Say Again? #4:
Tape Talk

More than many other activities, air traffic control depends on the quick, easy understanding of the spoken word, often over a scratchy, static-filled frequency that even Marconi himself wouldn't recognize. That's why there are written procedures that cover ATC communications. Don Brown, the NATCA Safety Representative at the Atlanta Air Route Traffic Control Center, explains why the procedures are the way they are.


Up until this point I’ve been having fun writing this column. This installment isn’t going to be fun, at least for me.

This is my third attempt at writing this particular column. I’ve been looking for a way to take the sting out of telling someone that they are doing something wrong. If anyone could ever teach me that skill, I’d be eternally grateful. Pointing out errors never has and isn’t ever going to be popular. I’m not concerned about that part. The trick I’ve never learned is pointing out an error in a way that people will accept the criticism, evaluate it, and if it’s correct, change what they are doing wrong.

Before we start I want to say thanks to Rick Durden. Rick doesn’t know me from Adam, but he recently wrote a column on the myriad problems at Oshkosh. He took a chance and said what needed to be said at the risk of saying something unpopular. I don’t know if I’d have the courage to write this without his example. The positive responses he received didn’t hurt things in the courage department either. My thanks to all the folks that wrote in response to the article, too. I can only hope that this will be received as well.

You see, Rick showed me I was wrong. When I took the job of NATCA Safety Representative, I knew I would have to say some unpopular things. I never dreamed I’d have to say them to thousands of people at once, much less that those people would be pilots instead of controllers. It’s hard to call the chance to anger a lot of people an “opportunity,” but Rick was right: We should have the courage to take the opportunity before someone gets hurt.

Let’s get started. All references are found in the Aeronautical Information Manual unless otherwise noted.


“Airliner123 descend and maintain flight level two five zero.”

“Two five zero Airliner123.”

Is he going to descend, turn or slow down?

AIM 4-2-9. Altitudes and Flight Levels

b. At and above 18,000 feet MSL (FL 180), state the words “flight level” followed by the separate digits of the flight level.

EXAMPLE- 1. 190 Flight Level One Niner Zero 2. 275 Flight Level Two Seven Five

Repitition And Theory…

Those who have been reading my column will notice that I am repeating myself. Safety reps do that. In fact, we do that a lot. The reason I’m doing it in this case is because I pulled one of my tapes and started counting. There were 39 instances where the term “flight level” was not used by pilots within 30 minutes. I could use that statistic to come up with an astounding number and say something like, “This error is occurring once every second in Atlanta Center’s airspace,” but I won’t. What I’ll do instead is point out that safety is largely a numbers game in ATC. We have backups and redundancy galore built into the system. If you miss something, I’ll do my best to catch it. I feel certain that if I miss something, you’ll do your best to catch it. If we both miss something, hopefully the machines will catch it.

Theoretically, several things will have to go wrong at the same time for the system to fail. However, if the phraseology part of the system is “failing” on such a regular basis (and it is) then the odds of the system failing are increased. When you don’t participate in the system by using proper phraseology the redundancies don’t work. Ergo, the system won’t work. If the system doesn’t work, someone is going to get hurt.

If you thought I was done with that example, you were wrong. (Hey! I heard that groan…) I told you this wouldn’t be fun, so listen up.

…And Radio Technique

The first thing controllers are taught about talking on the radio is that the first word out of our mouths is usually cut off. There’s a delay between keying the microphone and the start of the transmission. Not to mention the tendency to start talking before you key the switch. That’s one reason controllers are required to say “November” or the aircraft type first. The AIM says basically the same thing for pilots.

4-2-2. Radio Technique

c. The microphone should be very close to your lips and after pressing the mike button, a slight pause may be necessary to be sure the first word is transmitted. Speak in a normal, conversational tone.

