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.
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 traffic control.
Destination Bradley Control Tower
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 ensure safe airspace.
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 especially gratifying 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.
Who Are Those Guys?
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.
ATC can 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.
The TRACON Troops
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.
Nice Folks — And Helpful
I did 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.
But the 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 — okay, on there way to Newark most likely — but I imagine they're headed somewhere more exotic.
Oversight Is Helpful in Close Quarters
Flying nearby other aircraft is always interesting when it is expected. Were 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.
Flight Service Foibles
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?"
"Uh … 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.
Admittance at Last
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 — to 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.
But Wait, There's More
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.
Call Me "TIBS"
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 particular day.
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 AIRMETs.
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.
Not Just Another Weather Channel
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.
The Flip Side
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: