“Cessna 9130 Delta, Oakland Center, radio check,” says the controller.

“Cessna 9130 Delta, loud and clear,” the pilot answers.

“Cessna 9130,” says the controller, “that was my third attempt to call you. If you want to continue with flight following, you’re going to have to listen for your call sign.”

Something stands out in the background noise.

Why didn’t the pilot answer ATC the first 2 times the controller called him? I can think of 3 possibilities. 1. He was distracted. 2. He heard ATC but chose not to answer. 3. He got tired of listening and mentally tuned out.

Reason 1, distraction, is easy to understand because we’ve all been there. Something happens in the cockpit that takes your attention away from listening to the radio. When flying, the possibilities for distraction are endless. I could name some distractions, but I’m sure you’ve experienced enough of your own to be very familiar with the problem.

Reason 2, prioritizing, is also pretty easy to grasp. From our very first day as student pilots, our flight instructors told us our priorities were, “Aviate, navigate, communicate”, in that order. If flying the aircraft or staying on an airway centerline requires your full attention, then answering the radio can wait.

Tuning Out

Reason 3 is a little more complicated than the first two explanations. When a radio frequency is very busy with conversation, and you aren’t part of any of the ongoing conversations, its easy to become numb to the chatter.

We pilots like to think we are excellent at monitoring our environment. With practice, we learn to crosscheck the daylights out of our aircraft’s flight instruments. When the aircraft engine makes an unusual sound, our ears pick up on it immediately. If an updraft causes our aircraft to change pitch, we feel the change in our gut.

Pilots are excellent at detecting changes. We don’t do as well at paying attention to the unchanged. Tuning out background noise is a natural process of survival. Filtering what we perceive as irrelevant allows us to focus on and process information we perceive as important.

There’s plenty of good research available online about paying attention–vigilance–in the cockpit. The FAA and NASA have done their fair share of study in this area. If you want to look at this research yourself, Google “scholarly studies on cockpit vigilance”.

Train Your Ear

If we accept that our brains are programmed to tune out background noise, and we understand that chatter on the radio can be perceived as background noise, then how do we overcome our tendency to tune out?

The answer is embedded in the example that opened this article. The controller said, “Listen for your call sign”. He doesn’t expect you to listen to all of the chatter on the radio. He knows that you can and should listen for the cue that tells you, “What follows is intended for you.”

Mentally tuning in when you hear your call sign is similar to paying attention when you hear your name mentioned in the din of a crowded room.

Other Strategies

To give yourself the best possible chance of hearing your call sign when it’s spoken, you’ll want to create an environment that does not compete with listening to the radio. When the radio gets busy, stop all non-essential conversation in the cockpit. If passengers or a flying partner must talk, have a visual cue to indicate you need them to stop talking temporarily, such as holding up your index finger in a “wait-a-moment” gesture.

Shut down other possible distractors, such as music playing over the intercom. Limit your own activity to the basics of flying and navigating. Paperwork or reading can wait until the radio calms down.

The Expectation

You can’t fight nature. Your brain is designed to tune out noise, and irrelevant conversations on the radio are noise. At the same time, your brain is pretty good at picking up on sudden changes in the environment.

Admit to yourself you won’t be able to consistently monitor every conversation thread on the radio. Removing the stress of trying to listen to everything will give you the breathing room to listen for your call sign. Reduce the noise in your own cockpit as much as possible and you will be ready for the next ATC transmission that’s directed at you.

Questions? Comments? I’m right here in the comments section below and at jeff@atccommunication.com. I’m also reachable at atc_jeff@twitter.com.


Updated 27 January 2017.

Yesterday, I published an article about what to say to ATC when you have identified traffic on your onboard ADS-B screen. Based on feedback from several air traffic controllers, who all responded similarly, I’m going to change my recommendation.

Previously, I said when ATC points out traffic and you notice the traffic on your ADS-B screen, you may tell ATC, “[Call sign] has the traffic on ADS-B”. I also said, as an alternative, you may substitute “TIS-B” for “ADS-B”. This, as it turns out, was not good advice.

From www.faa.org. Public domain photo.

