Although many readers will find this difficult to believe, I find myself to be in a committed relationship with a significant number of relative strangers. I depend on these folks to keep me on the straight and narrow, to advise me from time to time, and to be there 24/7 just in case I feel the need to talk. Yet, we’re not all that close. Not really. In fact, I’ve never even met most of them.
It’s complicated. You see, I’m having a long-term relationship with ATC. As sad as I am to say it, things aren’t quite as rosy as they might be. And at least part of the fault lies with me. And you.
It’s a pilot thing.
When is the last time you were at a get-together where you overheard someone say, “Oh, you’re an air traffic controller? That’s so cool. Do you have any stories about procedures or proper phraseology?”
Among the general public, pilots are generally considered to be smart, capable, maybe even cool. Controllers are essentially invisible.
Even in the pilot community controllers are often thought of as little more than disembodied voices that belong to individuals who don’t really exist out in public. We just assume they live in an ATC compound somewhere. Kind of like a super-secluded gated community with some of the most rigid rules any home owners association ever dreamed up.
Yet pilots and controllers are inextricably linked by the responsibilities of our chosen activities. It seems strange that we interact so rarely in our day-to-day lives, when at least one of us is literally putting our personal safety in the hands of the other so often.
If we were part of a marriage it would be a dysfunctional one at best. Don’t believe me?
Most pilots aren’t controllers. Most controllers aren’t pilots. We know the same words, but speak different languages. Pilots know almost nothing about the pressures and distractions controllers face on a regular basis, and for the most part we just don’t care. That lack of compassion or interest is something we engage in at our own peril, of course.
On the flip side, many controllers have very little frame-of-reference to what life in the cockpit is like. That’s especially true when things start to go from bad to worse. Commonly used pilot phrases like, “I’m partial-panel,” “I’ve got them on the fish-finder,” and the ever-annoying, “no joy,” may mean absolutely nothing to the controller.
Adding to the aggravation is that controllers often work in a darkened room populated by people concentrating intently on moving targets on screens while monitoring as many as 14 discrete radio frequencies simultaneously.
Perhaps it’s time for some relationship therapy. It’s high time we make an effort to put pilots and controllers on the same page, or at least get them to acknowledge that our less than ideal communication skills aren’t doing either group any favors when it comes to improving our understanding of each other.
I recently had the opportunity to hear five controllers address an impressively large gathering of Cirrus pilots. Their presentation was part of an effort to mend the sizeable holes in this aeronautical fence. And I learned something from their comments. Quite a few somethings, as a matter of fact.
The question was posed to them: “What do controllers hate to hear on the radio?” Surprisingly to a great many pilots, they’re annoyed by words and phrases you and I hear on frequency all the time. I know I’ve blown it on these specifically frustrating radio no-nos a time or two.
If you’re in a propeller driven single engine airplane flying out of an American airport to another American airport, you don’t have to include the “K” in the airport identifier when you ask for VFR Flight Following. The controllers are pretty bright folks. If they ask for your destination and you say, “Oscar Uniform November,” they can be pretty sure you mean the one in Norman, Oklahoma. The “K” prefix is unnecessary.
Similarly, when you call up for pretty much anything, you don’t need to include the “N” in your aircraft’s call-sign. “Aeronca 12345,” is fine. They’ll assume the “N” since you’re in the US. Of course, if you’re flying a Canadian or Mexican registered aircraft, including the “Charlie” or the “X-ray, Bravo,” is perfectly appropriate.
Don’t say, “With you,” when calling in to a new facility while on VFR flight following. Just give your call sign and altitude. They’ve already gotten the hand-off from the previous ATC facility. They know you’re coming their way. Keep it short.
And speaking of call signs, lots of pilots seem to be unsure when they can abbreviate their call sign from the full form to just the last three characters. A good rule of thumb is that you can abbreviate your call sign after the controller does it first. You never know, the controller may be working with someone with a substantially similar call sign — even if you haven’t heard them. So, use your full call sign until they use the shortened version. From then on, you’re good to go with the last three characters. But never less than three. They hate that. They really do.
And for IFR practice flights, just request one approach at a time. The controller is busy, often working traffic on frequencies you can’t hear. Giving them your plan for the full flight is frustrating for them, and useless to you. So just request one approach at a time. After you go missed you can request the next, and the next in turn.
I’m glad I got to sit in on a presentation that really taught me something. Now, I think it’s time for me to go find a controller or two and make a new friend. They’ve got something to teach me, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got some insight they might find worthwhile, too. And so do you.