What controllers think they are saying is this:

“November 12345 descend and maintain one five thousand”

In the real world, it comes out like this:

“(Click)ber 12345 descend and maintain one five thousand”

For airlines and such, if there is a similar callsign on the frequency, the book requires us to repeat the call sign after the flight number. That’s because it comes out like this:

“(Click)ner 123 Airliner descend and maintain flight level three three zero.”

Okay, now we go back and tie in the original example of a bad readback.

“(Click)ner123 descend and maintain flight level three three zero.”

“(Click) three zero Airliner123.”

Let’s try to do it halfway right and see if there is a difference.

“(Click)ner 123 descend and maintain flight level three three zero.”

“(Click)ht level two three zero Airliner123.”

“(Click)gative Airliner123 descend and maintain flight level THREE three zero.”

Any questions?

By the way, saying the phrase “Flight Level” has the added benefit of decreasing the chance that a pilot will confuse an altitude assignment with a heading or a speed. Yeah, I know, I’m repeating myself.

I’m not going to let the general aviation crowd off the hook on this one either. Most of you don’t have TCAS and a GPWS.

“(Click)na 12345 descend and maintain nine thousand.”

“(Click) thousand Cessna 12345.”

Do you really want to bet your life that you heard five thousand? Did you read back the altitude in a manner the controller can understand and hopefully correct? Do you have the charts out and know your position? Do you know what is below you?

There are a lot of places I work where 5,000 MSL will put you in the dirt. For eternity.

Let’s try it again.

“(Click)na 12345 descend and maintain nine thousand.”

“(Click)ving one zero thousand descending to niner thousand Cessna 12345.”

See what a difference it makes ?


Pilot Responsibility…

4-4-6. Pilot Responsibility upon Clearance Issuance

b. ATC Clearance/Instruction Readback. Pilots of airborne aircraft should read back those parts of ATC clearances and instructions containing altitude assignments or vectors as a means of mutual verification. The readback of the “numbers” serves as a double check between pilots and controllers and reduces the kinds of communications errors that occur when a number is either “misheard” or is incorrect.

1. Include the aircraft identification in all readbacks and acknowledgments. This aids controllers in determining that the correct aircraft received the clearance or instruction. The requirement to include aircraft identification in all readbacks and acknowledgements becomes more important as frequency congestion increases and when aircraft with similar call signs are on the same frequency.

EXAMPLE- “Climbing to Flight Level three three zero, United Twelve” or “November Five Charlie Tango, roger, cleared to land.”

Stop right here. Did you really read paragraph 4-4-6,b,1? Really? Are you certain you understand what it says and the full implications of the paragraph? Did it say “Include the aircraft identification in all readbacks and acknowledgments except when issued a new beacon code or when issued a frequency change?” Do I really need to prolong this agony with another war story about what can happen when the wrong plane takes a frequency change? Use your callsign.

Editor’s Note:

Now would be a good time to go back and review articles AVweb has published regarding the FAA’s interpretive rule on readback errors:

…Controller Responsibility…

For the controllers out there who are enjoying watching the pilots squirm, remember that the next time you get a tape talk and you’re the one squirming. Tape talks aren’t ever going to be fun but they do serve a purpose. Everyone makes mistakes and acquires bad habits. Unfortunately, somebody has to point them out if we are to avoid learning “the hard way.” Little things like saying “nine” instead of “niner” can turn into big things in a hurry. Here’s a rule that’s germane to the issue, just in case you were, uh, speed reading your last refresher course.

7110.65M Air Traffic Control


a. When issuing clearances or instructions ensure acknowledgment by the pilot.

NOTE- Pilots may acknowledge clearances, instructions, or other information by using “Wilco,” “Roger,” “Affirmative,” or other words or remarks.

AIM, Contact Procedures, Para 4-2-3

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.

Pilots may be able to chant “The AIM is not regulatory,” but you controllers don’t get that luxury; the 7110.65 is. If you don’t hear a readback and there is something in the way (like a mountain or an airplane), go back and get it. If you don’t want to have something else to think about every time you issue a clearance then get into the habit of getting the readback every time. And unless you identified every issue addressed in this article on your own, you might want to slow down and read that next refresher course a little more carefully.

…And Management

Let’s see now. Did I leave anybody out? Oh yeah: management. What’s that management saying I hear over and over again? Lead, follow or get out of the way?

While I’m angering the rest of the aviation world let me be the one to tell you: You’re in the way. Oh sure, you’ve got all the boxes checked on your paperwork. You say the right phrases in all the right places. You sound good. Your paperwork even looks good. The only problem is that it isn’t working.

Human factors is about humans, not paperwork. Get your paperwork out of the way and put the humans together. Stop communicating with memos and start communicating with people. The right people. Controllers don’t want to hear from a pilot flying a desk anymore than pilots want to hear from a controller pushing paper clips. Put the real pilots with the real controllers and let them talk. I don’t care if it’s in the control room, the cockpit or the conference room. Tell the bean counters to bite the bullet and find the money to let pilots and controllers communicate, face to face.

Now then. I think that covers everybody. That ought to ensure my mailbox fills up with hate mail.

Whose Side Are You On?

Remember in my last column that I told you a frequency change is supposed to take place prior to entering the next sector’s airspace? Put that together with the concept of flying at the right altitude for direction of flight and let’s see what we get.

“Atlanta Center, BrandX123 with you three one zero smooth.”

Well, okay. It’s smooth. Now what am I supposed to do with that information? Who am I supposed to relay it to? You’re not even in my airspace.

Can you figure out how I can get someone close to your position and still comply with the right-altitude-for-direction-of-flight rule? Me either. And we all know that 2,000 feet of altitude can make all the difference in the world as far as the ride is concerned.

It’s really not a big problem, that one word, “smooth,” tacked onto the end of your check-in. It’s when it becomes the “sixty-second check in” with a detailed description of how bad the ride is followed by, “How are the rides down the road?” Multiply it by the 30 other flights that are going to do the same thing during the inbound push and what you get is: “Blocked.” “Blocked.” “Blocked.”

Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m repeating myself again.

Welcome Home?

Let’s say you’re flying into your home base. (This is my favorite part of the job, by the way.) You know all the controllers and they know you. Some of us have even become friends over the years. We even get a chance to do a little “How ya-doin?” on the frequency every once in a while. You know the routine by heart. You know that we’re going to make sure you have the weather and ask what type of approach you want. So you decide that you’ll just go ahead and get it all out of the way at one time. In your friendliest voice you say, “Hello there Atlanta Center, this is good ol’ N12345 with you, we’re out of eight descending to six, we’ve got the AWOS already and we’re lookin’ for a vector to the ILS approach to Runway 24; how y’all doin’ tonight?” Well, we’re doing fine but the guy that just blew through the localizer because I couldn’t get on the frequency to turn him isn’t doing so great.

I know you don’t mean any harm. Like I said, hearing a friendly, familiar voice is one of the joys of this job. Let’s keep the check-in short and sweet, though. As soon as we get the other guy turned onto the localizer and switched over to the tower, we’ll find out what kind of approach you’d like. Then we’ll see if we can’t find some time to ask how the wife and kids are doing.

Technology Traps

Here’s an ATC truism that you can take to the bank. You can’t change anything in this system without affecting another part of the system that you never considered. This is a relatively new piece of phraseology that’s come about because of a technology change.

“BrandX 123, traffic, two o’clock, five miles, southwest bound, descending one five thousand, a Boeing seven thirty seven.”

“BrandX 123, roger, we’ve got him on TCAS.”

Anyone want to show me that one in the book? Think it’s harmless? Let’s go over it again.

This time the scenario is that the controller is behind, and he’s got a frequency full of airplanes. He’s trying get a visual separation situation set up because if he can’t get it, the traffic is going to be stuck at 15,000 feet for the next 40 miles. In other words, he’s “cocked and locked,” and just waiting to hear:

“BrandX 123, roger, we’ve got him (garbled).”

