One thing nearly all pilots struggle with or have struggled with is radio communication with ATC. It is surprisingly easy to get tripped up, go blank, or plain not know what to say. Here are a few tips that can help you improve in the comms department.
1. Know what your plan is, but anticipate alternates.
For students and new pilots, it can be easy to get caught up thinking ATC is the final authority and that you must do everything they tell you without question. While it is true that you should follow their instruction when safe, you should always have the mindset of a pilot who knows what they want and is simply requesting permission to execute it. You should also anticipate the most likely alternatives and plan accordingly, which will make it easier if your original request cannot be accommodated. Remember that ATC is there to help you accomplish your plan, not to tell you what your plan should be.
2. Practice dissecting other pilots’ radio communications.
Listening to LiveATC while going about daily tasks is a great way to train your ear and develop your multitasking abilities. Try this exercise: When a pilot makes a call, pick out the main components such as tail number, position, and what the pilot is requesting (which generally follows the “who, where, and what” format). Guess what ATC will respond with, then when ATC takes the mic, listen for the important instructions and guess the response the pilot should make. See how your response varies from theirs. There are no exact right or wrong answers, as each pilot has a different communication style. Practicing this for just 20 minutes a day will greatly improve your communications.
3. Get comfortable asking for clarification.
There is probably not a pilot in history who hasn’t been confused by an ATC instruction, or forgotten a squawk code after a deluge of other information has been given. As pilot-in-command, it is your responsibility to understand what you are supposed to be doing (especially if you’ve told them you will comply!) so never be afraid or embarrassed to tell them to “say again,” “please repeat the squawk code/altitude restriction/heading”, or “I am unfamiliar with […]”, etc. It’s part of being a professional!
4. Condense your statements.
One of the biggest things you can do to make life easier for yourself and everyone else on frequency is to condense your statements to contain only the vital amount of information. Even cutting out extra conversational phrases such as “We are here at…” or “I would like to request a …” will save time and sound more professional. It will also, believe it or not, help you trip up less!
5. Don’t try to memorize everything.
If you have trouble with even the shortest clearances, write them down! I personally like to copy down any taxi instructions in excess of two taxiways at unfamiliar airports, both so that my readback is correct and so that I can double-check my route on the way.
What has been the biggest challenge for you with communications? Share in the comments below!