Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Pulling Teeth

Imagine this radio conversation:
N123: "Pensacola Approach, N123."
Me: "N123, Pensacola Approach, remain clear of Class Charlie. Say position and request."

N123: "Pensacola Approach, N123, roger, remaining clear of Class Charlie."

Me: "N123, Pensacola, say position and request."
N123: "Pensacola, N123 is two-five miles northwest of the airport."

Me: "N123, Pensacola, two-five miles northwest of
which airport?"
(Remember: we have three Class C airports plus a slew of uncontrolled fields. He probably means Pensacola Regional, but it could really be any airport.)
N123: "Pensacola, N123, we're two-five miles northwest of Pensacola Regional."

(Okay, now I know that he's in my sector. I key him in and get a squawk.)

Me: "N123, squawk 0105 and ident. Say intentions."

N123: "Squawk 0105 with a flash, N123."

Me: "N123,
say intentions."
N123: "Uh... Pensacola, N123 would like some touch and goes at Pensacola."

Me: "N123, roger, verify ATIS information Zulu."

N123: "Pensacola, N123 is negative ATIS."
(I read the ATIS off our TIS screen above the scope.)
Me: "N123, Pensacola ATIS Zulu current. Wind 040, altimeter 3014, runway 17 in use."

N123: "Altimeter 3014, runway 17, roger, N123."

Me: "N123, radar contact two-five miles northwest of Pensacola Regional. Proceed direct to the airport, enter right base runway 17."

Annoying, isn't it? A ton of transmissions just to get to the meat of the issue. I have to drag every single thing out of the pilot, bit by bit. When I'm talking to fifteen other airplanes, that's a whole lot of time taken up. It can get very distracting, especially when you're working a final or another busy sector. It's just a lot of frequency congestion.

Let's try a different way:
N123: "Pensacola Approach, N123, with request."
Me: "N123, Pensacola Approach, remain clear of Class Charlie. Say position and request."

N123: "N123 is two-five miles northwest of Pensacola Regional at two thousand five hundred with information Zulu. Requesting touch and goes."

(I look and see a target 25 miles northwest of PNS at 2500 feet. I get his squawk code. He also said he has the ATIS code.)

Me: "N123, squawk 0104 and ident."

N123: "N123, squawking 0104 with the flash."

Me: "N123, radar contact two-five miles northwest of Pensacola Regional. Proceed direct to the airport, enter right base runway 17."

There! Much easier. The pilot was prepared and told me in an organized fashion what he wanted. I did not have to yank it out of him piece by piece and he had done his bit by getting the ATIS code already. Also, by giving me his position right away, it immediately took a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. The second he told 25NM at 2500, my eyes went there immediately and spotted him.

Below is a list of things we need from a pilot, in order of priority:
  1. Who are you? Speak your call sign clearly.
  2. Where are you? Say your position and altitude relative to a well-known fix, such as an airport, a major landmark, or an airway intersection. This lets us know if you're inside our sector, another sector, or another facility's airspace. If you're not inside our sector, we can at least give you the frequency for someone who can help you.

    Keep in mind that we don't have a VFR sectional in front of us. If you call us over the "railroad tracks" or the "trailer park", we have no clue where that is. Now, if you told us "7 miles southeast of Brewton airport", "Directly over the PENSI intersection", or "Over 3 mile bridge." that works wonders.
  3. What do you want? In short, controllers like to plan. In order to do so, they need information. Be clear yet brief about what you're requesting. It's likely that the controller will be passing your information around the radar room to other controllers, either verbally or via a flight progress strip.

    For instance, if you're doing a photography flight, don't just say "We want to fly around." That gives us nothing. Instead, say something like "We're on a photo mission, wanting to fly south to three mile bridge, then cut east to Navarre beach, then go north to join I-10 westbound, with a full stop at Pensacola Regional." Now we have a solid idea of what you need. If so inclined, the controller can even write "BRIDGE->VARRE BCH->I-10->PNS" on the strip. At the very least, he can verbally pass that info on to any controllers who will be working your flight. Obviously, if it's a long request like that, you might need to pick your moment if the controller seems very busy.

    Also, if you're unsure about anything you're requesting, say that up front. "We want to fly south to three mile bridge. After that, we might need to go west about five miles, and then turn around to the east to go to Navarre beach, north to I-10, and west to full stop at Pensacola Regional." At least you're telling the controller there's a question mark in there somewhere.

    As an example of the "planning" I mentioned, if was working the Pensacola East bank and got the above transmission, I'd know right away that I'd have to:
    1. Work you south over the bridge.
    2. Either hand you off or point you out to the Navy Sherman sector if you turned west.
    3. Work you again myself as you turned back to the east towards Navarre.
    4. Hand you off to the South Whiting sector as you went north to I-10.
    5. Work you again as you returned to Pensacola.
  4. What are you? Often times a pilot will call up with their type as their call sign, such as Stationair 123 or Decathlon 456. If you don't give it to us on your initial transmission, it's not a big deal. We'll get it from you eventually.
On the Flip Side

I've done the same thing to pilots and fully admit my guilt. I sometimes don't combine my transmissions as well as I should. It's something my trainer's been on me about and I have been trying to improve on it. Basically, it seems to come from "working out the problem" on the frequency. I find it happens to me when I'm unsure about the current traffic situation.
SH456: "Pensacola Departure, SH456, leaving 800 for 1700, executing climb-out instructions."
Me: "SH456, Pensacola Departure, radar contact, radar vectors TACAN 14 approach."
SH456: "Roger, SH456."
(Okay... if I turn him, is he going to be a factor for that Citation I cleared for the visual approach? No? Cool.)
Me: "Uh, SH456, Pensacola, turn left direct Trojan."
SH456: "Turning left direct Trojan, SH456."
(Alright, is that helicopter out of 4000 yet? He is? Here we go.)
Me: "And... SH456, maintain 3000."
SH456: "Maintain 3000, SH456."
(Shit. Did he have the ATIS code for North Whiting?)
Me: "Oh.... and, uh, SH456, verify ATIS information Victor at North Whiting."
SH456: "Affirm, SH456."
If I was the pilot, I'd be ready to smack someone. It really makes it seem as if the controller doesn't know what they're doing, like they can't process more than one instruction at a time. What's really happening is that I'm playing it too safe. I haven't processed all the information fast enough to be 100% sure SH456 is clean.

The far more efficient version starts with me making sure he's clean even before I really talk to him. Then it goes:
Me: "SH456, Pensacola Departure, radar contact, turn left direct Trojan, climb and maintain 3000, radar vectors TACAN 14 approach."
SH456: "Left direct Trojan, maintain 3000, vectors TACAN 14 approach, SH456."
Me: "SH456, verify you have ATIS information Victor for North Whiting."
SH456: "Affirm, SH456."
That sounds much more professional and in control. You know, like I actually know what I'm doing (Ha!). Just say as much as you can in as few transmissions as you can.


John said...

I sure hope pilots out there are reading your blog.

One suggestion I had is that paraphrasing can do wonders for putting an inexperienced pilot at ease. After repeated attempts to get a pilot to say what they want, I've heard controllers say something like "Cessna 123, how can I help you?" This sort of direct (albeit non-standard) remark is often all that's required to get a pilot out of a mental rut.

Concise radio communications is something many flight instructors seem to tolerate, maybe even condone. Or is it that they never learned themselves?

I've written about effective VFR radio and IFR radio practices for pilots, but you describe something that many pilots don't seem to get: Controllers are often busy doing a bunch of other things and poor radio technique is a huge waste of time for everyone.

On the flip side, controllers (especially those who aren't pilots) probably don't imagine a pilot's workload. Missing information or long pauses between responses may be due to a variety of distractions including managing the aircraft, avoiding a flock of birds, or interacting with a talkative instructor.

