Say Again? #53: Radio Realities

Radio communication was invented over 100 years ago. You'd think we'd be able to do it better by now, but people tend to get sloppy. And sometimes the ''professional'' pilots are the worst. Until we get more controllers or fewer aircraft, AVweb's Don Brown says we have to start talking better.


Standard phraseology is the product of years of experience and has been developed to combine precision, brevity, and audibility. … Talk slowly and speak distinctly, do not run words together. Make the listener hear all you say the first time you say it.”That sounds like a quote straight out of the AIM, doesn’t it? It isn’t. It’s a quote from The Fleet Type Submarine Manual published in 1946. Oh yeah. I’ll go to any length to get your attention and get you focused in on this subject. People have been talking and communicating for a long time. I know this subject seems mundane to some but it’s actually quite complex.

Was Ist Das?

I personally wish we’d switch to German as the official language of ATC. Or maybe Portuguese. Or Japanese. Have you ever thought about what it must be like to fly through our airspace with only limited English skills? Seriously. Can you imagine this in German?

“Hey Center, one twenty three, any chance we can get Flight Level three one zero?”

You might learn the German word for “request” if you had to, but I doubt you’d learn “any chance we could get.” I guess the reason the airliner crowd just uses half their callsigns these days is to save time so they can waste it somewhere else by turning one word (“request”) into five words (“any chance we can get”). Maybe you didn’t get that: The phraseology example from above was from an airliner. That is the faux pas de jour these days — just using the last half of their callsign. It could have been Delta 123, United 123, USAir 123 or any other airline 123. It’s an accident waiting to happen. I’ve ranted about it before (more than once actually) so I’ll move on.

Sprechen Sie Deutsche?

One way to think of all this is to remind yourself (constantly) that we aren’t having a conversation on the radio. We’re not supposed to be using conversational English, we’re supposed to be using phraseology. That is a whole lot harder to do than it sounds. I was sitting on the D-side one day watching a senior controller working the radio. A foreign air carrier asked for a ride report at Flight Level 350.

“Atlanta Center, European six seventy eight, request ride report Flight Level three five zero..”

The pilot had a heavy accent but the transmission was very understandable because he stuck to standard phraseology. He probably didn’t have any choice. That’s probably the only English he knew. The reply was another story.

“Well, European six seventy eight, a Cactus about 30 miles in front of you said it was a little bit bumpy but there’s another guy up there about 80 miles away and he says he’s gettin’ a good ride.”

First off, I could tell from his response that the poor pilot didn’t have a clue what the controller was saying. Secondly, it took about 10 times as long to say as “occasional light chop.” But controllers have a pretty good idea of how much time they have to waste on a frequency. Well, most of the time.

Fat Mouth

I remember one time when I was a young controller and working a slow, high-altitude sector. I was bored so I got into a conversation with a pilot about something or other. All of a sudden I noticed this F-15 was in a big turn.

“Peach two one, Atlanta Center, where you goin’?”

“Atlanta Center, Peach two one is declaring an emergency, we’ve lost an engine and are returning to Dobbins.”

He couldn’t get on the frequency because I was having a conversation. Now that was embarrassing. Somehow, I don’t think that fighter pilot was the least bit concerned about my embarrassment. But on the bright side, I didn’t have to worry about being bored anymore.

Pick a Thought. Any Thought.

I want to get a few thoughts out before I continue on with the nitty-gritty of using a radio. They aren’t in any particular order; I just want to get them out there so folks can find the one that grabs their attention.I just got back from the EAA Airventure in Oshkosh (OSH) and after just one day of work at ZTL (Atlanta Center), I’m ready to go back. The weather was perfect (while I was there, anyway), the pilots were friendly, the event was highly organized (hats off to the EAA) and my companions for the week were all safety representatives for NATCA, just like I am. It just doesn’t get any better for a guy like me. But I digress.Do you know what makes OSH work from an air traffic perspective? Besides the fact that it’s worked by controllers who are actually enjoying themselves? Think about the subject of this article: Radios. And OSH. What is the big difference between the fly-in at OSH and normal operations in ATC land? Sure, there’s all that “land on the green dot” stuff, but the big difference — what makes it work — is that the pilots don’t talk. That frees the frequency up so the controllers can talk almost nonstop. The only way controllers can get away with that is the standardization of the arrivals. I’ll let that go before I get started about filing standard routes.Have you ever been switched to a frequency that was so busy you couldn’t get checked in?

