Listen for Your Call Sign

“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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

James Carlson August 29, 2017 at 10:26 am

I think your points about distraction and inattention are well taken, but there are a couple of other classes of errors that lead to missed calls.
One is the “oops” sort of error. This happens when we set a control incorrectly or bump something we didn’t intend to. These include setting the volume too low, hitting the standby flip-flop for the COM radio instead of the NAV one, switching at the wrong time, or button-pushing mistakes with new or upgraded equipment. Occasionally getting a radio check if things seem too quiet can help avoid the problem when it becomes more critical.
Related to distraction is the “drowned out” error. I often want to be able to give ATC the ATIS code on contact along with the requested approach, so I’ll dial up ATIS on the second radio. If there’s a call while copying that, it might get missed. Making the primary radio a little louder helps.
And, then, just for renters, we have the “who am I” problem. It’s not uncommon to hear people on frequency who don’t respond because it takes a while to recognize an unfamiliar tail number.

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JeffKanarish August 29, 2017 at 2:49 pm

All very good points. Thank you, James.

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Andrew Ward August 29, 2017 at 3:06 pm

Hi Jeff.

Thanks for writing this blog post.

I’ve found that as a renter of aircraft at the flight school at Hanscom (Bedford MA) I need to remind myself which aircraft I’m flying that day. I do this by writing the call sign on the top of my kneepad. I’ve created my own flight plan document and put that item at the top. Perhaps this could work for other pilots.

A question back to you. How do you as a professional pilot remember your flight number on each leg? For instance, “Delta 765 …” Is there some secret recipe? Seems like I here the pros fumble on this too.

Peace,

Drew

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JeffKanarish August 29, 2017 at 3:20 pm

I’m very familiar with the “renter’s problem”. Every leg I fly in an airliner, there’s a different call sign in play due to a different flight number assigned to every flight. My strategy is to listen carefully for my company I.D. and at least the first digit of my flight number, which I usually have written on a piece of paper clipped to the control yoke, as you mentioned, Andrew. If I hear my company I.D. and the first digit of my flight number, I’m all ears for the rest of the flight number. If the whole call sign matches what I’ve got written on paper, ATC gets my full attention. If the company I.D. isn’t my own, or the first digit of the call sign doesn’t match, I’ll redirect my attention back to whatever I was occupied with previously.

Renters can do the same thing. If you are renting a Cessna 172, listen carefully when ATC says, “Skyhawk”. Have your N-number written on paper and clipped to the yoke. If, for example, your N-number is 728LC, and ATC calls, “Skyhawk 7 . . .” pay close attention for the match in registration number. If you hear, for example, “Skyhawk 9 . . .” or “Archer anything”, the next transmission isn’t for you. With practice, this technique becomes automatic.

When you hear the pros miss a call from ATC, it’s likely the pilots were shooting the breeze with each other. This is why it’s airline policy to have pilots stop all non-essential conversation when flying below 10,000′ above airport elevation. The policy is called “sterile cockpit” and is designed to allow pilots to concentrate on the radio and flying when the workload is at its highest.

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