Radio communications can be daunting to a student pilot. In the course of her quest for her Private Pilot Certificate, Tina Gonsalves overcame mic fright by spending an evening in the Bradley control tower and TRACON room and an afternoon at the Bridgeport Flight Service Station. AVweb's series on primary flight training continues as we ride along with a brand-new student during her first few flight hours and through her Private Pilot checkride.
March 25, 2002
During my primary training, I had a fascinating experience. I was allowed
to shadow an Air Traffic Controller for an evening. I sidled up, plugged in,
watched and listened for over four hours. This may lead some to believe that
there is something seriously wrong with me, and they may be right, but that's
not important right now. What is important is that I was after experience — because with that comes knowledge. And I had so much to learn about air
This visit really started back in September when my ground school class
went on a tour of the control tower and Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON)
room over at Bradley International Airport. It was there that I learned not to
be afraid of air traffic controllers, that the people who worked the airwaves
there were my friends and that they would become my extra eyes in the sky. Air traffic
control truly is there to help, despite what some may believe. Personally, I
know all too many pilots who will fly out of their way simply to avoid using
the ATC system. And to me, this is just a shame.
Very simply, the system is a
cooperative effort between pilots and controllers. It takes both to make it
work. That was something that one of the controllers I sat with mentioned to
me. He said that the pilot and the controller work as a team, working toward
the same goal, safer skies for all. ATC is there to move the metal; pilots
have metal they want moved. He said that sometimes controllers could be
"testy" if it is a busy day and things aren't going well — also that
sometimes they will joke — but always they will do all that they can to
I cannot begin to tell you the impact that this visit had upon me. It was
absolutely wonderful to meet with these people face-to-face. Prior to my
visit, I was quite mic shy when it came to talking to air traffic control. I
tended to avoid it whenever I could. For some reason controllers intimidated me. I
feared that they would make me perform maneuvers beyond my abilities, or
vector me out into East Bumshoot when all I really wanted to do was to fly to
Hartford. I also thought they could hear my lack of experience and would be
giggling at my lame attempts at communication. What I found, in fact, was a
group of professionals who wanted nothing more than to keep all aircraft
flying until the pilots wanted them to stop flying. Noise abatement is one of
their primary goals: A midair collision makes quite a loud noise.
I am not
sure where my mic fright came from originally. Perhaps it was the resounding
echo of my friend's laugher that still haunts me to this day. Not too long ago
we were out flying together and had a particularly interesting landing at a
towered airport. I was flying left seat and we were on short final when he
thought it would be fun to play "distract the student" to see how
well I could multi-task. Because he is a good friend of mine, I had some
choice words for his method of instruction. After landing, the control tower
called to us to advise us that the mic button had been stuck open through the
entire landing sequence. He claims I held the button. I know it was stuck. In
either case, the tower got an earful of words I wouldn't want my Mother to
hear. Heck, I wouldn't even want my husband to hear them, but ATC heard it
all. No doubt they even recorded it. No wonder I had mic fright, I'm
constantly afraid that they are going to recognize my voice and laugh ... or
vector me out to East Bumshoot again.
Beyond that experience, the fear may have been the foreboding image of what
I believed actually went on behind the scenes at ATC. A shadowy netherworld
where machines go ping and "game over" takes on a whole new meaning. Whatever
the cause, that fear was eradicated after my visit. The transformation was
because, shortly after I overcame this fear, I ended up soloing.
Coincidence? I don't think so.
Well, actually, it probably WAS a coincidence,
but it was still quite beneficial for me to see that there are real
human beings working the scopes.
Inside Bradley Control Tower
I asked what led many of them into this
career and it was interesting finding out how they each came to be
controllers. One guy was just into aviation and had been flying for 30 years.
Another was in the military and worked ATC on an aircraft carrier. One simply
fell into it by taking the test on a lark, and had now been at it for 23
years. The last one I questioned was afraid to fly. Go figure.
certainly be a stressful job, but not nearly as bad as the movies make it out
to be. Sure, there are hours of boredom followed by moments of terror, but
aren't all jobs like that? If it was all fun, would they call it work? It does
makes me remember the controller who was upset when a fly landed on his screen
and wouldn't comply with his vectors. Actually, the controller accidentally
had the mic keyed when he muttered, "Hey - watch me kill this bug!"