The controller just heard what he needed (and wanted) to hear and he “pulls the trigger”:

“BrandX 123, maintain visual separation from the seven thirty seven he’ll be descending through your altitude. Airliner456 descend and maintain one one thousand the traffic has you in sight and will maintain visual separation.”

Toss in a blocked transmission (you, trying to correct the mistake) and a controller that got in too big of a hurry just once too often and you’ve got yourself a real problem. I haven’t heard of it happening yet; I certainly hope it never does. What you say (or don’t say) on the frequency can go a long way to keep it from happening.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

I have a good friend who took me on a tour of my airspace one day in his Cessna. The entire trip was very educational and I’d recommend it to any controller. Being able to see the terrain and the surroundings will bring a whole new perspective to how you work airplanes. There’s nothing like flying into the sun with a lot of haze and trying to pick out the airport, to make you appreciate how difficult it can be. Ever since that tour I’ve been acutely aware of what time of day it is and where the sun is in relation to the airplane.

What I found most fascinating about the whole trip, though, was the difference in the quality of the audio. We flew for over an hour and every transmission I heard was clear as a bell. I can’t go 10 minutes at work without having to say, “Say again?” I don’t know if it’s because we were wearing headphones in the plane or if a control room is noisier than the cabin of a Cessna. It could be that there are just so many more mental distractions working a sector than being a passenger on a nice flight at sunset. All I know is the radios sounded a lot better. The view was a heck of a lot better too.

In case you are wondering why I’m rambling on about this I’m trying to make a point. It’s hard to hear in the control room. Standard phraseology is easier to hear than anything else you can dream up on your own. You may have the latest greatest noise canceling radio system but I’m still wearing the same Plantronics Starset I was issued 20 years ago. Okay, it may not be the exact same Starset, but I don’t think being remanufactured in Mexico makes it much better than it was when Ronald Reagan was president.

Wrong Number

Have you ever dialed the wrong number and gotten a secretary that says the same thing a thousand times a day? “Thank-you-for-calling-Joe’s-widgets-whom-may-I-direct-your-call-to”?

It’s a total surprise isn’t it? As you wonder what the heck she said, you manage to stammer, “Is this Joe’s pool hall?” knowing full well it isn’t. A controller complaining about pilots talking too fast is too risky for even me to take on. So I’ll sidestep the issue and point out something that might help me catch your check-in the first time.

4-2-3. Contact Procedures

a. Initial Contact.

1. The terms initial contact or initial callup means the first radio call you make to a given facility or the first call to a different controller or FSS specialist within a facility. Use the following format:

(a) Name of the facility being called;


Maybe, just maybe, if you do it by the book I might be able to cut out a few “Say agains.”


Those two words (Atlanta Center) at the beginning will give me the split second I need to stop talking to my D-side or listening to the supervisor and concentrate on what you’re saying. I’ll wait and see how bad I get hammered for this article before I start calling the kettle black.

Second Thoughts

Most of us have been communicating on the radio for so long that we never give it a second thought. That’s part of the problem. In researching this column, I took the time to ask several pilots when the last time phraseology was brought up in their refresher training. I didn’t find a single pilot that could remember. I asked airline, military, corporate and private pilots. All I got were puzzled expressions followed by, “Why do you ask? Are we doing something wrong?”

The answer of course is “Yes.” It’s amazing to me that as much emphasis as the FAA puts on “readback/hearback” for controllers, so little is seemingly put on training in the readback portion for pilots. As I hope I’ve demonstrated, it’s not just what you read back but how you read it back. I hope you’ll keep this article in mind the next time that you take any refresher training. If the instructor doesn’t include phraseology in the review, I hope you’ll ask why. Phraseology is worth giving a second thought.

Have a safe flight!

Don Brown
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Atlanta ARTCC