Despite the looming advances in datalink communication, much of our interaction with the air traffic control system, as well as other pilots, remains very firmly anchored with verbal instructions and acknowledgement. All of us, I rather imagine, have had hair-whitening experiences with miscommunication during our career. Aviation is critically dependant on knowing what we, and the other aircraft, are supposed to be doing. To achieve this, we have to communicate clearly.
You have not communicated if you’re not understood. And misunderstanding of ATC instructions is often founded on expecting to hear an anticipated response. If what is heard is not the same as what was meant, and we act upon this false premise, the system breaks down. The problem is compounded, of course, when cultural and language factors add inflection to the words.
Pilots are diverse lot; while controllers are mostly trained to a uniform standard and must adhere to procedures governing their every action, pilots may present themselves as a stumbling student, freshly-minted private pilot, blossoming commercial or ace-of-the-base ATP. Expectations to the contrary, these pilots, with their widely-varying capabilities, don’t always hold to specific phraseology, often leaving the controller to sort it all out. Not surprisingly, controllers get taken in once in a while, trusting what they’ve heard until it’s proven otherwise.
The desire to communicate clearly should be taken seriously by all of us, because so much depends on being understood. Training and procedural manuals spell out specific methods of requesting and acknowledging instructions, and even how to speak ICAO numbers and letters. Common usage tends to shortcut proper phraseology, which can be dangerous. My own weakness is not saying enough, in the interest of saving precious airtime. I tend to choose my radio words carefully, and perhaps a bit too parsimoniously, because I frequently get asked to repeat or “say intentions”, after I thought I had already said it all. The minimalist approach may save some airtime up front, but it loses the advantage when a second set of transmissions has to be made.
Another frequently-occurring roadblock to clear communication is not understanding what the other party needs from you. ATC needs to know three vital things; WHO you are, WHERE you are and WHAT it is you want to do. Placing these items in order on the initial call-up gets the preliminaries out of the way, opening the door to further communication. Save the details for later; embellishments such as a lengthy description of aircraft type, runway desired and transponder code being squawked don’t belong in the initial call. Adding the ATIS password is expected, of course. However, I’ve found that “with Romeo” doesn’t have nearly the clarity of “we have Romeo.”
Where Is He?
A common place for a mid-air collision threat to manifest itself is during the handoff between controllers in congested airspace (and radio time) near the airport. Recently, we were inbound on a visual arrival, flying an extended left base leg to Runway Two, about to make a requested report to Tower, when a Beech King Air zipped across our bow from right to left. “Must be on the ILS,” I said to my copilot, “although he was pretty close to us.” However, the King Air leveled off and continued past the airport boundary, and the pilot was heard to report “Downwind for Two-Zero.” The tower controller was busy handling three of us already; he thought the pilot meant “Downwind for Zero-Two”, an incorrect but common appellation for Runway Two.
So, here we were, on base, in queue to receive a cleared-to-land, but with a rogue airplane flying a downwind to an opposing landing, still not visually acquired by the tower controller. When the King Air pilot finally made the tower realize he was far past the mid-field position, headed the wrong way, the conversation went something like this:
Tower: “Did Approach tell you to do that?”
King Air: “I guess we were supposed to land Runway Two. We’ll circle back for a downwind to Two.”
Tower: “Negative, negative, just continue on for Runway Two-Zero; the wind’s light and variable. Aircraft on base, give me a right 360 and report reestablished.”
Fortunately, we could see the conflict developing before the tower controller sorted it all out, and we had already stopped our descent and cleared the airspace for a 360-degree turn. By the time we were back in position the King Air was on the rollout, clearing as we turned final.
How did this miscommunication develop? First, the King Air was deep into Class D airspace before the tower knew it was there. Approach control evidently sent the airplane to the tower as a straight-in arrival, but the pilot had fixated on flying his usual downwind. The tower was occupied by one person, who was tasked with handling all duties, and the controller’s initial snapshot developed into a false image. The weakness of radio communication is that it takes about three times as long to correct a statement as it took to make it in the first place.
Where Did He Go?
It is important for us to place the words into motion, as we hear them. If a pilot reports “Two miles west of the field, northbound at two-thousand five-hundred,” we know where he was at the moment he called, but we also need to visualize where he will be a minute or two later. He will have moved down his track by some distance, and if we want to remain separated from him, we have to factor in both of our movements. Don’t look for the airplane where it was last reported, unless it is coming straight at you.
If ATC assigns you the task of following unseen traffic, you must let the controller know you don’t have it in sight by responding “no contact” in your readback. Words like “no joy”, “looking” or “watching for the traffic” are not appropriate responses. “I have the traffic” is the correct terminology if you acquire the called-out aircraft, not “tally-ho” or “got him in sight.” If you lose sight of the traffic ahead, advise the controller immediately (“Six-Three-Niner has lost the traffic”), so spacing can be maintained with ATC help. Following the preceding airplane with TCAS can be helpful as well, of course.
If you want to be understood, speak a little more slowly than you would in a heated conversation, assuming the airwaves aren’t jam-packed with radio calls. Getting the information out in audible, understandable form avoids a lot of repeats and mistakes. I tend to imitate the staccato delivery of air traffic controllers, but I’m not good at it, leading to “Say again” requests. It’s better to slow down to save time.
Reading back all instructions is a necessary evil in this litigious era, when “putting it on the tape” is required to cover liability exposure. Unfortunately, this adds a lot of often pro forma verbiage to the airwaves. Do not take your responsibility to confirm receipt of instructions lightly; be sure you are indeed proceeding as cleared, and make your readbacks unambiguous enough to validate your understanding.
Communication is the tenuous thread that binds us into a family of flight. Take the time to do it right, so you’ll get your intent across and avoid surprises. Never forget to supplement the microphone with your eyeballs and brain cells.