The pilots on the frequency suddenly became *very* cooperative.
So how did a ground school visit end up with my spending four hours in
Windsor Locks, Conn.? Well, after the tour, Dean-Our-Tour-Guide offered his
telephone number and said, "Call me for a shadowing session if you'd
like." He went on to explain that he always makes the offer, but rarely
is he taken up on it. Since it was almost checkride time for this student
pilot, I thought it would be helpful to call Dean and see if he could arrange
for a visit. Thankfully, he was able to do so, and rather quickly too. I called him on Friday and was scheduled to show up on Monday, his next
day of work.
I arrived at the gate at 7:00 p.m. and was buzzed in. The security was tremendous.
The gates had barbed wire at the top. Every door had a passkey
AND a code to press in order to enter.
Dean led me into the TRACON room, a
darkened place with glowing radar scopes all around. To me it felt like the submarine control rooms
they portray in the movies. Blips, Pings and Radar
Scopes. Dean led me over to his station and I plugged in beside him. He
explained a bit of what he was doing. He told me how transponders allow the
ATC flight data computer to positively identify each participating aircraft by
displaying a data block next to its radar target on the controller's screen.
Then he apologized for the slowness in the air that night, since it wasn't
very busy yet. He did expect that it would pick up if I stayed awhile. Do you
think four hours is staying awhile?
Well, throughout the evening I listened in on things I had never heard
before, and probably will not need to know for quite sometime. Airplanes being
cleared to various intersections, reporting missed approaches, fixes here and
fixes there. It was all sounding pretty strange to me, but I have that
experience under my belt now. Hopefully, by the time I can use these phrases,
they will be all that more familiar to me because of this experience.
The TRACON room
learn some useful things that I can use now as well, the first being that the
people at air traffic control are basically nice folk — not too much scary
going on there. Another benefit of the visit was that I was able to listen to
the phraseology the controllers and professional pilots use and, because of
that, I can start to incorporate it into my own radio vocabulary.
biggest tip they had for me is that, if ever I am lost or I find myself needing
help of any kind, I should let them know immediately. "Confess the mess." They
can and will be able to help. Overcoming the ego that pilots are reported to
have can be quite a challenge for some. "I don't need any steenkin'
vectors; I'm not lost," could be the last thought a pilot has before
whacking into a mountainside in unknown territory on a dark moonless night.
Something else of consequence that I learned is that although it is
"legal" to be between 5-10 miles from the airport, below 2100' and
not talk to them it's not always the wisest of ideas. "You'll be flying
along, perfectly legal, when a commercial jet on approach flies by you at 1900
feet," I am told. Flying with the big rigs can be fun, but certainly not
when it's a surprise. Puttering along in my little Cessna 152, I am traffic
for an airliner full of travelers on their way to distant, exotic lands —
on there way to Newark most likely — but I imagine they're headed somewhere
Flying nearby other aircraft is always interesting when it is expected.
I flying solo and not using VFR flight following, I would be concerned by an
encounter with a jet. "Change your pants when you get home
concerned," actually. Flight following is a service provided by air
traffic control and is available to all VFR pilots on a "time
available" basis meaning, if they have time, they're available. This is
a service that can enhance your flying safety. Thus, VFR flight following is
like having a
guardian angel with a radarscope. While receiving flight following, you'll be
in radio contact with a controller. The purpose of the service is for
controllers to issue traffic information to pilots, based on radar-displayed
targets, concerning other aircraft in the area that will potentially
intersect their flight path. If vectoring is desired, it is important to note
that you must request radar vectors. In most cases, controllers won't initiate
radar vectors for VFR aircraft. Although, in this student pilot's case, they
did help me out with vectors once when the Quabbin Reservoir moved on me
during my first solo cross-country flight.
Because of my visit, I learned what Air Traffic Control can do to help. ATC
isn't just moving me around because they feel like it, as I had feared, but
because it is often necessary. My other fear, the fear that they were laughing
at me, later turned out to be a more valid concern, albeit one of little
consequence. I had figured that they just might make fun of a pilot's
sometimes-humorous attempts at radio transmissions. A "funny" I
performed early on in my flying was with John, my primary flight instructor.
