” by another pilot on the frequency. Additionally, you shouldn’t be embarrassed to admit when you either didn’t hear or didn’t understand the instructions. Having understanding is essential to safety, and after all, controllers are working to keep everyone safe in the skies. It’s much better to request a repeat transmission or ask the controller to “say again” rather than to act on what you think you just heard. Likewise, if you need help from ATC, such as a flight assist, it’s better to call for help before it’s too late. When in doubt, ask!