Learning to fly encompasses trying to master a broad range of new skills and tasks. While some pilots want nothing more than to be able to fly solo on a weekend afternoon or fly from one small airport to another, others want to reap the full benefit of what flying can bring.
A big part of maximizing that benefit is learning how to utilize air traffic control (ATC). Recall that if you are working toward your private certificate, you are required to have at least a minimal interaction with the controllers on the other end of the radio.
There are a number of good sources that you can use to learn the proper phraseology and techniques for radio communication. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) is probably the most convenient place to start, but it isn’t necessarily the best learning tool. Other books have been written, and over the years, radio communication software for computers has sprung up. While I haven’t used one of these personally, I have no doubt that they are quite good given the advances in computing power these days.
But there is another source that exists. It isn’t structured and it doesn’t allow you to respond to commands per se, but it will help you. The source is the website LiveATC.net. LiveATC is just that: It’s a live feed from facilities all over the country, and you select which frequency at which airport you want to monitor.
If you are still new to the ATC world, remember the order in which you talk to controllers: clearance delivery, ground control, the tower proper, departure control, center, approach, the tower again, and then ground again. In slow periods, the same controller may function in multiple roles (ground and tower or approach and departure), so you may recognize the same voice answering to different requests.
At major airports, you will do well to focus on one frequency for a while, the busiest being approach and departure. If you start with something on the ground, you might be able to follow a specific flight for a while.
While you cannot actually participate in Live ATC, you can learn how the cadence and process works. You’ll also realize that even the best pilots and controllers make mistakes, and even the most harried controllers have a sense of humor (try a YouTube search for a bad day at JFK). LiveATC can be a great learning tool, especially from the comfort of your living room, for understanding the processes and language of busy airspace. In spite of the machine-gun chatter, you’ll find that there really is order in the chaos and it isn’t as difficult as it seems.
Another feature that is very cool about LiveATC is that you can download clips to your computer. That means that after you fly (there is a time limit) you can pull down all of your own transmissions and save them.
Check it out at varying times of the day, and choose a few airports when you know the weather is good and when you know the weather is bad. You will get a good feel for the on-the-go adaptations that need to be made as conditions constantly change. Then, after you have flown, download your own transmissions and see how you stack up!—Chip Wright