We were flying the pattern one day when I inadvertently called out to the
world that "Sexna 67396" was turning left crosswind. I learned a
couple things from that faux pas. I learned that John has no difficulty flying
the plane even when laughing hysterically. Later I also learned that the
controllers do actually poke fun at pilots behind the mic.
What they don't
know is we make fun right back. "Cessna 67396, say altitude." "Altitude."
Okay, so I am easily amused.
Bridgeport Flight Service Station
Another more recent visit that I made was to a Flight Service
Station. So as not to play favorites with the "FAA Service
Industries" I visited Sikorsky Memorial Airport, home of Bridgeport
Flight Service. To say that the visit went as smoothly as my visit to Bradley
would be fibbing. I called Dean at Bradley, we set a date and time, and I was
in like Flynn. The journey to FSS was a little less than easy. The day had
"It Looks Like a Beautiful Day To Fly" written all over it. So I
planned to. I dashed off an e-mail to Bridgeport explaining my intention to
fly down to research this article. I mentioned it again when calling later for
the weather briefing. "When do you expect you will arrive?" the
briefer queried. "Early afternoon," I replied. A little after
noontime my wheels touched down and I taxied to the parking area. After
securing the airplane, I took the walk across the parking lot to pay my
respects to the people who tell me whether or not it really is an "It
Looks Like a Beautiful Day To Fly" kind of day. I ring the buzzer and
they let me in. I explain why I'm there and suddenly the ball drops.
"You're going to write about this visit?"
yeah. You guys are nice and all, but the reason for the visit is
so I can tell my friends at AVweb all about Flight Service Stations."
"That must be cleared through my manager," he says. "Oh
dear," I say.
After a bit of a delay and an explanation of my purpose once again, I am
allowed to tour the facility with the expressed plan to write all about it —
spread the word that FSS has a number of helpful services available to pilots
— services that we pay for through our tax dollars, I might add. So we may as
well use them.
The largest portion of the work at Bridgeport Flight Service is giving
preflight weather briefings to pilots. Simply dial 1-800-WX-BRIEF and you will
be hooked up with a flight service station in your area. It couldn't be
simpler. In speaking with the briefer, you tell them your call sign, the type
aircraft, whether or not you are VFR or IFR, where you're going, what time
you're going, and how long you expect to be out there. With that information
they access some pretty informative weather depiction models that instantly
give them current and forecast weather for your route of flight. They will
also advise you of any Notices To Airmen (NOTAMs) that may affect you at your
destination or along your path. It's always good thing to learn prior to
departure that the
airport you're heading to is closed for repairs. Someone
mentioned to me recently that a very low percentage of pilots actually do call
to get the current weather and NOTAMs. I was quite surprised to hear that.
Personally I never fly without first checking for NOTAMs at the very least.
An FSS Specialist being helpful
But wait, there's more than just telephone weather briefings. Bridgeport
FSS has remote communications outlets (RCOs) throughout Southern New England.
Of course other Flight Service Stations throughout the country work much the
same way. With this, you can contact "Bridgeport Radio" from the
air. Simply announce their facility name, your aircraft identification, your
location, and the frequency you are listening to. Bingo, you're talking to a
weather briefer while en route. You can open and close flight plans, as well as
access a slew of other services.
En route Flight Advisory Service or "Flight
Watch" is a service specifically designed to provide en route aircraft
with timely and meaningful weather conditions pertinent to the type, route and
altitude of flight. It is normally accessible at or above 5,000 ft. AGL.
Flight Watch is not for filing flight plans, position reports, obtaining a
complete preflight briefing or obtaining random weather reports and
forecasts, however. In such instances the FSS specialist will provide the name
and radio frequency of the FSS to contact.
Additionally, Flight Service welcomes Pilot Reports, or PIREPS, on what is
actually encountered out there in the skies. Like the bumper sticker on the
tractor-trailer ahead of you that says, "How's my driving? Call
1-800-ROADHOG" it allows for a real-life conveyance of the elements
encountered. Pilot participation in the exchange of information concerning
winds, turbulence, visibility, icing, etc., is essential to the success,
quality, and value of service provided, so pilots are always encouraged to
report all flight conditions when able. If the weather calls for smooth
sailing and turbulence is encountered, they need to know. On the flip side, if
they're telling pilots to expect a bumpy ride and you find it smooth as glass,
tell them. It helps in the reporting. Again, here we have pilots and the FAA
working together as a team.