Missing Inaction

Remember back a few years ago when data-link (a.k.a., Controller-Pilot Datalink Communication — CPDLC) was going to save us all? And NEXCOM? What happened? Where are they? If you want to consider that as anything other than a rhetorical question you can read this article. Don’t take my word for it. Do like I did: Google “NEXCOM” and “CPDLC” and start reading.Where’s the technology? Or, as the little old lady in the TV commercial used to ask: “Where’s the beef?”And last but not least, we have the same old songs I’ve been singing since I started writing this column. There are more and more airplanes and less and less controllers. I really thought the FAA would take advantage of the lull in aviation after the 9/11 attacks and beef up the system. But no, the traffic is back and we have fewer controllers than before.Oh … that is just too good to let go. You do remember the ATC system that day, don’t you? The controllers put 4-5,000 airplanes on the ground in just over two hours. You see, I can be immodest enough to mention that because I was sitting at home watching it on TV. I didn’t have a thing to do with it. The controllers working did. If you look at the FAA then and the FAA now, I’d be willing to bet the FAA has more of everything except the one thing that worked the best that horrible day: Controllers.

Making Do

So, what’s my point? For the foreseeable future we have to work with what we’ve got. There is no “silver bullet.” The cavalry isn’t going to come charging over the hill to save us. There will be more airplanes on the same radios talking to fewer controllers. It all adds up to more frequency congestion. And as I’ve said a dozen times, that is the biggest bottleneck in ATC: frequency congestion. I’m convinced there is nothing we could do that would have a bigger “bang for the buck” than to clean up the frequencies. I’m going to try and prove it to you and it’s probably going to make you mad.For the rest of this article, just to make a point (and drive my editor crazy) I’m going to intentionally misspell words every so often. Let’s see if this will drive the point home about clear communication. Try to keep up. I’ve got a lot of points to make with just a few words and examples so I’ll be moving from point to point real fast. It will be kind of like trying to work a lot of airplanes in a limited time.

Brass Tacks

I’ve tried numerous times before, and I’m going to try to make this point again: If you want my attention and you don’t want to hear me say, “Say again,” then use my name. That would be “Atlanta Center.”

“Atlanta Center, Cessna one two three for five, request.”

I hear this exact transmission at least 25 times a day. Now tell me, is this guy IFR or VFR? What does he want? He is literally making a request two make a request. It’s a waste of time. If you’re going to make a request, then make a request. Even if it’s something out of the ordinary. Condense it down to one or two words.

“Atlanta Center, Cessna one two three for five, request routing change.”

If you think the routing change will be too complicated for a controller two get “on the fly” — the first time you say it — you’ve now got the controller’s attention and he is prepared to write down your routing request.If you’re just requesting direct to a fix you’ve already filed, you’re wasting time. We already know everybody wants to go direct. If you can’t stop yourself from asking, then at least do it in one transmission.

“Atlanta Center, Cessna one two three for five, request direct Spartanburg.”

That way we can just say “unable” without even looking away from what we’re concentrating on at the moment.As I’ve said before, how you say something is almost as important as what you are saying. Pilots call with that “request to make a request” format to get a controller’s attention. This is the correct way to get a controller’s attention: “Atlanta Center [pause] … Learjet three for five six seven out of one nine four four eleven thousand.” It’s not a big pause — it’s just a little bitty micro pause. It’s just enough so that a controller can switch his attention to you and focus on what you’re saying. By the way, you can’t call a controller without distracting him. That is just the nature of the business. But if you’ll distract him the right way, you’ll save yourself — and the system — a lot of time.

“..liner four five six out of one niner four to three zero.”

I actually heard that one the other day.

“Airliner four five six, Atlanta Center, amend altitude maintain flight level two three zero.”“Uh … yeah, Center, we’re only climbing two two three zero.” “Aircraft climbing two flight level two three zero say callsign.”

(Always use your callsign. Always. “We’re” is not a callsign.)

“Uh … Airliner four five six is climbing two two three zero.”“Airliner four five six, Atlanta Center, your Mode C appears to be invalid, say altitude leaving.”

OK, I didn’t give him that hard of a time. But I could have. In his mind, he’s seeing numbers. But what he is seeing and what he is saying are too different things. He thinks he is saying, “Out of 1-9 for 2-3-0” but what I’m hearing is, “Out of one niner four …” On the other hand, I am seeing the numbers. I’m looking straight at his Mode C and it says 188.” That’s way off — 188 vs. 194. Well, for the way a regional jet climbs it is way off. The Mode C on most jets can actually lag that far behind.While we’re hear, I can just here some guy out there saying, “That’s the reason you’re not supposed to use ‘to’ or ‘for’ when you’re talking on the radio.” Uh … wrong. Here’s an example right out of the AIM.

