Smooth Operator

How are your radio skills? I happen to subscribe to the notion of multiple intelligences when it comes to assessing the potential accomplishments of my fellow man (along with perhaps the idealistic notion that everybody is good at something). Still, aside from those few peripheral oddities having comical inequities among their relative abilities in different areas, most of us do seem to squeak by with a fairly even balance. This equilibrium usually manifests itself in various ways. In my opinion, there seems to be a fairly reliable correlation between what someone looks like they might have to offer in the way of conversation, and how well they can actually articulate what’s on their mind. This often holds true at least, until they first try their hand at speaking in public. And such exceptions invariably surface within the fellowship of aviation whenever a pilot first learns to key a microphone…

It Takes One To Know One
I may have my way with words here on the ground, but when it comes to misadventures in phraseology, I know whereof I speak, believe me. You’d probably wince if someone had recorded my own first forays into speaking professionally and trying to fly at the same time. Not only did I get to relive the woulda-shoulda-coulda agonies of my wayward aviating, but seldom did a lesson whiz by during which I didn’t massacre several of my instructor’s modest expectations in radio procedure. Sometimes I just knew right away that the words coming out of my mouth would live again as they later made their rounds among other hysterical flight instructors. Most of the time, I fear, I was simply oblivious. Oh, me oh my, was I ever the ugly duckling. Keep in mind, this was before the Washington ADIZ, before the FRZ, before the Potomac area Class B, back when it was a TCA (he said, leaning on his cane…)

Baltimore Approach, uh … this is Cessna 3741 Victor, uh, I just took off from Montgomery Airpark, uh, I’m squawking 1200, and I’d like to land at BWI, over…

If I was lucky (and they were lucky), I hadn’t stepped on anybody, I wasn’t number five for call-back, and the controller was having an otherwise good day, I would be answered fairly soon, thus sparing the approach controller from an encore performance. I was probably also reminded (and not for the first time) by either ATC or my CFI that I should have listened to the ATIS first, as well as listening first to improve my outsider’s chances of a graceful edge-wise insinuation into controlled chaos.

Let’s take that again, from the top
Unfortunately, an initial exchange like this would usually require an unfortunate sequel, because that’s surely no way to get yourself on anyone’s radar map. I never told the controller just where I was, nor at what altitude, and what type of aircraft I was flying. (I’d also omitted exactly where I was hoping to land, though one would presume it might have been BWI.) He or she would have no way of knowing what I knew, or didn’t about the winds, the runway in use, or the altimeter setting. Of course, I eventually progressed through subsequent lessons, slowly assimilated the customs and expectations set forth in the (then) Airman’s Information Manual, and now, I sound a little better (maybe more than a little). It’s a bit like the newspaper reporter’s mantra of who-what-when-where-how-why, except we pilots have it a bit easier.

Today’s Special Ingredients: All we really need on our initial call-up is three things: who (who we’re calling, followed by who we are), where (where we are), and what (what we want to do). It’s that simple: who you are, where you are, what do you want? Were I to fly over to BWI today, it would sound more like this:

 ‘Potomac Approach, Cherokee 4852 Whiskey, 25 northwest over Westminster, 3000 feet, VFR, with Charlie, landing BWI

Of course, I’d begin by naming the party to whom I am speaking, followed by my own identity, and then where (and at what altitude) I happen to be. I would also add the fact that I have current airport information (no, my CFI’s name isn’t Charlie) and that I would like to land at BWI. (Now that all of the ‘big’ airports in the Washington DC area are lumped into ‘Potomac Approach’ that last part becomes even more important.) Notice that I left my grade school grammar back at the tie-down, because I omitted the little helping words like ‘at‘, ‘this is‘ etc. Of course, if it’s quiet, there’s nothing wrong with adding those, or even starting off with a cheery ‘Good morning Potomac Approach…’

Proper introductions
The general advantages are several. Do it right the first time, and ATC doesn’t have to tie up the frequency playing 20 questions. It also makes their job easier because the information is easier for them to process, as well as act on (and favorably so) when it comes in an expected sequence. Keep it crisp, and you get your two cents in edgewise that much more easily. I hasten to add that learning how to pick just the right millisecond’s lull without stepping on somebody else is definitely an acquired skill, what with our lovely half-duplex party lines. (The important thing is to listen before you barge right in.)

