How Do You Hear Me?

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I realized I was taking a risk when I put out the request for feedback from pilots on what they want controllers to know. This would be a good opportunity to "rant" about controllers, and I was afraid I might get quite a few pilots who only wanted to complain. I didn't need to worry. In fact, I did not receive even one reply that I would consider a rant. All of the replies (almost 25 in all) were very respectful and appreciative of the work controllers do, and what a difficult job it is.

Probably the best example is from Hank Greenfield, who said, "However much I wish the system was perfect, I have many more kudos to offer than complaints. My experience as a lowly Skyhawk driver has been that most controllers are a delight to work with and their presence on the air is greatly appreciated." Robert said, "Overall we're glad we are on this side of the microphone, because we know we drive you crazy!"

As I expected, the most common complaint was simply that controllers talk too fast. Hank said, "The biggest 'beef' I have with those using the ATC system, including controllers as well as pilots, is poor enunciation; both speaking too fast and slurring words. Too often there is confusion among a number of pilots on the same frequency regarding registration numbers being called up and clearances given."

Larry Bothe recognized that it is necessary to talk at a pretty good clip in congested areas, but didn't understand why controllers seem to use that same staccato delivery when they are only working a few airplanes. His comment brought back an experience many years ago when I was landing at Lafayette, Louisiana. As far as I could tell, I was the only airplane the controller was working, yet she issued each command at warp speed. After a similar experience while instructing a student who had informed the controller he was a student on initial call up, Larry went up to the tower to talk with the controller about the need to slow down, especially for students. The controller responded that he learned to talk fast when he was a military controller and he always talks that way. End of discussion.

Actually, I recognize how easy it is to get in the habit of speaking fast. In fact, the one criticism I get about the seminar I do on Preventing Human Error is that I talk too fast. I got in the habit of talking fast when I cut the seminar down from eight to four hours at the request of a major client. While I condensed the seminar content, I still had a lot to cover in four hours. I have noticed that when I consciously slow myself down, I actually get done a little earlier than when I am rushing. I think the same would be true of controllers. If the FAA would start a major initiative to get controllers to slow their rate of delivery, in the end I think controllers would find that everything was working faster and more smoothly because there would be a lot less need to repeat what was just said, and less time required to respond to mistakes caused by misunderstandings.

The other common request pilots had for controllers was to limit the number of items communicated per transmission, and allow a little more time to digest and comply before transmitting even more commands. Robert realized that "controllers normally give no more than three instructions at a time, so how about giving the pilot 10 seconds or so to actually program, write or assimilate the first three instructions before starting the next transmission?"

Robert also wanted controllers to be aware that for pilots, "every radio transmission is to or from ATC, but only a small percentage are for any one pilot, so please be patient when we don't hear you the first time." He also pointed out that the pilot's "name" (call sign) may change several times a day if he flies different airplanes or flights, but the controller's name always stays the same. David Johnson had a suggestion to help pilots recognize that the call is for them. "My request is: please say 'Cessna 6039N' or better yet 'Centurion 6039N,' not 'November 6039N.' It helps enormously in being able to attend to conversations in the cockpit when one can mentally tune out the Pipers, Twin Commanders and such."

Several other comments dealt with aircraft types. Jim Ward says he receives "top-shelf" service when flying a Cessna T210, but finds the service is more slipshod when flying a Cessna 152, even to the point of being forgotten about 10 percent of the time after calling ready to depart in the 152. He has also found that controllers are more likely to "grouse" at him for real or perceived mistakes when he is flying the smaller airplane, even though as a 5,000-hour ATP-rated pilot he uses the same professional radio procedures no matter what kind of airplane he is flying.

A couple of pilots commented about the need for controllers to understand aircraft performance limitations. Anne Wright is often encouraged to "keep up best forward speed" when she is flying a Super Cub at 55 mph on final, which is about the best it can do. Matt Gieraltowski finds controllers often are not aware of the anemic climb capabilities of the CRJ-200 (which CRJ-200 pilots say stands for "Climb Restricted Jet") above about FL 200. Matt also has a problem with numerous speed changes that destroy their rapidly diminishing fuel reserves, along with the need to understand that "pilots can slow down or go down, but not both at the same time."

Chris Huff's one complaint would be that, "after contacting approach or ground control stating that I have ATIS information Alpha (Bravo, whatever) ... by my estimation, half or more of the time the controller will come back with, '182DG, verify information Alpha (Bravo, whatever).' " He has tried different terminology to try to ensure the controller understands he has the information, but he said nothing seems to help.

Victor Vogel contributed an extensive list of specific suggestions he had for controllers, including:

1. If you are giving me a full route clearance and I am a single-engine guy that you don't recognize as being based at your airport, please spell the names of intersections not in the departure procedure, and at least give me the 3-letter identifiers of the first one or two VORs in the routing. This will save me a lot of time trying to find the fixes on the chart before putting them in my flight plan in the GPS navigator. Yes, I know I can use the "Nearest" function in the GPS box to find them, but help me if you can. It really speeds things up.

2. Likewise, don't rattle off intersections that are on the arrival charts for the turbine drivers if I am not assigned that arrival route.

3. Avoid slam-dunk clearances to the final approach: 10 miles out at 8,000 feet doesn't cut it for a prop single.

4. When giving me vectors to final, please tell me if you are going to send me to a fix outside the FAF. If you do, I will load the entire procedure in the GPS and be able to rapidly navigate to any fix in the approach.

5. Please stop flying us through the localizer! This happens on one-fourth of my ILS approaches.

6. Use "Descend at pilot's discretion" whenever possible. I use the vertical descent profile in the GNS 430, and it really helps me to know when to start own.

7. If it is 2,000 OVC with tops at 8,000, calling out traffic at 4,000 is a waste of time. Traffic calls are also not much help if the visibility is one to two miles. Also, don't call out traffic behind me! It is useless unless he is about to overtake me.

8. Please expect a request for progressive taxi instructions from a general aviation, single-engine pilot at large, commercial, metropolitan airports, and please be polite and patient about it. Yes, I will use the taxi diagram, but I can't see the field the same way as the jet captain perched 20 feet above the runway.

9. Please expect me to do a run-up at the runway, and tell me if you would like me to do it before I leave the ramp or taxiway and not at the runway entrance. If I can pull off somewhere and get out of the way of the turbine traffic to do my run-up, please tell me.

10. I really appreciate your telling me about weather you see on your radar scope. Confirming what we see on Nexrad with your radar is a big help.

David St. Arnold shared an experience that occurred when he was flying with a new private pilot who was apprehensive about flying at night. They were the first of three airplanes on downwind when a Citation checked in on final. David said he was expecting the controller to tell them to extend on downwind to follow the jet. Instead she instructed all three airplanes on downwind to do left 360-degree turns. This caused them to lose sight of the airport and worry about the positions of the other airplanes on downwind, which they couldn't see in the turn. David said that "after a controller gives you your sequence they should not request a maneuver that would cause you to lose sight of the traffic you are to follow."

Along with the responses I received from pilots, I also heard from several controllers who all emphasized their desire to work effectively with pilots but had very interesting comments from their viewpoint sitting at the radar screen. Next month I will conclude this series of articles on pilots and controllers with their input, which specifically responds to several of the comments by pilots detailed in this article.