Sunday, September 23, 2007

Verbal Spankings

As an air traffic controller, you will never see a pilot face to face. They won't know what you look like, what clothes you wear, whether or not you are short or tall or thin or fat. They only know one thing about you: what your voice sounds like.

The most important thing, as it's part of the job title, is to sound like you're really and truly in control. You could be going down the tubes faster than a bobsled team on a track covered in Vaseline, but as long as your voice doesn't convey that, you're cool. When that tension starts to makes its presence known on the frequency, the pilots will notice it. Like dogs, they can smell fear, and will begin to question your instructions - maybe not outright, but they will be hesitant and extra-vigilant. Sooner or later, when your self-doubt becomes apparent, they will speak up and challenge your decisions.

When you're working traffic, thinking out loud is okay. I do it with my instructor so he knows what my rationale is for different control instructions. But, thinking on the frequency? Not so much... One of the first things you can do is eliminate the pseudo-words "Uh", "Um", "Hmmm", "Errr", and "Well....". They make it sound like you're unsure, and as a controller it's you're job to have no doubts (even if you're absolutely wrong).

Oh, and phrases such as "Holy s***", "What the hell?" and "" are usually considered "ungood". They typically do little to nothing for a pilot's confidence in you. :)

Having worked a little bit of traffic now, I'm getting a feel for how I should be speaking. Every time I sit down I try something different. I don't have some kind of deep raspy trucker voice, so I find that I have to work harder to convey confidence.

I also listen to a lot of the folks I work with and see how they get their instructions across. Just in our control room, I've heard a bunch of different styles, each of which is effective in its own way. These are some highlights:
  • Utterly bored: Nothing says "I'm in control" better than sounding like you're about to fall asleep.
  • Amused sarcasm: Cocky, self-assured, and having a good time. The "I'm gonna clear you to land, sign out, and grab me a brewsky..." voice.
  • Stone cold: No emotion, just machine-like instructions spoken very precisely and clearly. You sound like a computer, and computers don't make mistakes, right? Right?
And my favorite:
  • Disappointed parent: This one works especially well on student pilots, of which we have a billion here. It's highly effective after they've screwed something up. The intensity of the "What did you do now?" tone is directly related to the severity of the screw-up.
Verbal Spanking

Here at Pensacola, we have to use that last voice quite a bit. We have tons of military training traffic and, as to be expected, they're highly unpredictable. You have to have loads of patience to work the traffic here, as you're working with pilots that may or may not do what they're told. On more than one occasion, I've heard the work done at those sectors described as "babysitting" or "hand-holding."

Here's an example of "the voice" in use the other day, when one of our Navy planes decided to go goofy on us. He was one plane in a tight approach sequence of about six aircraft, and throughout the entire time we were working him he was repeatedly answering for another aircraft with a like-sounding call sign. After calling him out on that several times, he stopped answering completely. He ended up blowing past the final approach course, made a beeline for our neighboring sectors (we had to coordinate two point-outs regarding him) , and was about to slam into a hot restricted area when my instructor had this conversation with him:
  • ATC: "Navy 123, how do you hear me?"
    Pilot: "Loud and clear, sir."
    ATC: "Navy 132, I've called you three times. Are you radios functioning?"
    Pilot: *sheepish* "Yes sir."
    ATC: "Navy 123, I can't clear you for an approach if you won't respond to my calls..."
    Pilot: *sheepish* "Roger sir..."
    ATC: "Sir, I need you to respond when I call you."
    Pilot: *growing wool* "...Yes sir..."
    ATC: "Thank you. Now, Navy 123, turn left to heading 220. Vectors for the GPS approach."
There was no yelling, no barking, no tirade. My instructor's voice was even but stern, driving home to this kid that he'd messed up. The fact is, the pilot's mistakes were preventing us from doing our job and creating an immense distraction. While we were dealing with him we were still sequencing the remaining aircraft in for the approach.

First off, you should never yell at anyone on the frequency. It's unprofessional and it can be dangerous, both for your career and for the pilot. In the environment we're in, that's especially true. We've had discussions with Navy flight instructors over this issue. They've told us that on the rare occasion that a controller has dressed down a student pilot on the frequency, they can literally see the student's confidence shatter. At that point, the lesson is over and they have to return to base.

I don't put myself in the cockpit with these pilots, but as a former student pilot myself, I can relate to them on some level. The most important thing is safety, and if it takes a stern voice to get it across to them, so be it. Lord knows I needed a verbal slap on the wrist at times.

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