Just as important, keep them happy, and they’ll be more predisposed to making you happy. And even if you don’t own an airline captain’s practiced baritone (or contralto), they can tell a greenhorn from three sectors away. It’s not like they say ‘Hey, let’s pretend we’re New York today‘ but controllers everywhere do appreciate professionalism, and they don’t appreciate being slowed down. Still, remember that even when things are happening fast, you must be patient.

Most controllers are juggling an amazing amount of multiplexed conversations, and if you haven’t gotten an acknowledgement from your well-thought, well-spoken inquiry, you could just well be number three for call-back and quite likely, you haven’t been ignored and you won’t be forgotten. He or she may be talking to another controller on another frequency. You might also just be too far away for your signal to make it in. That’s possible, too.

The trick is in knowing where one possibility can plausibly transition from ‘busy‘ to ‘never having heard you in the first place‘. If you’re still out there ringing the doorbell five minutes later, those ten more miles closer in might have made all the difference, so of course you’d try again.

Practice makes poifect
The best way to get better, aside from slogging through the baptismal waters yourself, is to listen to others. That’s mostly how you learned to speak your mother tongue, and it’s no different here, either. Not only will you pick up the content, but your delivery will sound better as you ‘get the flick‘ — right down to the proper cadence, depending on how fast the verbal squalls are blowing that day. (Incidentally, even if you have an auctioneer’s ability for elocution, there’s no advantage to being able to speak at 60 with peak gusts to 90, unless you’re on fire.)

Tips and Tricks: Picking up a cheap aviation band radio, even if it’s receive-only, is a good investment. True, you won’t hear ATC unless you’re right near the airport, but even those one-sided conversations will be educational. And I found out long ago that CFIs just love to play ATC, all the way from Clearance to Center. If you can, write down what you hear him or her tell you on a kneeboard (another good investment for that eventual instrument rating). I never took shorthand, but I had fun learning the shortcuts and abbreviations pilots use when copying clearances. It goes faster when you don’t try to understand it as you write it. Just decode it, then in 30 seconds or so, you’ll have plenty of time to digest it. Copying goes a lot better that way. You’ll be surprised at how soon you do get to the point where you understand it even as you’re jotting it down.

The way I went about it was to draw up a kind of Mad Libs teleprompter boilerplate with blanks and the right punctuating anchor points in the accepted sequences, and I planted that on my kneeboard (which, back then, was a clipboard and giant rubber band made from an old bicycle inner tube). In the air, I read my spiel when the right time came (or when I thought it had) by filling in the blanks with the relevant information. I had all my expected frequencies lined up (and written down), in the order I was expecting to use them, from takeoff to touchdown. (I do tend to be a bit compulsive, I must admit.) I had the AWOS, CTAF, Flight Service, approach, tower, ground, and even the FBO … followed on the way out by ground, tower, departure, Flight Service, CTAF, AWOS again, and sometimes at night, the PCL frequency at my home airport. I also had all frequencies tuned well in advance, and listened to what was brewing on the other frequency on my radio stack (such as ATIS) as early as possible. Listening to two things at once takes a little getting used to, but I view it as a good mental game to keep my head in gear. You can usually avoid asking for an airport advisory by just listening to what’s going on when you’re still 20 or more miles out (unless it’s nine PM in Smallville).

The Bottom Line: Finally, you’re going to make mistakes. If you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t be learning as fast. Let it slide. ATC will too, most likely. You’ll get good at it soon, and the better you get, the more fun you’ll have doing the other stuff … you know, like, flying!