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Clearance Read Back Armor

Photo of suit of armor.
You've got to protect yourself.
If you cannot rely upon air traffic control to correct you when you inaccurately read back a clearance, how can you protect yourself? Is this really something to worry about? After all, the FAA says air traffic controllers will listen to clearance read backs from pilots and make corrections when appropriate. (J.O. 7110.65T, Air Traffic Controller’s Manual para. 2-4-3.)

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:

  1. 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.

  3. 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.”

  5. 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.

  7. 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.


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6 thoughts on “Clearance Read Back Armor”

  1. Dear Sir,
    When you read back a wrong instruction, according to FAA regulation, is the ATC controller have the obligation to correct you?
    Hope to here from you soon.

    1. Leonardo:

      Thank you for this question. Here is what it says in the Air Traffic Controller manual:

      b. If altitude, heading, or other items are read back by the pilot, ensure the read back is correct. If incorrect or incomplete, make corrections as appropriate.

      So yes, the controller is obligated to make a correction, if he hears and recognizes an error. That is a big IF, because sometimes air traffic controllers are so busy, they don’t hear always hear errors.

      Good question, Leonardo, and please, call me Jeff.



  2. Jeff,

    Although not a pilot, I am involved in radio training for a 300
    member Community Emergency Response Team, ( CERT,) in
    the Cleveland area. In the hour or so that I’ve spent on your site
    tonight I’ve learned quite a few things that will easily cross over
    into what we are teaching.
    The design and thoughtful compilation of what you are offering
    is truly a job well done. Will be visiting again soon, and thanks.


  3. Jeff,
    I do most of my flying in West Texas. Our elevation is 2610 and we have to get to 8000 or above to go west, to contact ARTCC Albuquerque. Most of my flying is VFR all though I need my IFR to fly east, when ever I want to. Your Radio Master for IFR Pilots is very helpful. Is it going to have a work book? Really enjoy the information you share with us.

    1. Hey David,

      I’m very familiar with West Texas flying. I was an instructor pilot at Reese AFB in Lubbock for 3 years. I don’t have any plans for an IFR workbook. Focus right now is on finishing the Aircraft Radio Simulator.


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