ID-ing Traffic on ADS-B is Irrelevant to ATC Ops

Here’s the truth of the matter. The only thing an air traffic controller cares about is whether or not you spot the traffic through the windscreen of your aircraft. Noting the traffic on your ADS-B set or, if you have it, on your Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) does not affect ATC operations in any way.

If you spot the traffic through your windscreen, in some circumstances, the controller may apply traffic separation rules based on you maintaining visual contact with the traffic. Visual separation rules cannot be applied under any circumstance if you can’t get eyes on the traffic.

It comes down to this. If ATC calls out traffic to you and you pick it up on ADS-B or TCAS, but you don’t actually see the traffic through your windscreen, the correct and only response is, “Negative contact”. If you see the traffic through the windscreen, your response should be, “Traffic in sight”. Telling the controller you have ID-ed the traffic on ADS-B or on TCAS is irrelevant and unnecessary.

Then Is There Any Value in TIS-B?

The real value in the Traffic Information Service component in ADS-B is it helps you build situational awareness of traffic in your area. It may also help you spot traffic when ATC calls it out to you. TIS-B may even help you spot traffic when the controller is too busy to point it out.

Perhaps someday the FAA will develop new ATC procedures based on your ability to ID traffic on your ADS-B set. That day has not yet arrived. Until it does, the only two standard and useful responses to a traffic call out from ATC are “Traffic in sight” or “Negative contact”.

Questions? Comments? Write to me below in the comments section, or send an email directly to Jeff@ATCcommunication.com.


Using ATC to Check the Status of a MOA

January 4, 2017

Is it safe to fly through a Military Operations Area (MOA)? It depends. A pilot named Drew recently asked me if I had any advice about how to contact ATC to check the status of a MOA. Here’s what I told him. Show Resources Aeronautical Information Manual 3−4−5. Military Operations Areas c. Pilots operating under […]

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ATC Flight Following Animation

December 11, 2016

We’ve talked many times about techniques for picking up VFR flight following with ATC. Let’s go one step further and look at the process in a real time animation. Before you click the link at the bottom of this article to see the animation, a few notes. The animation used in this lesson is part […]

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ATC Language Program for Non-English Speakers

October 29, 2016

In development. A training program that teaches student pilots how to speak the English words used by ATC.* This will be a language program with a very narrow scope. It is intended for non-English speaking people. It is not a how-to-talk-to-ATC course for native English speakers. To avoid the need to interpret the program’s instructions […]

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Taxi Clearance Anxiety

September 30, 2016

If you have ever felt butterflies in your stomach when faced with contacting Ground Control for taxi clearance, you have experienced something I call Taxi Clearance Anxiety. It’s a made-up term but the phenomenon has real consequences. Some pilots go out of their way to avoid controlled airports with complicated taxiway layouts. Even high-time pro […]

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The Difference Between ATC Clearances and Advisories

September 15, 2016

The following transmission from a tower controller has a clearance and an advisory. Can you tell which is which? ATC says, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, Runway 16, line up and wait. Traffic will be crossing downfield.” When the controller said, “Runway 16, line up and wait,” he was directing Skyhawk 9130 Delta to do something. When […]

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Great Article on Radio Errors

September 8, 2016

Here’s a worthwhile read about radio errors, by John Zimmerman, at studentpilotnews.com. The issues raised in this article are just as prevalent today as they were when this article was written in 2012. Enjoy, or read it and weep, depending on your perspective. http://studentpilotnews.com/2012/05/09/the-7-deadly-sins-of-radio-communications/

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Contacting Flight Service; Searching for IFR Traffic in an Uncontrolled Pattern

August 30, 2016

If you can get all the aviation weather data you need online, do you really need to know how to contact Flight Service on the radio? It depends on who you ask. I say yes. A Flight Service agent can save time and point you in the right direction. An agent can quickly sift through […]

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Experience on the Radio Can Be the Worst Teacher

August 18, 2016

Experience means jack if you aren’t open to learning something new from your experiences. Fair warning, learning by experience without distinguishing good from bad can lead you to very dark and dangerous places. Nowhere is this more true than in an aircraft cockpit. Let me explain. I’ve been flying fixed wing airplanes since I was […]

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