Posts Tagged ‘air traffic control’

Report your position, please and thank you

Monday, June 8th, 2015

fdk-towerFrederick Municipal Airport (FDK) became Class D airspace in May 2012. (Three years already? Where has the time gone?) Judging on feedback during a friendly get-together last week between control tower personnel and local pilots, we pilots need to brush up on our communications and directional skills.

Here are some of the issues our controllers raised. While these are specific to FDK, your local controllers may have these on their wish lists as well.

  • Taxi instructions: Make sure you read back your taxi instructions and runway assignment, “else we’re going to pester you until we get those.” Also, when calling for taxi instructions, be ready to actually start taxiing.
  • In the pattern: FDK controllers will invariably instruct us to report mid-field downwind at each pass. They would also like us to indicate how the approach will terminate—is it full stop? touch and go? full stop taxi back? Each of these has an impact on traffic flow. “You’d be surprised how many people get in the pattern and never express their intention.”
  • Position reports: Be as accurate as possible. FDK controllers don’t have radar and can’t easily spot aircraft until they’re three miles from the airport. If we tell them we’re northeast of the airport and we’re actually north (or—worse—northwest), that affects their ability to locate and sequence us. Along these lines, the controllers suggested giving an altitude report so that aircraft in our vicinity, who may not be communicating with the tower but are monitoring the frequency, will know where to look for us.
  • Position reports, part two: “If you’re in the west practice area heading back to the airport, and your compass reads 090, you are not east of the airport.” ‘Nuff said (though I sometimes have to remind myself to look at the bottom of the directional gyro when reporting my position).
  • Read airport notices to airmen. “You would not believe how many people do not.”

I’m glad we had a chance to hear from the folks on the other side of the microphone. If you fly out of a tower-controlled airport, what do you think is on your controllers’ minds? Controllers, we want to hear from you.—Jill W. Tallman

Flying like a professional: Talking on the radio

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Orlando Showalter MentoringThere are many marks of a professional that can be attributed to airline pilots—whether it’s the way they wear their uniforms, or brush their hair, or use the checklist. Another one is the way in which they talk on the radio.

The radio is essentially a party line, meaning that everyone on the frequency can hear you. How you conduct yourself says a lot about you.

I’ve been flying now for more than 25 years, and I’ve heard more than a few things that have made me cringe. That isn’t to say that I haven’t heard a few things that were funny, even if they weren’t always appropriate; I have, and I’ve laughed heartily. But I’ve also heard pilots (and even controllers) belch, swear, bloviate, lose their temper, and otherwise make a fool out of themselves.

For many new pilots, using the radio is intimidating and even a bit frightening.

But radio-speak is a skill that gets better with practice, as well as with listening. If you live near a busy airport, one of the best things you can do is turn on a handheld transceiver and listen to a local frequency—especially if it’s for a tower or approach control.

You can achieve the same thing using, a popular website that has a link to hundreds of live ATC audio streams. You can also study the examples in the Aeronautical Information Manual and the Pilot/Controller Glossary, but it isn’t exactly exciting reading.

Pay attention to the airline pilots. The most professional-sounding ones will speak with an even cadence and tempo, and they will not allow a high level of activity affect the way they transmit. This is important, because a controller doesn’t want to spend a lot of time repeating transmissions—and often does not have that time.

It doesn’t take long to pick up how a few tidbits, such as how a transmission is to be structured; or what commands to expect at a certain time; or when it may be acceptable—even if it isn’t always right—to just respond with a call sign or some other verbal shorthand. You’ll also learn that the true professionals limit themselves to what needs to be said and do not add extraneous filler to their transmissions. It isn’t necessary, and it doesn’t help anyone.

