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March 22, 2023
Nevermind thunderstorms, gusty crosswinds, and the ever-present potential of an inflight emergency. What really puts many student and low-hour pilots on edge is radio communication, especially when they have to interact with ATC in busy airspace.
Some are afraid they’ll use the wrong phraseology, step on other pilots’ calls, or do something else that raises the ire of a controller or leads to embarrassment. Heck, if even Han Solo messes up on the radio techniques and again, what hope is there for a green pilot?
Effectively managing radio calls can certainly be a point of pride. Apart from good landings, pilots are often judged—rightly or wrongly—on how smooth and confident they sound on the radio (as it’s been said, the microphone in an airplane is “push-to-talk,” not “push-to-think”).
More importantly, prompt, accurate, and standardized communication is a fundamental part of keeping everyone on the airplane and in the skies safe. As Chapter 4 of the Airman’s Information Manual puts it, radio communications are a critical link in the ATC system: one that can serve as a strong bond between pilot and controller, but also one that “can be broken with surprising speed and disastrous results.”
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution for increasing your confidence and competence on the mic, though it does take a bit of effort: using repetition to establish good communication habits and lower the anxiety that can leave pilots tongue-tied when they’re trying to make calls.
As with nearly every other aspect of flying, practice really does make perfect when it comes to radio ATC communications. And there are lots of resources out there (like the PlaneEnglish ARSim and Live ATC) to help you listen to, and rehearse, calls while you’re still on the ground, without the pressures of aviating, navigating, or fretting over the advancing Hobbs meter.
There’s a good deal of scientific research backing the benefits of repetition as a learning tool and its ability to rewire your brain’s neural pathways so aviation radio phraseology becomes not just manageable but second nature.
In a May 2017 article published in Psychology Today titled “The Habit Replacement Loop,” psychotherapist and Fortune 500 CEO Bernie Luskin posits that repetition not only establishes positive habits; it overwrites bad ones.
“Habits such as procrastination, absence of focus, impatience, or lack of motivation can be intentionally replaced,” Luskin writes. The keys to success, he says, are developing our attention, sharpening our focus, and engaging in “purposeful repetition.”
He cites a study done by Phillippa Lally and colleagues at University College London that identified 66 days as the average amount of time that it took to reach automaticity or the stage where the new skill or habit can be firmly established.
“The greatest change in using habit replacement procedures occurs during the second and third month of repetition,” he writes. “It is key that we don’t give up after only a couple of days or weeks because habits quickly regress.”
Repetition not only builds good habits; it also helps reduce unnecessary stress by minimizing surprises. Flying is an inherently dynamic activity that sometimes requires quick decisions and actions in the face of novel challenges. But much of it—from setting up in the pattern for landing to making routine radio calls—is fairly predictable. Or can be, with practice.
Dr. Indumathi Bendi, a primary care physician writing in a blog for Georgia-based Piedmont Healthcare, says that every time someone has to make a decision, it adds stress to that person’s life. Citing a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Bendi says the more decisions a person has to make, the more easily he or she may become overwhelmed.
"Carrying out routine activities reduces stress by making the situation appear more controllable and predictable," Bendi says. "Preparedness is a key way to prevent stress."
While you can’t completely eliminate surprises (winds may shift to 350 after you’ve already taxied for a takeoff to the south), you can minimize them by anticipating—and practicing—the interactions you’ll likely have. For instance, practice and anticipate interactions with ground control each time you taxi, with the tower control each time you take off, and with departure control each time you begin your climb to cruise.
Chair-flying is great for walking through checklists and maneuvers and building up muscle memory. If you’re not doing it already, consider adding radio calls as part of that practice.
Experts also say that positive reinforcement—from yourself, a study buddy, or even an app that delivers a sound or visual cue to recognize success—can go a long way toward rewiring the brain as you develop new habits.
“If you are helping someone working on a habit replacement situation, you should regularly praise him or her,” Luskin writes. “Replacing a habit can take months, and reinforcement is important.”
Also, keep in mind the saying “perfect is the enemy of good.”
No matter how proficient you get at pilot radio communication, you will occasionally make mistakes, and that’s OK. Make sure to recognize it when it happens and, if necessary, take corrective action. At an uncontrolled airport and called out the wrong runway while turning from downwind to base? Make a quick call to clarify which runway you actually intend to land on as soon as possible, and certainly before turning from base to final.
In many ways, mastering aviation radio phraseology and communication is not unlike learning a new language, where it’s good to have a few “helper” phrases in your back pocket if you find yourself stumbling during your interactions. If you’re learning Italian, German, or Chinese, knowing how to say “I’m sorry” and “Please speak more slowly” can really help you navigate interactions when you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed or lost.
In a similar fashion, there are three good phrases that can help you out in a pinch. If you don’t hear or fully comprehend a controller’s instructions, simply state, “Say Again,” to have him or her repeat the instructions or information.
If you get instructions to take an action that you feel you can’t do safely, like landing short or descending at a rate that may put you or your airplane outside the performance envelope, as pilot in command, it’s completely appropriate for you to say, “Unable.”
And if you’re momentarily task-saturated and need to attend to some critical phase of flying and can’t respond immediately to a call from ATC, say, “Standby” to give you a few moments to collect yourself before asking them to repeat their instructions.
In the meantime, practice, practice, and practice some more. In his bestselling The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey says being proactive is the first habit people should establish to succeed at whatever it is they want to accomplish.
“Take responsibility for your reaction to your experiences, take the initiative to respond positively, and improve the situation,” he writes.
Before long, you’ll develop the confidence, accuracy, and speed of a seasoned pilot while working the radios.
September 22, 2023
You aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last, but knowing that you’re not alone probably does little to help you feel any less nauseous as you reach for the infamous “barf bag” mid-flight.
We’re sorry you’re suffering from airsickness, but it is not hopeless - far from it. Let’s talk about airsickness & motion sickness in pilot training.
June 21, 2023
When you close your eyes and imagine the career of your dreams, what does that life look like?
For many pilots, the perfect job is sliding behind the controls as a pilot in command of a scheduled airline flight or charter.
March 22, 2023
You’ve made the bold leap and are chasing your dream of becoming a pilot. Congratulations – we know how it feels to count down the days to earning your wings.
Today we’re talking about the timeline from starting training to earning your certification, plus ways to shave time off that journey while maximizing learning. So, how hard is it to become a pilot? Read on to find out.
Are you ready? Let’s get you up in the air!
PlaneEnglish created this blog to provide aspiring and current pilots a resource for all things related to aviation radio communication.
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