Say Again? #41: ATC 105 -- Phraseology

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You've got plenty to learn when becoming a pilot -- and one of the more intimidating things is learning to talk on the microphone. But proper phraseology can save your life, and it's easier to learn when you're new. AVweb's Don Brown has another in his basic communication courses in this month's column.

Say Again?

You know it's bad when you walk into the control room and hear a controller yell, "I want a tracker!" It really wasn't what he said so much as how he said it. The high side was trying to work all the East Coast traffic around Tropical Storm Gaston and it was getting ugly. A tracker is the third position of the "radar team." We're supposed to get one when the traffic gets too heavy (or too complicated) for two people -- the Radar controller (R-side) and the Data controller (D-side) -- to manage.

Not to be outdone, the guy on the low side answers, "Forget the tracker, I want a priest!" I don't know if he wanted forgiveness or last rites. Maybe both. Yeah, it was funny. But it isn't. It is interesting to observe the controllers I work with as they attempt to handle the ever-increasing level of stress we are being subjected to these days. But it isn't funny. Or fun.


No, I didn't mislabel this article. It is about phraseology. I'm just backing into in my usual manner. I see things differently than most people I know. And I know mostly controllers. If you asked controllers to list the problems they face at work -- especially when they're yelling for help -- phraseology would be lucky to make the list. If it did make it, it'd probably be way down their list. I put it near the top.

If you asked most experienced pilots to list their problems, I doubt if phraseology would make their list, either. They'll tell you it's important, but most, I believe, don't think it's a problem. However, if you asked them if frequency congestion is a problem, they'd nod their head. Vigorously. Somehow, they miss the connection between the two.

That is one of the reasons I decided to put this topic in the ATC 100 series. I want to see if I can reach the inexperienced crowd. I don't believe I'll ever have much luck with the experienced pilots. But for the new folks ... well, they always worry about what they sound like. Maybe I can get their attention.

It's Attitude, Not Aptitude

Here's a secret that might make you junior guys feel better. You have a better chance of doing it right than 99% of the pilots you'll meet in the next decade. There's only one thing you have to do: Work at doing it right.

You might think I'm going to load you up with a bunch of phraseology right now. Nope, I'm not. And repetition isn't really the secret either. It's understanding. I believe if you understand what phraseology is about, you stand a better chance of actually trying to apply the principles behind it. So let's start with the most basic question.

Why do we even have phraseology?

After all, in this country we all speak English. Why don't we just talk like normal? There's the first problem. What's normal? I think I sound normal, but the truth is I sound more like Jeff Foxworthy than my momma would like for me to admit. And unless you carry around his copy of the "Redneck Dictionary," you're going to have a real hard time understanding, "Mayonnaise sum big thunderstorms." (My apologies to all my foreign and Northern readers. You'll never figure that one out.)

Factoring in the Human

But phraseology goes much, much deeper than that. There is a whole host of research available for anyone who wants to understand the human factors behind phraseology. The volume of research available is exceeded only by the number of people ignoring it. There's really nothing new. The research has been done. There isn't a serious argument in the aviation profession about how important proper phraseology is.

What's missing is the will to use it, the training to understand it and the discipline to use it on a consistent basis. I've been through all this myself so I understand the emotions behind it. When I started off in the FAA, the controllers training me were still disciplined enough to enforce the use of standard phraseology. I didn't have a choice. They insisted I use it. And it really rubbed me the wrong way. What I didn't get in training was the reason behind the rules. The FAA was in such a rush to re-staff the system after the PATCO strike in 1981 that they just taught the rules and demanded compliance. They didn't have to time to teach the reasons for the rules.

After I checked out and was working airplanes on my own, I started getting sloppy with my phraseology. I'd been around aviation for a while. I knew how to talk on a radio before I got hired on by the FAA. Phraseology wasn't that important. Occasionally I'd get whacked on the knuckles by a supervisor but I was stubborn. And arrogant. Those qualities aren't entirely unheard of in the ranks of controllers. Or pilots.

Funny Phraseology

Over time, you witness so many miscommunications in air traffic control that you can't help but start wondering about the role of phraseology. Many instances have become standard jokes. "Turn left right now" is a favorite among controllers. Supposedly that's what a controller told a pilot once upon a time. But it was a foreign pilot. He had to ask if we wanted him to turn left or to turn right. So much for doing it "now." Most pilots have heard the "Takeoff power" tale: The captain, ordering a go around, says "Takeoff power." And the first officer takes the power off.

You see the same thread in many aviation publications, even AVweb. Every issue of AVweb includes Short Final, the funny things that are heard on the frequency. I'm not such a stick-in-the-mud that I don't enjoy them. And I can't say that I've never uttered anything that might qualify me for inclusion in one of these forums. I read them and enjoy them just like you do. They're funny. Sometimes, they're downright hilarious.

Not So Funny

But nobody laughs about KLM and Pan Am colliding at Tenerife. Or about the TWA that hit the mountain near Dulles. Phraseology is about communications. The line that separates the two thoughts -- trying to be witty yet remaining safe -- can be slim indeed. You don't have to take my word for it, you can read an example here.

As a matter of fact, you can read a lot of examples about phraseology gone wrong while you're on that page. A paper I recently read stated that 70% of all the reports in the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System database involve some sort of miscommunication. The paper was written by a fellow named Dave Wilkerson. He wrote it as a thesis for his Masters degree. Very interesting stuff.

To tell the truth, he kind-of shamed me into writing this article. I write about phraseology all the time. It affects virtually every single interaction between a pilot and a controller. But like a lot of other people, I kind of take it for granted. I figure most of people know about standard phraseology ... they just haven't bothered with it. Dave has convinced me that it isn't necessarily so.

Who Can You Trust?

Think of it this way. Let's suppose you're a really motivated junior birdman and you want to learn to do the things the right way. First off, you'd be setting yourself up for a challenge in today's environment of "faster and cheaper." Learning to fly is expensive and time consuming. But you're going to commit the money and the time. You ask around to find the best instructor you can find. As your acquaintances extol the various virtues of the their favorite instructor ... what do you think the chances are that "... and he really knows his phraseology," slips into the sales job? After all, you want to learn to fly, not learn how to talk. See what I mean?

In his paper, Dave has a chapter entitled, "Cheap Absolution for Using Nonstandard Phraseology." That's pretty strong language right there. But I underlined this passage:

Commitment to the principles of "right and wrong" where ATC phraseology is concerned, however, has not been obviously strong, and the resulting weakness is fed by writers and educators wishing to avoid injuring the feelings of those not doing it right.

Ouch. I'm pretty sure he took a shot at both of my jobs (controller and writer) with that one statement. The problem is ... I think he's right.

It fits in with my feeling that one of the major problems regarding phraseology is that we never tell anyone when they're doing it wrong. Even worse, if someone does go out on a limb and correct you, who's to say that they are right? The answer to that of course is the FAA determines what is right. The FAA only teaches pilots phraseology in the most roundabout of ways, however. They publish the AIM and the Pilot/Controller Glossary and they license instructors to teach the skills you need to fly. Which leads me to what I believe is a question central to the issue. What kind of formal training did your instructor receive in phraseology?

The Learning Curve

Dave brings up another point that makes this issue even more important than it might seem on the surface. The time to learn correct phraseology is when you first start using it. In other words, at the same time you're trying to learn to fly. It's just human nature to put off learning "proper" phraseology until you've dealt with the more immediate threat -- learning to control the airplane safely. But once again, David has the research to back up his position and it agrees with my observations at work. Put simply, it's easier to do learn something right instead of learning to do it wrong and then going back and trying to break bad habits and learn the correct way.

As you can tell, I was influenced by Dave's paper. I'd love to provide a link to it on the internet but he hasn't decided to take that step yet. And no, I don't have any additional copies. I hope he'll be encouraged to publish it (in some form or fashion) and if he does, I hope you'll read it. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, Dave does a great job doing what a writer should do: He makes you think.

Thinking About Speaking

I hope I can do the same -- make you think about the subject of phraseology, that is. Phraseology is supposed to facilitate communication. It's supposed to be precise and concise. How's it working out? Go to any of the "Listen to Live ATC" sites on the Internet (like this one) and listen for a while. I mean listen critically. Compare what you hear with what is in the AIM and the Pilot/Controller Glossary.

If you've read any of my rants about phraseology you'll have an idea on what to listen for. But let me give you a few other examples. You'll think they're minor, but I'll try to convince you they aren't later.

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Shine 5 STAR (click graphic for larger version)

On the SHINE arrival into CLT (Charlotte, N.C.), we issue they same restriction hundreds of times a day:

Airliner one twenty three, cross SHINE at and maintain one two thousand, Charlotte altimeter three zero zero zero.

The typical readback will sound something like this:

"SHINE at twelve, three triple zero, one twenty three."

Yes, I could write a lot about how wrong that is, but I have a different twist I want to bring up. Look at the clearance issued again. Is it ambiguous in any way? I don't think so. I hope you don't. But (you knew there would be a "but") let's look at the SHINE STAR chart. Under "TURBOJET VERTICAL NAVIGATION PLANNING INFORMATION" you'll see "Landing North: Expect clearance to cross at 12'000/250K."

This causes some pilots to believe the controller's clearance is ambiguous in that it didn't include the speed restriction ("Two five zero knots at SHINE"). I still say the clearance is unambiguous, because if the controller didn't mention speed, the pilot should still "expect" to get a clearance to cross SHINE at 250 kt. at some later time during the arrival, and therefore plan accordingly. But let's keep going and see where this leads.

Confusion Fusion

Because some pilots believe the clearance is ambiguous, they (correctly) question it:

AIM -- Section 5: Pilot/Controller Roles and Responsibilities

5-5-2. Air Traffic Clearance

a. Pilot.

3. Requests clarification or amendment, as appropriate, any time a clearance is not fully understood or considered unacceptable from a safety standpoint.

"Center, you want the speed at SHINE too."

Notice how that sentence "reads" wrong without a question mark. There isn't a "question mark" in phraseology, so questions can be "heard" wrong over a radio, too. But there is something more insidious at work. Let's keep moving along.

This question ("Do you want the speed?") has become so pervasive that controllers have "invented" phraseology to deal with it:

Airliner one twenty three, cross SHINE at and maintain one two thousand, Charlotte altimeter three zero zero zero, no speed restriction.

The pilots now feel that they have an unambiguous clearance. Despite the fact that this phraseology is "made up" -- it's nonstandard -- I have yet to hear a pilot question it. So where's the problem, you might ask?


The problem comes in when the supervisor comes down two minutes later and tells the controller to start using speed at the fix (SHINE) -- the way it reads on the chart -- because the traffic at CLT is backing up. (We don't normally issue the speed restriction on a "north operation" until the final at CLT starts backing up. That usually happens midway through the push -- which is why the chart tells pilots to expect the speed restriction.) Now the controller has to go back and amend the clearance:

Airliner one twenty three, cross SHINE at and maintain one two thousand, two five zero knots.

And the pilot may have to say, "Unable." He was told "no speed restriction" and he has programmed the FMS accordingly. It's very likely that he is too high and too fast to be able to cross SHINE at 12,000 and 250 kts. This leads to even more (usually nonstandard) phraseology clogging up the frequency, as the controller spends extra time talking to the CLT approach controller or vectors planes around until they slow down.

In case your head is swimming from all, this let's review. The correct phraseology is routinely questioned by pilots because they believe there is a discrepancy between the clearance issued and the clearance the STAR chart says to expect. In fact, there is no discrepancy. The pilot is to cross SHINE at 12,000 and to expect SHINE at 12,000 and 250 kts. The controllers -- trying to accommodate the pilots and cut down the number of questions clogging their frequency -- have resorted to using nonstandard phraseology that seems unambiguous but in reality causes more clogged frequencies.

Once again we're left with the common theme that runs throughout all the issues I try to address as a safety rep. Every time we try to work "around" the system instead of working with the system we create more work. Phraseology -- correct phraseology -- is just as important to the safe, orderly and expeditious movement of air traffic as any other tool in the system.

Time to SHINE

Let me tell you a story. I was sitting at the very SHINE sector from the previous instance. The main function of this sector is to feed the SHINE arrivals to Charlotte Approach. It can be a very challenging sector because of crossing traffic and departures/arrivals from GSP, AVL and TRI. Believe it or not, things were actually running pretty smoothly. It was busy but I guess I was firing on all cylinders that day. It kept getting busier but it was still running smoothly. It finally reached the point where I was calling the airplanes that hadn't checked in yet because there weren't any breaks on the frequency in which they could check in. In other words, I was talking almost nonstop, only pausing long enough for the readbacks.

Would you like to know what straw finally broke the camel's back? (You aren't going to believe this.) After I had worked one guy through the thick of the push with basically no fuss and no muss, he took it upon himself to say, "You're doing a great job Atlanta, thanks." Every single airplane after that -- when I went to switch them to the next sector -- had to say "Thank you" in a different yet increasingly longwinded manner.

Thanks But No Thanks

Now don't get me wrong. I appreciated the thought. The older and grumpier I get the less I hear "Thanks," and it was nice of everyone to say it. But it was killing me. Yes, I realize this makes me the only guy dumb enough to complain (in writing, no less) about people saying thanks. Sorry, but it's the truth. The extra verbiage was making it tougher and tougher to get the job done.

There are a couple of factors at work in this incident that I want to point out. First, there's some kind of crowd psychosis at work that I've seen before. I first noticed it when running arrivals in a similar situation. One guy gets a bright idea, everybody else says to themselves, "Hey why didn't I think of that?" and they jump on board the bandwagon. Most controllers will recognize the old, "What number am I?" routine. If you make the mistake of answering that one when you're running a string of inbounds, you'd best be willing to answer it a dozen more times because everyone will want to know where they are in the line. The best answer I ever heard (because you have to answer or they'll just keep bugging you) is "last." That seemed to cure anybody else of thinking it was a "bright" idea.

I Got Rhythm

The second thing I want to mention is rhythm. Controllers -- when things are busy but going well -- get into a certain rhythm. We're thinking three or four moves ahead. It's like your mind is in a race but you've got a good stride going, you feel strong and you're running smoothly. And then some little-bitty thing comes along to trip you up. Invariably, it seems like it's some piece of nonstandard phraseology. I had one the other day. I'd issued a guy a descent clearance to flight level two four zero. He read it back, "Thirty four nothing for two four oh." Say what?

Most of my brain was racing ahead to what I was going to do next. The part I was using to listen to his readback heard, "Thirty four nothing," and said, "Why is this guy changing frequencies?" The only time I've ever heard anybody say "nothing" was when they were changing frequencies: "Two four nothing," which really should be, "Atlanta Center on one two four point zero, Airliner 123." I dragged my eyes and the rest of my brain back to his data block, keying the mic to make sure he didn't switch frequencies, and saw his data block showed FL340 descending. That was what he was really saying: "Leaving flight level three four zero." Well ain't that cute.

Keep Your Eyes on the Road

I pulled my eyes off his data block to get them back on the track and WHAM! I ran smack into a brick wall. I didn't have a clue what I was going to do next. Two seconds before I was three moves ahead, but suddenly I didn't even have a move. My plan left my brain while I was deciphering "nothing." No major damage done. I picked up the pieces and moved on. But the efficiency was gone, and for what? "Nothing."

The subject of phraseology is just that simple and just that complex. Learning correct phraseology isn't that difficult but applying it can be. Don't use it and the extra verbiage will clog up the overcrowded frequencies, usually requiring clarification that eats up even more of the frequency. If you try to shortcut the process and use less words, you'll destroy the clarity that correct phraseology was designed to provide. Try to get cute with it and you're just wasting everybody's time.

Have a safe flight.

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

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