The AOPA Homecoming was well-attended and, although a bit of a cold front kept some Northeast pilots on the ground, a good time was had by all. I had the privilege of presenting a communication seminar with a Potomac TRACON controller, Brandon Miller, to help me review some basic comm practices for both VFR and IFR pilots.
Got to thinking about one of our talking points while on a trip back from the South land after the fly-in. Both pilots and controllers sometimes forget not only do the words have to come out in the correct order, but the person on the other side actually has to understand them. George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, famously noted,” The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” That happens every day on the frequencies.
Try being slow and chunky—that’s not a slam on some of our fellow humans but rather on how communication should be structured. Make sense of this: “Fayerrrvileapprhcesfrsevnsishbecango, twelvesqeeshaaahsvnpntfiVFRflifollwingto fxblqbrg.” (!!!!????)
The controller patiently asked, “Aircraft calling Fayetteville approach, try it again slower please.” (Hadn’t heard that much before from the ATC side.) Cessna 476 QT (not the real call sign) managed to un-garble slightly and mumbled something about being 12 south at 7.5 (7,500 msl) and wanting flight following to someplace. There were three opportunities to improve the communication in this wonderfully great bad example.
1. Speak clearly—e-nun-ciate. Slurring words is really bad form—makes people think you’ve cheated on the eight-hour rule. Make it a point to form the words carefully. Your life may depend on it.
2. Slow down—Even on busy frequencies, the best controllers and pilots rise above the fray to not scurry along like some scared rodent avoiding the light. It’s the mark of a pro. Don’t dawdle but there’s a clear cadence that works every time. If the message has to be repeated no time was saved and it was wasted.
3. Chunk it—Most humans can comfortably handle about three pieces of information at a time. After that, comprehension deteriorates rapidly. Controllers are taught to chunk but sometimes forget in the heat of battle. Then the whole thing needs to be repeated—and again, no time was saved. When asking for Flight Following, before joining the party, just call the facility, give them your call sign, and say something like “VFR Request.” That gives the controller time to finish whatever she was doing because she probably had something else going on besides just waiting for your request. It also gives them time to get a squawk from the system. Then information exchange can take place.
Wolfman Jack (of “American Graffiti” fame) is my nickname for a New York Tracon controller who had a gravel-like voice. It’s distinctive and I’ve only had the pleasure of being under his care once, a few years back. The Big Apple always hums with traffic but on his frequency something was different. The Wolfman, despite being very busy, was in control. No hurry, no complex instructions, just a steady flow. If somebody missed something, he never got impatient but just had the reassuring growl to let your know he was there to help and you were in his sector. Rock ON!!!
Safe pilots are always learning, and the goal of the Air Safety Institute is to ensure pilots have a wealth of information to keep flying safely and proficiently. If you want to become a better communicator, consider taking ASI’s “Say It Right: Mastering Radio Communication” course. Programs such as these are funded through donations from pilots dedicated to forwarding that safety mission. Show your support by donating to the AOPA Foundation today.