Something I've always used prior to preparing any flight plan or obtaining
a full briefing is to
call Telephone Information Briefing Service (TIBS). It is an excellent
planning and pre-briefing tool.
TIBS provides a continuous telephone recording of meteorological information
for the location of your choice. These recordings are prepared throughout the
day and they are updated as necessary when conditions deteriorate or improve.
I know pretty quickly what the weather would/could/should be like that
Another service provided would be Hazardous In-flight Weather Advisory
Service, or HIWAS. This is a continuous broadcast, over designated VOR
frequencies, of hazardous in-flight weather conditions. Information includes,
but is not limited to, Convective SIGMETs, SIGMETs, Urgent Pilot Reports and
In the unlikely event you should find yourself in an emergency situation,
Flight Service can come to your rescue. They also provides emergency services by
continuously monitoring the emergency frequency 121.5. Working with
counterparts in control towers and radar facilities, they can provide
assistance to aircraft and coordinate for emergency services as necessary.
Flight service personnel can help locate lost aircraft, and offer suggested
headings to a destination.
Getting the word out
Lest we think that Flight Service is nothing but weather, another important
service that they provide is the recording of flight plans, both IFR and VFR.
A simple call to 1-800-WX-BRIEF and you can put your flight plan on record.
The information that you give to the briefer is brief. First you define the
type of flight plan you are filing, IFR or VFR. Next identify your aircraft,
the N-number, the type, and special equipment on board. They'll ask your true
airspeed, the departure airport and your anticipated departure time. Next your
chosen cruising altitude and the route of flight you are planning to take.
Where your flight plan takes you is their next question, as they would like to
know your destination airport. How long do you estimate the time en route, in
hours and minutes. There is a section for remarks (the one I always made was
"Student Pilot." Hey, it can't hurt to let them know. It can NEVER
hurt to let them know.)
They also like to know the amount of fuel that you have on
board, calculated in hours and minutes, so you'll have to do your math before
calling. Are there any alternate airports you'll be stopping at along the way?
If so, let them know. In fact, it was also suggested to me that filing
separate flight plans for each leg of your flight is best. That way, should
you require emergency assistance, they will be out looking for you sooner
rather than later. Next you tell them your name, address, and where the
airplane is based. How many souls will be on board the flight? What color is
the aircraft and have you already received a weather briefing? All of these
questions aren't because they're just nosey neighbors wanting to know your
business; they save that for the airport gossip crew. The questions they ask
are so that, should you not arrive as planned, they know enough about you to
help find you.
Once these plans are recorded with Flight Service they remain inactive
until opened by the pilot. So should you plan to fly but end up staying
grounded, there is nothing to cancel since the flight plan is not open and
active yet. But once you begin the flight, and open the flight plan, it MUST be
closed upon completion. If not, they send out the cavalry looking for you.
They begin by calling the destination airport, then the home base, and then anyone
and anything in between. That's a good thing if you're truly overdue, a bad thing if
you simply forgot to call and close the flight plan.
There is a student I'm
acquainted with who shall remain nameless that had that exact "a bad
thing" happen to him. He returned from a cross-country flight and forgot
to close his flight plan. Being late afternoon, when Flight Service called the
airport to see if the plane and pilot had actually returned, they only reached
the answering machine in the office. A Connecticut State Trooper was
dispatched and came to the airport to check to see if he had returned. It
costs the taxpayers a few dollars to send the trooper on a wild goose chase,
and it cost the student a bit of embarrassment, but had there been a real
overdue aircraft the cost is priceless.
In light of the recent tragedies that have skewered our friendly skies,
most of the facilities I have mentioned in this article are presently off
limits to non-FAA personnel. I can only hope that the paranoia associated with
general aviation abates and we are once again allowed to visit these
institutions one day. There is such a wealth of experiences waiting to be had
both with air traffic control and with Flight Service that it would be a shame
to have to rely only upon my written words. Besides, I have a ground school
class to take to Bradley's tower for a tour.
Oh Dean ... .
Additional articles in this series by Tina Gonsalves include: