Communication is one of the most important aspects of flying. It is communication that insures that the
flow of aviation traffic moves in a coordinated fashion. ATC keeps aircraft from running into each other, they help
pilots navigate, they help pilots set up for approaches and they also help with weather issues. ATC can also be a
pain in the neck. There’s an old saying, “Airplanes fly because of Bernoulli, not Marconi.” The person that wrote
this was probably frustrated by the overwhelming drain of resources that is sometimes required by the radio. If you
are busy with cockpit workload and ATC is constantly having you change speed, altitude, heading, frequencies etc..
it can be very frustrating to say the least.
Airlines at most major airports now receive their clearances via data link. In this day and age it would seem
logical that eventually everyone will receive all clearances from data link. Two-way radios are very limited. I’m
surprised how many controllers don’t seem to understand this technology and how it works. It is the most important
tool of their profession. Yet, I still here frustrated controllers making comments like, “OK everybody, listen up,
your talking over each other.” It’s true that sometimes pilots (or controllers) don’t listen before they key the
mike. But, more times than not, it’s just the result of two people keying the mike at the same time. It is a
weakness of two-way radio communication that if two people key the mike at the same time, neither will know it, and
both communications will probable be unreadable. When radio traffic is heavy it can sometimes be very difficult to
get a word in edgewise. It can be very stressful if you are in need of urgent assistance, such as, a turn for
weather or descent for icing or turbulence.
Anxiety can build when you are trying to make an initial call to ARTCC (Air route traffic control center) and
you cannot get a reply. Many times the controller is busy. Although when a pilot is busy with “flying the
airplane”, he/she is not always given the same consideration for not replying in a timely fashion.
When a controller is assigned two frequencies to operate it can be even more difficult. You’re trying to talk,
and at the same time the controller is trying to listen to someone on another frequency. When you recognize the
controller has two frequencies, listen more carefully for his/her transmissions and the replies from other
aircraft. If the controller gives a clearance to another aircraft and you do not hear the reply, allow more
time(before you transmit) to allow for the reply that is probably being given on the other frequency.
Understanding is the most important aspect of communication. Vital information is being transmitted, it must be
readable, and it must be accurately understood and complied with correctly.
There are some great training tools available today to help with communication training. Comm1 is software program
that allows for lots of interactive communication practice and playback, it is highly recommended for new pilots.
Still, most of a pilots communication knowledge comes from on-the-job training.
Pilots find out pretty quick the hard part is not learning to talk on the radio; the real skill is the balancing
act a pilot plays with flying the airplane and communicating with ATC. When I think of high stress situations in
the cockpit I think of high density airspace (busy radio) combined with lousy weather.
You’re flying a jet with a two pilot crew, in the soup and taking on ice. You’re in the
descent on the arrival route about to get vectors for the approach. You have to make the crossing restrictions and
yet keep the power up for wing and engine anti-ice systems. It takes lots of pre-planning; this is no place
to be behind on your game. Now, ATC throws you a curve, “42MM, change in plans, you are now going to 31L
instead of the right, make a right turn to 140, descend to 4000 and slow to 180 knots.” Great! Reprogram the FMS
(flight management system), slow down and go down (airplanes don’t do those two things together very well) and oh
yah, fly the airplane. Fly the airplane, you know, keep the blue side up, keep the wings and engines free of ice,
brief the crew on the approach etc… etc… This is where a lot of our simulator training falls short. It is a lot
easier to set up for a low approach in icing when you are in a simulator situation. “OK Joe, you’ve got the
airplane and I will brief the approach. We are flying the ILS 31L approach, the MSA in this area is 3200 feet.
Obstacles are off to our left at 1700 feet. Loc frequency, inbound heading and so on and so forth.” Take your time,
we’re in the simulator. If you need a little more time just ask for a long turn on final. Wait, back to reality,
try and give that brief with a busy radio blaring in the back ground. Every time you try and brief the crew, ATC
gives you a new heading, altitude and speed. The non-flying pilot is busier than a one armed paper hanger just
trying to reprogram the FMS while responding quickly and correctly to ATC. Ask for a long turn on final and get
sent to the back of the pack to start over. Forget about having even a small malfunction with the airplane right
now. All malfunctions are unapproved. In a unorganized cockpit small malfunctions completely disrupt the flow. The
malfunction may be inconsequential but the disruption to the cockpit can be catastrophic. This is where
organization, prioritization, and being ahead of the airplane (pre-planning) become critical. The radio is one more
necessary tool that must be managed.
It all comes back to good cockpit management. CRM (crew or cockpit resource management) is vital in all cockpits.
Even in the Cessna 182, a situation very similar to the one above could occur. If you know you are going in to a
busy airspace, do as much as you can ahead of time. Brief the expected approach, review other possible approaches.
Review the weather considerations and who has what job and what responsibility. Review arrival routes and if you
are unfamiliar, review intersection and approach fixes names. More items completed equates to more brain for other
more pending task. Always fly the airplane first. At high density airports it is very helpful to have experience at
that airport. These controllers talk fast and use shorthand to make up for limited radio time. They use a standard
procedure that is unique for every weather situation and traffic volume situation. For pilots that use these
airports all the time it makes it very easy. They know where they are going before the controller ever asks. If you
are unfamiliar, review charts, review charts and review charts. Then listen to the instructions the aircraft in
front of you are getting. If you are ever unsure, notify the controller and ask for clarification. Use tools that
work for you, knee boards, scratch pads, whatever. It is important that once you are given an instruction and have
correctly responded to ATC, that you now accurately carry it out. This requires an SOP (standard operating
procedure) be in place. Example: You are given a new altitude assignment, do you write it down? Do you have an
altitude select window to place it in? What is your procedure? If you flying a single or two pilot crew, how do you
insure the accuracy of your altitude setting? One procedure is; the non-flying pilot, who is talking on the radio,
acknowledges the altitude and places it in the altitude pre-select window. The flying pilot then acknowledges, “I
heard five thousand, I see five thousand.” There are many other ways to accomplish this same thing. Its important
you develop a SOP and use it.
Always be sure of your instructions and ask for help if you need it.
Confusion between aircraft and ATC was a major factor in several historical accidents such as American
Airlines Flight 965 in Cali, Columbia. It is also a contributing factor in many smaller accidents on a re-occurring
basis, such as the one below.
Accident occurred Tuesday, February 15, 2000 in CHAMBLEE, GA
Probable Cause Approval Date: 4/19/2001
Aircraft: Piper PA-28-161
Injuries: 1 Fatal.
The Local Air Traffic Controller had sequenced an S76 helicopter as number two for landing behind a PA-28, that had
been cleared for a touch-and-go. The pilot of the helicopter acknowledged the clearance and stated that he had it
in sight and was number two. The controller then cleared the PA-28 for a touch and go. According to witnesses the
S76 helicopter passed the PA-28 on short final then made a low approach, slowing to a hover past the departure end
of the runway. The local controller observed what happened and told the helicopter and the PA-28 to continue their
approaches. Witnesses stated that the PA-28 pilot attempted to avoid the helicopter and was caught in the
helicopters rotor wash.
The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident as follows:
The S76 helicopter pilot's failure to follow ATC landing sequence clearance, which resulted in the PA-28's
encounter with the helicopters wake turbulence. A factor was the air traffic controllers clearance procedure.
Link the to full NTSB Aircraft