Talking like a professional and sounding like one is not hard, but it does take practice. Listening to LiveATC or a handheld will help tremendously. Practice giving your responses in your car, where nobody can hear you. You’ll get the hang of it before you know it, and when you begin to tackle more complex airspace, you too will sound like a pro.—Chip Wright

Diversions and aeronautical decision making

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Aeronautical decision making (ADM) first began to appear in the training lexicon in a heavy fashion in the mid-1990s. It was always “there,” but it wasn’t necessarily a separate subject. Instructors were expected to simply incorporate the decision-making process into each lesson whenever and wherever possible. This sounds great on paper, and at times it even seems logical, but the reality is that the old adage that says that the airplane is a terrible classroom exists for a reason.

Dealing with diversions is a subject in the decision-making process for which a formal classroom session has always made sense. Diversions can take two broad forms in flight. The first is a change in the route but with no change in the destination. The second is a change in the final destination. The first is far more common, but the second is usually more significant. After all, if you are flying to Baltimore and have to divert to Frederick  because of weather, you have new set of problems on your hands. Just as with any other aspect of your life, the impact of such a significant change in plans can make you more resistant to executing the change in the first place.

At the airlines, the decision is often a bit easier, because the rules are so cut and dried. But that doesn’t change the fact that pilots generally are can-do people, and when other people are counting on you, you don’t want to disappoint them.
But one area in which diversions at the airlines are so different is the level of communication. I bring all of this up because more airlines are using ADM scenarios as part of the interview process. You are placed in a hypothetical but fairly realistic scenario in which something goes wrong, and you have to make a decision. Sometimes, the basic diversion decision is easy (“the airport is closed, so you will be diverting”) and sometimes it isn’t (“something smells bad in the cabin, but I don’t if it’s burned food or worse”).

The pressure is ratcheted up in some other fashion that will force you to make a decision quickly. Southwest and United airlines both give you a seven-minute window in which to assess the problem, evaluate the options, and come up with a solution. In some of the scenarios, you are short on fuel. In some, weather is a major factor. In others, it’s the ambiguity of the problem. But in all of them, the goal is to see you make a decision and stick with it.

At the airlines, you need to communicate with multiple entities, and this is where the two-person crew comes in handy. Someone needs to talk to air traffic control, while someone else handles everything else. In the real world, the first officer usually handles ATC and the captain does what he gets paid to do. If you are in an interview, make yourself familiar with what airports that airline serves. You don’t need to commit them to memory, but have a general idea, because in the ADM scenario you will likely be using them.

So, who needs your attention? Assuming that you are not given a major catastrophe like a fire or a flight control failure, you need to talk the flight attendant(s) first, if for no other reason to tell them that there has been a change in plans and that you will get back to them shortly. That phone call should take less than 15 seconds.

Next you need to talk to the dispatcher, who is jointly responsible for your airplane and flight. The dispatcher can give you up-to-the-minute weather at your possible alternates as well as any notices to airmen you may need. He or she can also save you a radio call by contacting the two stations involved and letting them know your change in plans (hint: If the person playing the role of the dispatcher doesn’t offer this service, ask for it). If the dispatcher can’t (or won’t) call the station to which you are diverting, then you need to call (this may be thrown at you in one of the timed sequences). Cover your bases as well by telling the dispatcher that you will call once on the ground to clean up any loose ends.
If maintenance needs to be consulted, do it via dispatch, since the dispatcher needs to know of any issues that may affect performance.

Next, you need to advise ATC what you are doing. If critical fuel is going to play a part in the scenario, it will usually be included in the briefing. If it is, you need to remember to declare either minimum fuel or an emergency as the case may be.

Once ATC is in the loop, somebody needs to brief the flight attendants and the passengers. If the diversion point is extremely close, say Miami to Fort Lauderdale, then you may want to ask the flight attendant to notify the passengers, and to tell them you will provide more information on the ground.

Once you have operated in the airlines, and especially as a captain, you realize that the scenarios are really the same thing you do every day. As someone new to the industry, you need to show that you have some idea of how the system works—and it’s very similar from one company to the next.

ADM is a critical part of any pilot’s aviating career, and for those looking to go to the airlines or advance up the ladder, it becomes a bigger and bigger part each step of the way. Start mastering it early, and remember, conservative is always better.—Chip Wright

The December “Since You Asked” poll: Looking for the traffic

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

When air traffic control notifies you that there’s traffic in your vicinity, what do you do first? That’s the question posed to digital subscribers in the December 2012 Flight Training’s “Since You Asked.”

A reader asked Rod Machado whether he is expected to look first and then reply to such a call, or immediately key the mic and indicate that he’s looking. Rod’s response:

When air traffic control calls out traffic for you, the first thing you should do is direct your attention in the direction of the traffic. So look for the traffic first. There’s no need to clog the airwaves by telling the controller that you’re “Looking,” either. The controller knows you’re looking, assuming you received the message.

I’ve automatically hit that mic key and said “Looking” while straining my eyeballs, so, ATC folks, I’ll back off on that one. Rod continues:

It typically takes only a few seconds to identify traffic if it’s close, at which point you’ll identify yourself to the controller and say either “Contact” if you see what was called, or if the traffic is converging on you and you don’t see it you can say “No contact.” If the traffic is close and you don’t see it, then request an avoidance vector. [Editor’s note: Since this column was published, a reader pointed out that the correct phrases are “negative contact” and “traffic in sight.”]

So, how did readers respond? Oddly, it was almost split right down the middle. Forty-nine percent of respondents said their first response is “Looking for traffic.” And 49 percent said they look for the traffic and then respond. Just one person said their first response is “Tally ho,” so congrats to the rest of you who didn’t pick that. To the one person who did pick it: You get a pass if you happen to be a fox hunter. Remember, if it’s not in the FAA’s Pilot-Controller Glossary, you probably shouldn’t use it.

January’s digital poll is on one of your favorite topics: landing. Don’t forget to cast your vote on p. 14!—Jill W. Tallman

“Since You Asked” polls appear monthly in the digital edition of Flight Training. If you’d like to switch your magazine from paper to digital at no additional charge, go here or call Member Services 800-USA-AOPA weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern.

Photo of the Day: Get Your Glass Piper Archer

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

AOPA’s 2008 sweepstakes airplane was notable for several reasons. We had previous refurbished Pipers, but this was the first time we had awarded an airplane with a brand-new “glass” panel–an Avidyne multifunction display and Aspen Avionics’ first-ever certified primary display. Another notable first for this aircraft was that its winner is a lady. And, unlike many previous winners of AOPA sweepstakes airplanes, she has kept N208GG. Karoline Gorman is an air traffic controller for New York Center and a passionate advocate for animal rescue, and she enjoys flying N208GG on rescue missions.—Jill W. Tallman

The non-competing competitive competitors

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

The airlines are a weird industry in a lot of ways. One of them is in the area of competition. If you pay any attention to the advertising or the talking heads on TV, you would think that the airlines are hyper-competitive in every respect, such as price, frequent flyer programs, providing the worst service for the most money. And they are. Sort of.

The exception is when it comes to what they actually do: the flying, and specifically, the pilots. That isn’t to say that pilots are not a competitive bunch. We are. But when it comes to flying, safety is involved, and we don’t mess around with that. If you ever need proof, just spend a few minutes listening to air traffic control in a busy sector when the weather is bad (log on to when the Northeast is getting hammered, and listen to chaos). Pilots will readily pass along pilot reports about the rides, turbulence, breaks in a line, or wind shear on final.

There are areas in which pilots will look for bragging rights, and in many cases, it’s obvious who the bragging rights belong to. Once you are in the industry, you become immersed in the details of what makes one company better or worse to work for than another, and you begin to understand some of what the public doesn’t. Airline work rules, pay, schedules, domiciles, commuting—even the vagaries of the chief pilots and what they like to enforce—take on a different meaning once you have begun the lifestyle. Figuring out who gets paid more is easy, but figuring out which work rules are better isn’t always as obvious. But in the end, it becomes pretty clear pretty soon which airlines are run well and are a joy to work for versus those that are looked down upon.

But when it comes to the two guys in the front actually doing their job during the course of a flight or a day, there isn’t really any competition. Part of that is because the airlines operate their flights in much the same manner. But more importantly, nobody is going to deliberately compromise the safety of another. When a line of thunderstorms exists that runs from Canada to Mexico, everyone tries to help each other find the best place to jump the line. There is no thought of, “Well, let’s trick these guys into going into a Level 6!” It simply doesn’t happen. Instead, the updates are a live feed of what’s a good idea and what isn’t.

The best example I can think of is bad weather over a major hub, especially at night. If holding is in effect or if delays are piling up, pilots usually want two pieces of information. First, in rain, they want to know what kind of wind shear or convective activity to expect. Second, in snow, they want to know what the braking action is. And sometimes, it just takes one flight to voice that funny gut feeling that others already have. “We’re going to divert for fuel/weather,” is one call that usually triggers a chain reaction. Once one crew makes it, everyone seems to like the idea. But with wind shear or snowy or icy runways, the pireps become a lifeline of critical information.

When it comes to safety, cooperation trumps competition…every time.—By Chip Wright

Balloons and ATC

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

During the July 2012 Flight Training Facebook chat, Samer asked:

“Every once in awhile, I fly to a Class D airport (besides the one I’m based out of) and I’ve experienced sharing the sky with balloons, which is no problem, but is the tower always aware of their intentions? In other terms, do they have to report their position to the tower? If not, maybe I need to begin scanning the woodline below me for these piloted balloons.”

Our air traffic control specialist Aaron Pifer replied, “Class D airports ‘visually separate’ aircraft from other aircraft unless they have radar feeds. The intent is usually pretty basic: take off, climb to whatever altitude, and go where the wind tells them to. The balloon pilots usually have handhelds or have some sort of pre-coordinated plans with the tower via telephone.”

We happen to have a hot air balloon pilot based here at Frederick Municipal Airport (which is now in Class D airspace), and so I gave him a call to follow up on this question. Patrick Smith operates Tailwinds Over Frederick.

“We’re an aircraft, and we have to make contact with the tower just like a glider” or powered airplane, Patrick explained. “I call them before I inflate. I have to get a clearance before I take off. We stay in contact.”

As Aaron mentioned, Patrick uses a handheld transceiver to communicate with the tower. “If my altitude changes, I give them an ‘altitude and below.’ I give them a call when I land or when I’m starting to look for a landing spot, just to let them know they might lose sight of me.”

The Tailwinds balloon is a common sight at KFDK, and is just another interesting part of our mix of aircraft, which includes fixed- and rotary-wing, gliders, gyrocopters, and the occasional visit from the Goodyear, Outback, and MetLife blimps. Variety is the spice of life…and airports!—By Jill W. Tallman

Pilots who teach you how not to be

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

I love flying with other pilots because I always learn something from them. Whether it is an especially smooth radio communication style, a conscientious adherence to checklist usage, or simply confidence in the cockpit, these are pilots I like to emulate.

Then there are those pilots who teach you how you don’t want to be. Thanks to YouTube we have a front row seat (or right seat, if you will) to these individuals’ antics, because everybody has a cell phone with a camera.

The most recent YouTube debut is a gentleman whose behavior toward a New York Center air traffic controller has to be heard to be believed. As a bit of background, he’s on an instrument flight in some very busy airspace. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for us, we can listen to the whole episode. The YouTube poster even provided captioning for the sometimes-hard-to-understand exchange.

Have you ever witnessed (or overheard) pilot behavior you knew you didn’t want to copy? Please share in the Comments section.—Jill W. Tallman

What I miss about GA

Monday, May 21st, 2012

I recently did a flight from DTW to Kalamazoo (AZO). We had some time on the ground to kill, and our gate’s location gave us a great view of the approach end of Runway 17. Several airplanes were doing pattern work, including a Cessna 172 (with a horribly ugly paint scheme, I might add), a Piper Cherokee, and one or two others. A couple were flown by students, as evidenced by the hesitant radio transmissions and the near-misses of nosewheel-first landings. Others were likely someone out just practicing, taking advantage of the clear sky and summer-like March weather.

My first officer and I began chatting about how nice it would be to trade places for a day with these pilots.

The truth is, I can’t tell you how much I miss general aviation flying. I don’t get to do it nearly as much as I would like because of the cost, and when it comes to travel, you can’t beat the free flight benefits of the airline.

But I miss everything about GA—getting dirty on a preflight, being able to turn the radio off, tracing my flight on a sectional (not easy at 400 knots true while in the flight levels), or just taking the airplane around the patch one more time because I didn’t like my landing. If I tried that at my day job, I’d have more than a little explaining to do. They might even deduct the cost of the extra fuel from my paycheck. And I especially miss doing primary flight instruction. I’ve long maintained that if I could make the same income as an instructor as I do now, I’d trade my uniform for shorts in a heartbeat.

On occasion, we will see a 172 or a Cherokee on our TCAS that is flying at or below 1,000 feet just sightseeing or slowly going from place to place, or maybe even nowhere in particular. Once in a while we see those airplanes doing ground reference maneuvers or lazy 8s. It’s hard not to think about how far my own career has come watching somebody else go through those maneuvers that I too had to master.

If you are pursuing a professional career, take the time to enjoy the steps along the way, and if you can pull it off, stay involved in your GA roots. You will miss it more than you ever will imagine. I fly whenever I can, and I keep my CFI certificate active; I worked way too hard to ever let it expire.

There may be a thing or two about GA that I don’t miss—the broken orange juice cans in the Cessnas, not having a weather radar, bouncy fuel gauges, and I’d like to have an autopilot—but the benefits way outweigh the cons. I think I’d like more than anything to be able to fly a cross-country and substitute my iPod for ATC…just once.—By Chip Wright

The April “Since You Asked” poll: Talking on the radio

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Rod Machado’s discussion of listening to ATC and ATIS reminded us that we get many, many questions from student pilots about talking on the radio. So that’s why we posed the following question in the April Flight Training: How comfortable are you when communicating with ATC?

If our poll results can be extrapolated, many of us are comfortable in the ATC environment–but only because we train or fly in the system regularly. A good many of us are still struggling to sound like Joe Cool, and some of us won’t talk to ATC at all. Here’s how things stacked up:

  • 50 percent of respondents to the poll said they train at a towered field, so they’re OK.
  • 25 percent said they stumble on the radio.
  • 19 percent said they fly out of a nontowered field, but their communication skills are OK.
  • And 6 percent said they don’t talk to ATC.
It bears repeating, so we’ll pass along several tips we’ve collected over the years.
  • Listen to the pros. Use LiveATC to listen in to any number of airports big and small. (A feed for our own homedrome, KFDK, was just added!) Alternatively, a sunny afternoon and a bench at the airport with a handheld transceiver can be a great way to spend your afternoon and pick up communications tips. If you can, ride along with a pilot friend. Don’t do anything in the right seat except focus on how he or she talks on the radio.
  • Understand what you’re trying to communicate, and why. Bob Gardner’s Say Again, Please, is one of the best books available to help you with this. It’s available at many aviation retailers. ASA also sells a companion tutorial that can be played on a computer or MP3 player. The Air Safety Institute’s Say It Right: Mastering Radio Communication is a FREE interactive online course. (It does use Flash.)
  • Practice, practice, practice. You can go whole-hog with something like Comm1’s VFR Radio Simulator, which lets you practice dialogue using a headset and your computer (and is a very neat program that’s been on the market quite a few years). Or you can keep it simple by practicing your radio calls in the car or in the shower. I’m told that you might accidentally tell your spouse that you’re turning base when you crank the steering wheel in the car toward the driveway.

What did we leave out? Share your best tips for improving your radio technique in the Comments section.

“Since You Asked” polls appear monthly in the digital edition of Flight Training. If you’d like to switch your magazine from paper to digital at no additional charge, go here or call Member Services 800-USA-AOPA weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern.—Jill W. Tallman