If you have been flying from uncontrolled airport to uncontrolled airport, never getting in touch with ATC, it’s likely the scope of your radio skills has shrunk. You may feel confident about reporting your position in an uncontrolled airport pattern but anxious about contacting ATC at a busy Class C airport. This should not come as any surprise to you, or anyone who has ever said, “Use it or lose it.”
Losing Does not Equal Lost
While I have no argument with the concept of “Use it or lose it”, I have a problem with the interpretation of “lose”. Many people equate losing with lost. Lost is usually perceived as a permanent condition. For example, people tend to speak of a lost cause as failure from which there is no recovery.
To me, losing is a temporary predicament. We may lose ground, or lose the lead, but we always have options to catch up, build back, regain, and restore our position. Restoration can be applied to any skill that degrades or atrophies over time for lack of practice.
For a simple analogy, think of what happens to an otherwise healthy person who sits on the couch day after day, week after week. Whatever muscle tone that person had will naturally degrade over time. But degraded muscles are not destroyed muscles, again assuming no medical issues. All that person has to do to restore muscle tone is to make those muscles bear a little bit more weight than required to support a couch potato.
The same principle applies to radio skills. To rebuild your ATC vocabulary and your confidence, all it takes is the right kind of practice. What is right for you? Read on.
Do Your Radio Skills Match Your Circumstances?
The solution to your temporary setback depends on your circumstances. If your future consists of only flying in and out of uncontrolled airports, then your current skill set on the radio perfectly matches your plan. I mean, why bother learning Spanish if you anticipate never traveling to a place where the locals speak Spanish only?
If, however, you have been flying out of your way to avoid Class C or Class D airspace simply because you don’t feel up to the challenge of talking to ATC, it’s time to regain the ground you lost since flight training. Here’s what I recommend.
Getting back to our analogy using the couch potato. Common sense says, a person who has been sitting idle for months shouldn’t rush out to the gym and begin by jerking heavy weights overhead. Doing so will likely result in injury or at least crippling muscle pains the next day. The smarter approach is to begin with an easy aerobic warmup, then gentle stretching, then very light weight-bearing exercises.
The same principle holds true if it has been a long time since you talked to ATC. Rather than dive right into busy Class C airspace at peak traffic hour, begin to reacquaint yourself with ATC through a slow and gradual warmup.
Passively listening to ATC talk on the radio is a great way to warm up. When I say passively listen, I mean listening to a radio frequency when not flying. Basically, I want you to create an opportunity to just listen with no responsibility to reply. There are a few ways to do that. You can:
- Listen to ATC on the internet via LiveATC.net.
- Use a radio scanner tuned for aviation frequencies.
- Carry a hand-held aviation transceiver to a controlled airport in your area and tune it to an appropriate frequency.
A word of caution here. No matter which equipment you use to listen, I want your focus to be on the words and pacing of the air traffic controller on the frequency. Try to ignore, as much as possible, the transmissions from pilots.
Many, if not most pilots fail to use standard phrasing when transmitting to ATC. Most pilots use slang, lingo, and other invented phrases to respond on the radio. If you attempt to rebuild your ATC vocabulary by mimicking other pilots, you’ll end up adopting a collection of bad habits. I’m deadly serious about this. Take anything you hear from other pilots on a frequency with a massive grain of salt.
Once you’ve spent some time warming up your ear for ATC language, it’s time to learn, or in this case re-learn by doing. Again, the best approach is to warm up. What I have in mind is explored in depth in Chapter 10 of my book Radio Mastery for VFR Pilots.* Here’s the exercise in a nutshell.
Select a large enough room or outdoor space that allows you to walk around an imaginary Class D airport traffic pattern. An area of at least 10 x 15 feet (3 x 4 meters) will do. I recommend marking the corners of a rectangular pattern on the ground using light-stick tape or chalk or any other removable, flat marker. Mark the corners that represents the turn to crosswind leg, the turn to downwind leg, the turn to base leg, and the turn to final approach. Divide one of the long legs of your rectangle into thirds. Place a mark at the point of the first third. This will represent a runway threshold. Mark the second third to represent the runway’s departure end. (See the illustration below.)
Next, walk around the pattern, literally. As you move around the pattern, first imagine the various clearances ATC may issue to you at each point. Then start saying the phrases out loud and include the readback you would make in reply.
Here’s an example when your walk-around reaches the downwind leg. ATC might say, “[Your call sign], Runway 27, cleared touch and go.” Your readback would be “[Your call sign], Runway 27, cleared touch and go.” Per FAA standards, you may modify this by stating your call sign at the end of your readback. Another example for the point at which your walk-around nears the turn to base might be, “[Your call sign], extend your downwind leg. I’ll call your turn to base.” Your readback would be, “[Your call sign], extend downwind leg. You’ll call my turn to base.” Again, you have the option to place your call sign at the end any readback.
For more specific ATC phrasing, refer to the Aeronautical Information Manual’s Pilot/Controller Glossary. More detailed phrasing can be found in the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Manual, J.O. 7110.65., Section 3-8-1 Terminal Sequencing and Separation, and Section 3-10-1 Landing Information. Both the AIM and J.O. 7110.65 are available free online at https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/.
The point of this exercise is to re-familiarize yourself with ATC phrasing in simulated real time. By walking around an airport pattern and saying the phrases you expect to hear from ATC at various points in the pattern, you should get a feel for the timing and sequence of clearances that occur while flying the pattern.
In the next phase of your re-training, it’s time to fly. Your radio workout should begin with light, easy exercises. Choose a small Class D airport for your practice. Fly in at an off-peak time for traffic. Usually midday, mid-week at most small airports tends to be relatively quiet. Ideally, at the time of your arrival, you may be the only aircraft in the pattern or one of a very few. Practice working with the tower controller by doing multiple touch-and-goes. If you pick a time when the pattern is unexpectedly busy, either turn away and try another time, or practice passing over the airport, entering one side and flying straight through to the other. This is commonly called a transition; and it requires the tower controller’s approval. I have a detailed description of how to do this at https://atccommunication.com/radar-contact-audio-show-11-transitioning-class-d/.
Once you are comfortable working with a tower controller when you are the only airplane, or one of a few, in the pattern. Return to that same airport at a time when it is likely to be busier. The busiest times tend to be on the weekends during periods of clear skies and light surface winds. As you grow comfortable working in and out of a small, low-traffic Class D airport, pick a larger Class D operation that tends to get a lot of traffic at peak times.
Next, move up to working with a radar controller in Class C airspace. The same routine that you used to get re-acquainted with Class D applies here. Pick an off-peak time. Try a transition through the airspace. Then try an arrival and landing at the airport inside the Class C, again during a time of the week when traffic is light. Build up to busier periods at the same airport.
Use this building block approach and before you know it, you’ll be speaking the language you thought you had lost. It wasn’t lost. It just needed some measured exercise to build it back up.
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