4-4-6. Pilot Responsibility upon Clearance IssuanceEXAMPLE-“Climbing to Flight Level three three zero, United Twelve”

It’s the format — not the phonetics — that makes it work. Now that I’ve got you all twisted into a knot, let me untie it.Here’s what he said:

“..liner four five six out of one niner four to three zero.”

Here is what he should have said:

“…lanta Center [micro pause] Airliner four five six leaving flight level one niner zero climbing to flight level two three zero.

Word Counts

Did you notice that the pilot’s version only used 12 words but he should have used 19 words? How can I say more words would be better than less when I’m writing an article about frequency congestion? Would someone please make up my mind? It’s simple: Clarity trumps brevity. You don’t have to take my word for it.

“Standard phraseology is the product of years of experience and has been developed to combine precision, brevity, and audibility … Talk slowly and speak distinctly, do not run words together. Make the listener hear all you say the first time you say it.”

Even the submariners in 1946 knew that. It’s better to use more words and get it right the first time than to suffer the consequences of getting it wrong or having to repeat yourself. Even if somebody is shooting at you.

Brevity vs. Clarity

This “keep it short” culture has been overemphasized to the point where it has become a problem. Let’s take a look at the same situation again, only this time, let’s use some real names instead of a fictional name. In the above example, the guy cut off half his callsign and it came out “… liner” instead of “Airliner.” He saved himself two words by not saying the name of the station he was calling (Atlanta Center) and, as I pointed out, the controller probably started keying in on the words about half way through his transmission. But let’s say it’s a Northwest Airlines flight that called. It would sound like this:

“… west four five six out of one niner for to three zero.”

Now, if it had been a Southwest instead of a Northwest, what would it sound like?

“…west four five six out of one niner four to three zero.”

Can you tell which is which? I didn’t think so. If you think that can only happen with airliners, think again. Ask the Cirrus drivers how many of their callsigns end in Charlie Delta. Or ask the Citation drivers how many of their callsigns end in Charlie Charlie.

Guessing Game

Controllers have three options when they’re confronted with a transmission they really didn’t hear well. They can say, “Say again,” they can ignore the call or they can guess. Have you ever called a controller, heard them key the mic, and then they said, “Uhhhhh … November six seven eight, climbing two eight thousand, roger.” Sure you have. You’ve heard it before. You know how it sounds. It sounds like they’re lost and they’re searching while they’re talking. It sounds that way because that is exactly what they’re doing. They’re searching for the datablock that matches what they heard. They didn’t hear the callsign, they just heard the “climbing too eight thousand” and they’re looking four the data block that shows an aircraft climbing two eight thousand. Then they’ll read it back to hedge their bet that they “guessed” right. Let me show you the difference.

Pilot: “..ix seven eight climbing to eight thousand.”

Controller: “uh … November six seven eight, climbing to eight thousand, roger.

Let’s try it the right way.

Pilot: Atlanta Center (micro pause) November four five six seven eight leaving six thousand three hundred climbing to eight thousand.

Controller: November four five six seven eight Atlanta Center roger.

Can you “hear” the difference? Listen real close the next time you’re out flying. Notice how many times you think the controller is “guessing.” Controllers aren’t supposed too guess (of course) but that is what many feel they’ve been forced two do. It’s either that or say, “Say again,” about for times as often as they do already. To be honest, I don’t think many even try two think about it anymore. That’s “just the way it is” and there’s not much point in trying to fight it.

Two Too Much?

Well, it’s time to wrap this up. There are about a million more bad phraseology examples and bad radio techniques I could talk about. It really is a plague. And it’s of epidemic proportions.I hope you feel aggravated by having to figure out all the “to-two-too”, “for-four” and “hear-here” business in this column. And I hope you’ll forgive me. I know that I am preaching to the choir. I know that if you’re the type of individual who will actually read an article about phraseology, you’re someone I want on my side. What I want you to see is how this problem eats into the safety and efficiency of the system. Think of the aggravation you’ve experienced in having to go back and reread a sentence again to understand it. Think of the cumulative effect, in time, that it took to accomplish the task of reading this article. It’s simply a literary device I used so you can appreciate how frustrating, how time consuming and how dangerous poor radio habits really are.In the next few years, this system — the one you and I work in — is going to be stretched to the limit. We will need every advantage we can get to make it work. Again, there is nothing I can think of that can make a bigger difference — quicker and at less cost — than improving our radio skills. If you’re concerned enough to wade through this article, then I know I can count on you. So do me a favor: Send this article to somebody you know who really needs to read it.Have a safe flight.

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

Want to read more from air traffic controller Don Brown? Check out the rest of his columns.