Flight School: Radio Reassurance

What can an instructor do to help ease the anxiety of a student pilot who is having trouble with talking on the radio?



** Instructors who follow these tips can help
give their students an edge when it comes
to radio communications.**

What can an instructor do to help ease the anxiety of a student pilot who is having trouble with talking on the radio?

Tim Busch has been involved in aviation education for more than 20 years. He is a Master CFI and the president of Iowa Flight Training. A self-proclaimed aviation evangelist, Busch is also the president of the nonprofit Iowa Aviation Promotion Group (flyiowa.org) and an FAA FAASTeam representative. He says:

It is understandable when a student gets mic fright while listening to the fast-paced banter between a controller and an experienced pilot for the first time. I have also seen that some students who start at tower-controlled airports fear the nontowered environment because “there is no one to tell me what to do!” But there are many methods to reduce mic fright.

To get started, the instructor should provide a set of examples, in print, for each basic scenario the student will be expected to communicate. Common wording for ATIS or AWOS, clearance to taxi, clearance for takeoff, transitioning to departure control, calling approach control, clearance for landing, etc. can be written out on laminated cards for easy reference. These cards, with an erasable marker, go a long way to ease the communication learning curve.

Next, it helps to listen to air-to-ground communication. There are several options for listening, including purchasing a radio scanner and hanging out at the airport while watching the activity, or in many cases, the student can listen on the Internet via liveatc.net and its team of volunteer contributors. Many airports are now listed on LiveATC.

Another way to help ease the transition is simulating communications. This can be a great deal of fun in a classroom setting, where the instructor plays the part of ATC and the students each have queue cards, each with an aircraft N-number and a simulated flight requiring communications. The students will quickly learn situational awareness of other aircraft while increasing their comfort level.

However, these ideas don’t get the student past the fear of the scary voice on the other end of the radio. Schedule an appointment with the tower and go visit the scary monsters that live up there. Students often find that the scary monsters are really just regular people who care about helping you through your flight experience.

Will Dryden is the president and founder of Coast Flight Training. He is a career instructor with both Master Flight Instructor and Gold Seal CFI designations. Dryden founded Coast (iflycoast.com) with the focus of breaking aviation flight training paradigms. He says:

The perfect way to reduce students’ anxiety about radio communication is to start by explaining to them that the air traffic controller they’re talking to is most likely wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and sipping a cup of joe. He or she is no one to be afraid of. The job of the ATC is to keep the pilots safe and help them when they have questions.

A common mistake instructors make is telling students that ATC radio calls have to be perfect and in a particular order. Instead, the instructors should encourage students and be positive. And while instructors should initially avoid fixing their students’ communication mistakes, it’s important that the students can rest assured that the instructor is there to back them up and can finish the call for them, in case they are having trouble.

Here are some simple steps to improve students’ radio calls:

• Let the student talk on discrete pilot-to-pilot frequencies, without the pressure of talking to a controller. Have the student call “in the blind” to get used to hearing his or her own voice in the headsets.

• Use a full-motion simulator with an intercom system to practice radio calls under simulated circumstances.

• Prior to each flight, go over what needs to be said to the controllers during airport operations by role-playing until the student is comfortable with the wording.

• Teach the student to anticipate what communication is coming and how to respond to or initiate it.

• For some students, it helps to let them write down exactly what to say on a cheat sheet, but this technique should really only be done during their first couple of flights.

Air traffic controllers talking fast can be intimidating, creating a psychological “mountain” for the student. Reminding students that they’re just talking to that guy in the Hawaiian shirt can generally ease a lot of the pressure, and identifying themselves as a “student pilot” will alert the ATC to give them the extra attention they need and deserve.

Send reader mail to: edit@flyingmag.com or P.O. Box 8500, Winter Park, FL 32789.