Flying an aircraft can be like riding a mountain bike while simultaneously playing chess, which is why instructors need to teach pilots effective radio communication habit patterns so that it's second nature. And pilots need to regularly practice good technique and self-critique.

Again, I sure hope pilots are reading your blog.

Level 7,000 said...

Ok, I am totally there with you. I have flow so much with the enroute low center controllers (AND APPROACHES!) that I start to feel sorry for them that they HAVE to deal with them. As a "professional pilot", if there is such a pilot (ha!), I try to stick to the AIM. I hate to the be the bearer of bad news but most likely it was a student pilot with a CFI and the CFI did a crappy job training that student. I know that I feel horrible when I don't spit out the required items.

If it was a student pilot, I know that the first time that I talked to the BIG TRACON I was nervous and totally forgot to tell them a bunch of stuff. I am not saying that you are incorrect in your statements but that IMHO. Wish I could slap pilots through the radio about some of the horrible radio phraseology I head, I am sure that you feel the same way as well.

Considering that the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) only provides this kind of guidance for pilots here ( I am not suprised that so many pilots get everything screwed up!

I love when the Pilot Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge tell the pilots this: "Using proper radio phraseology and procedures contribute to a pilot’s ability to operate safely and ef´Čüciently in the airspace system. A review of the Pilot/Controller Glossary contained in the AIM assists a pilot in the use and understanding of standard terminology. The AIM also contains many examples of radio communications."

There is no document that actually provides us with useful information about proper radio phraseology during ALL phases of flight. Sorry, wish that I could help but I have moved from the full time CFI to the 135 world.

Julien said...


Great post again, thanks.

Just one question: here in Australia code Zulu on the ATIS is only used when the tower is unmanned to signify that what is a controlled aerodrome during tower hours has reverted to a CTAF. Is that the same in the US?

Keep those posts coming, it's great education for private pilots!

Wicked Penguin said...

Julien: Here, a recording is always running at a towered field irregardless of whether the tower is manned or not. When it's open, you'll have an ATIS, where the weather and NOTAMs are recorded by one of the controllers. When the tower's closed, you'll hear a broadcast that is a digitized readout of the weather (AWOS) with the human-recorded NOTAMs tacked on to the end of it automatically.

Some towers may do things differently, but that's how it was at the different towers in South Florida.

A pilot is expected to check the ATIS/AWOS and get the information on it prior to contacting either the tower or approach control. You *can* call in with "negative ATIS" and have the controller read the weather to you, but it's better for the controller's workload if you take care of that yourself.

Nomen said...

I tried to get all of my trainees to think and combine actions for the most efficient result. Good thinking on your part.

Here's a thought to streamline your own practices. Unless it's changed since I retired, there's no need to "squawk xxxx AND ident". All that's necessary is to change his code OR ident him on the VFR code. Observation of either action is sufficient to identify the target.

Now, in your first scenario, I can understand possibly needing a little help finding the one target in the whole of your scope, but if you simply assign the code, the tag will auto-acquire and you'll still find him relatively easily. And you have time (in your first scenario) as you still had another 19 questions to play...

In your second scenario, you had already picked him out and the code change was all that was needed for identification purposes.

Retired ZJX and ZAU

PS: Constructive criticism, especially for a budding professional writer: lose "irregardless". It's an unfortunate creation that has no meaning and is not a legitimate word. "Irrespective" is a better choice and serves the purpose almost 100% of the time.

Anonymous said...


No alphanumeric code is assigned to the closing/closed ATIS. At FAA towers if the last ATIS code before the closing ATIS was KILO, the opening code in the morning would be LIMA.

Anonymous said...

Or how about just drop the "ir". "Regardless" works great. Going way back - "Turn thirty degrees left for thirty seconds then resume your present heading". Those were the days :).