by Chris Findley, CFI
For some students, it isn’t the flying that makes them nervous. They eagerly learn the four fundamentals, they practice their stalls and steep turns with diligence and they don’t take their bounced landings as permanent failures. They are solid students and thoughtful pilots. But there’s often one thing that causes these otherwise excellent students to break out in a cold sweat– talking on the radio. They have "Mic Fright."
It’s amazing how this fear can take hold of a pilot. Usually this Mic Fright is rooted in fear of making a mistake, of saying the wrong thing, of looking like an idiot. (What they don’t know is that most ALL of us know of times when we ALL have been there, done that!) Talking on the radio produces a fair amount of anxiety in new pilots. So how can we, as instructors, help our student-pilots to get over their fear?
1. Rehearse: One of the best ways to begin to get over the fear of talking on the radio is to rehearse with the student. Role play. Give your student a script of the departure and arrival radio procedures at your airport. Then talk them through the script. At an uncontrolled field you could go over the self-announcement process from taxi to landing. At a tower-controlled field you could play the role of the ground controller and tower controller. Then you can go fly the flight and demonstrate the procedures.
2. Visualize: As you rehearse, walk through the flight. Consider taping a mock-runway on the floor or tarmac. Orient the runway just as the actual runway used. Have your student make their radio calls and “fly” their flight by walking their flight path. Watch for proper pattern departure and ask questions like, “What altitude should you be at when you make that turn?” or “What should you be thinking of as you enter the pattern?” or “What frequency should you be changing to at this point?”
3. Build: After rehearsing and visualizing, then work your student up to full-time radio duties. For instance, have them make all the radio calls on the ground through departure phases of flight. It is usually difficult for a new pilot to make radio calls in the pattern early in the training. Their attention is so focused on flying that they can’t really think about the radio. So you might make those calls for them until the pattern has become second nature to them. Then have them make more calls on a regular basis.
4. Talk TO Someone: Obviously there is a lot of training done at uncontrolled fields. Therefore part of training, early on, should involve talking to someone — namely flight following. Demonstrate the calls and then share some of the duties. Perhaps the busiest time with VFR flight following is the initial callup. You may have to wait your turn to speak, then you’re giving a lot of info in a hurry, setting your transponder, and answering any questions from the controller. It’s helpful for a student to begin to develop these skills and rehearsal can be a big help with this. In flight, you, the CFI, may demonstrate the initial call-up. Then you could coach your student on answering traffic advisories, vectors, or other communication and thereby build them into more and more of the radio work.
5. Anticipate: This is huge for radio procedures — learn to anticipate. Stay ahead of the airplane. Most communication, even (or especially) when talking to Approach or Departure, has a pattern to it. You’re expected to give X, they give Y. Next comes A then B. Teach your student the general patterns of communication and to anticipate what may be coming next, “I’m expecting a turn anytime now to the south” or “They’ll be expecting me to cancel flight following soon.” While you may not get exactly what you expect, anticipation keeps you ahead of the aircraft and ready for instructions.
We have a great airway and airspace system. Mic Fright can be overcome and the CFI can be a crucial part of that process. Be patient, give your student time, let them make a mistake or two. They’ll learn from it. They’ll learn that the mic is nothing to be afraid of and that it is a superb tool and friend to the pilot.