Communications: Quick vs. Clear

The Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) recently received a report from a concerned Air Traffic Controller (ATC) who describes a non-standard communication practice by pilots and ATC: Using microphone clicks as a response to clearances (by pilots), or to read-backs (by controllers).

It is very common for pilots to respond to clearances with just their call sign or a double-click of the mike. Neither of these are good responses. Controllers are also at fault for using double-clicks to respond to pilots.

As we all know, ATC recordings are very important for accident/incident investigations, therefore we (pilots and controllers) need to change our bad habits and start using the correct procedures. Double-clicks — by a pilot or controller — have no place in aviation. As the skies get busier, it is only a matter of time before this kind of action leads to (or is particularly to blame) for an incident or accident.

As a reminder, the only correct way for a pilot to respond to any ATC clearance is by using their call sign and the complete read-back of the clearance, or at least a ‘Roger’ (only if you understand the clearance.)

A substantial number of ASRS communications-related reports involve read-back/hear-back problems. Many of these incidents could have been avoided if reporters followed prescribed radio contact techniques. Section 4-2-1 of the AIM, and section 2-4-3 of the Controllers Handbook (FAA Order 7110.65) cover correct radio communications phraseology and techniques for pilots and controllers, respectively. Neither reference endorses microphone clicks as an appropriate response technique.

Also, to piggy-bag on the subject, I have noticed that some controllers issue clearances that are hard to understand — frequently sounding like auctioneers during a hotly contested bidding war. Then they get upset when pilots ask them to repeat the clearance because the only comprehendible part was the Call Sign. The same problem goes with ATIS recordings. Controllers need to realize there are a lot of external factors affecting the quality of their communications, such as airplane and cockpit noise, headsets, radios, etc. It is quite annoying for a pilot to get instructions that sound like, “Skyhawk 97F la-la-la-la-la-la-la-point six-two-five.”

Controllers need to articulate — clearly and slowly — their message when issuing clearances (especially long ones)…and pilots need to be aware that doing what they thought they heard, is not the best way to proceed. A smooth, clear and concise transmission may take two or three extra seconds, but it will save the controller the extra time and effort of trying to repeat the entire clearance if the pilot could not get it the first time. For the young controllers, I suggest you go fly on different airplanes to get the picture of what’s being talked about.

It is very easy to blame someone else than to accept responsibility – when in doubt, ask again! And this goes for both pilots and controllers.

Submitted by Luis Rodriguez
Commercial Pilot – Single & Multi – Inst
Flight Engineer (military) – Turbojet
…and iPilot reader