Somewhat surprisingly, many of the challenges of learning to be a proficient IFR pilot are the same as those one encounters when just getting started as a student pilot. One of the toughest skills for brand-new pilots to master — talking on the radio — is equally challenging for pilots getting their instrument ticket or just trying to be more proficient with their instrument skills.
The good news is that many VFR pilots already have the skills to be effective communicators in the IFR environment, especially those who have a lot of experience flying VFR in busy airspace. While it’s true that the kinds of requests you make to ATC under IFR are different from those in VFR — like hold clearances — the bottom line is that what makes for effective communications in the clear also works in the clouds.
In many ways, communicating under IFR is easier than communicating under visual rules because by their very nature IFR flights are more closely regulated than VFR flights. The basic information about the flight — where you came from and where you’re going, and more — is already on the controller’s screen, so there’s no need in most cases to communicate any of it. In fact, in most cases, you don’t want to communicate information the controller already knows. It just busies up the frequency and wastes everybody’s time. In other cases, such as when you’re on an assigned heading, it’s often good to pass along that info to the new controller since it takes so little time to communicate and clears up potential misunderstandings.
It was a welcome realization when I started flying IFR years ago that most ATC transmissions are remarkably easy to predict. All I had to know was what the controller was likely to say, and nine times out of 10, that’s what he’d say. It might be as simple as knowing you’ll get the altimeter setting when you switch to a new controller en route, or it might verge on the black arts, like knowing when you’re likely to get a reroute — about 20 minutes outside of any Class B is often a good bet.
As I’ve written before, think of an IFR flight in terms of phases of flight. What the controller is going to tell you on your first communication as you’re departing the airport — a new heading, new altitude or some transition to the standard departure — is different from what you’re almost certain to hear when you’re getting vectors to the final approach course on an ILS — maintain 2,000 feet until established on the final, etc. Expecting what the controller is likely to say eliminates almost all the surprise factor and allows you to respond quickly and appropriately.
Just what you need to say in response to a controller’s communication is surprisingly little in many cases. When you’re issued a new clearance, the controller needs you to read it back as it was given. If you’re given a new route clearance that includes four new waypoints and then a direct routing to a VOR, you’ve got to read back the whole thing, not just the last part of it. If you don’t, you and everyone else on the frequency will be treated to hearing you do it again … and right this time.
When you’re flying single-pilot, being prepared is key. That means having a pencil handy and getting good at jotting down the basic clearance even if you don’t understand every intersection. This will allow you to read it back and later get specific clarifications for what you missed — what’s the spelling of “DARTAY,” for instance. The controller will likely tell you, “Read-back correct; DARTE is delta, alpha … ”
At the same time, if there’s something you don’t understand, you absolutely need to ask. Making believe you understand a clearance only to have the controller come back a few minutes later and ask you where the heck you think you’re going is a lot worse than taking the risk of trying his or her patience in the first place.
New instrument pilots often read back everything, which is a natural response to not knowing what the controller wants or needs to hear back. If they repeat every syllable, they seem to be thinking there’s no chance they’ll leave out the important part. You soon learn how little you need to read back.
Altitudes are important. Clearance limits are important. The controller will want to hear it clearly. For instance, when you’re cleared for a crossing altitude, let’s say 10,000 feet 10 miles east of a certain VOR, you’d better read it all back, because it’s all important. On an approach clearance, on the other hand, what the controller really wants to hear is the altitude you’ve got to maintain until you’re established and that you understand you’re cleared for the proper approach. And always repeat your callsign so there’s no confusion about who said what to whom.
Another newbie error is mistaking the need for efficiency for the need for speed. You don’t want to draw things out, but it’s rare to have to speed-talk to get a word in edgewise. Be brief, relaxed and clear. That said, it is good to know how to speed things up when you need to. Sometimes a quick “roger that” and a callsign are all it takes for effective communication.
Keep an ear open for the tenor of the frequency. It will change too, from controller to controller, so be on your toes. Going north out of Austin, Texas, for instance, I’ll often go from the professional and busy controllers with Austin Departure to the quieter military frequency at Gray Approach to the laid-back country twang of Waco Approach to the sometimes-folksy-but-almost-always-frenetic tone of Fort Worth (pronounced as though it’s one syllable, “Forwth”) Center. The same thing happens any time you’re into or out of very busy airspace, so be ready for it. Be aware too that each control center has its own culture. Pay attention. If things are crazy, be efficient. If things are laid-back and conversational, take a deep breath.
Then think about what you need to do next — because it’ll happen before you know it.