In practice, we know task saturated controllers occasionally do not absorb and respond to incorrect read backs. I explained why in the last article. You are your own last line of defense when it comes to getting a clearance right. So, again, how can you protect yourself?
Before I answer that, a very brief anecdote. A while back, I read a general message from my chief pilot’s office. It essentially said, “Don’t get distracted in the cockpit.” Excuse me?! That’s like saying, when a friend sets off an M-80 firecracker next to your bed while you are taking a nap, don’t wake up surprised. (True story. College, freshman year.)
What the Chief Pilot Meant to Say
Distractions happen. Surprises happen. I cannot tell you to never misunderstand or mis-hear a clearance. What I can tell you is, to reduce the chances of getting a clearance wrong:
- First, acknowledge to yourself that you aren’t Superman. There are some instances in which ATC will fire off a long clearance that very few mortals could digest in one dose: “Pipsqueak 934 Kilo Charlie, turn right heading two four zero, descend and maintain eight thousand, expedite through niner thousand, reduce airspeed two zero knots. You’re following a seven-fifty-seven twelve o’clock and eight miles.” If you need a repeat, ask for it.
- Don’t assume ATC will correct you if you aren’t sure what you heard: “Confusion 7781 Whisky, turning right two four zero. Descending to two three zero. Speed two zero zero knots?” If you aren’t sure, admit it and ask for clarification: “Confusion 7781 Whiskey, right two four zero, descending to two three zero, and say the speed again.”
- When there are similar sounding call signs on the frequency, listen carefully. NASA says this is a big gotcha. ATC should alert both parties when there are similar sounding call signs on the same frequency: “Cessna 2253 Charlie, be advised there’s a Cessna 2153 Charlie also on this frequency.” A busy controller doesn’t always get around to it. It’s particularly risky when a pilot with a similar sounding call sign checks in the frequency for the first time and ATC immediately issues a clearance to one of the two aircraft with a similar call sign.
- Recognize a very busy air traffic controller’s situation when it arises.
- Listen carefully.
- Cut out the idle chatter with other people in your own cockpit so you can concentrate more intently on the radio.
- If you need a repeat or a clarification, don’t be intimidated by the controller’s workload. Safety is always the first priority, so ask the controller to clarify, regardless of his workload.
- Speak clearly, and at a normal conversational pace. Just because a busy controller’s tongue is on fire doesn’t mean you should follow suit. Speed-talking can lead to misunderstanding. You can’t afford it.
- Don’t add unnecessary messages to the radio stream. Stick to essential communication. Avoid commentary and nonessential requests on the radio when it’s really busy.
Did I miss anything? Got any war stories on this topic? Tell me in the comments section below.