Brandon Gonzales spends a lot of time in the air, and on the airwaves. The Purdue University graduate is a certified flight instructor (CFI) who’s given more than 3,000 hours of dual instruction. For the past 10 years, Brandon’s worked as an air traffic control specialist (ATCS) at a busy General Aviation airport on the West Coast. He’s also dabbled in aircraft sales and worked as a “ramper” (baggage handler) for two major airlines. But pilots and aviation fans may know him best as host of Podcasting on a Plane, which he launched in 2017.
PlaneEnglish sat down with Brandon to learn more about his life and career in aviation, his thoughts on pilots’ (often mistaken) perceptions of ATC, and how pilots can improve radio communications to make flying safer, and less stressful, for everyone.
Why did you decide to be an ATC specialist?
Being a controller was something that I always wanted to do but I had always prioritized becoming a pilot instead.
My dad would take me to watch airplanes take off and land at KSAN (San Diego International Airport) when I was a little kid, and we had a VHF radio to listen in on ATC. While becoming a pilot was my goal, I always wanted to work in a tower, too. Now I’m glad to say I’ve done both.
I reached my goal of being hired by an airline at age 26, but I wasn’t particularly happy there. A college friend got me into aircraft sales, which was pretty neat until the 2008 economic downturn. After going back to flight instruction for a while, I was nearing my 30th birthday and the age 31 cutoff date to become a controller. I had to make a choice: then or never. I applied immediately to become a controller and was able to get in just before the age cutoff.
Do you encounter many new pilots in your daily control duties?
Yes, all the time. My airport is very heavy with training. We have two large flight schools, one of them a nationwide chain you’ve definitely heard of. And also two very large flying clubs. Plus a very healthy owner-flown segment. And all of the fractional jet operators utilize our airport constantly. But, even this far into COVID-19, our traffic count is as high as it has ever been and mainly that’s due to the schools and training.
How can you tell that they are a new pilot?
New pilots often have a certain quality about their voice that “outs” them as a new pilot. It’s sort of a timidity, sort of a lack of experience that you just feel. But that’s OK, because at my tower we specialize in dealing with new pilots. It’s just something you get an ear for, and you adjust your control technique accordingly.
What do you think are some common misconceptions that (new) pilots have about ATC?
I often get asked this question and the list is long, but I’ll give you some highlights.
I think many pilots believe that our job is just to purely control things in an OCD manner. And, while it is true that our job is to control things and be very precise about how we do it, we want to move traffic along as quickly as possible. Safe, orderly, and expeditious is our mandate, and those three things go together. It’s in our interest as well as yours to move things along as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Often when a controller sounds frustrated, it isn’t just because you’ve “offended their OCD.” It’s because whatever happened is hindering their flow, which slows down the works for everybody and is potentially distracting. The reason we want to use as few words as possible and stick to cleverly designed phraseology is not only for legal reasons, but for clarity, so that everybody gets the message as cleanly, clearly, and quickly as possible so that we can all move on.
Another misconception I think people have is that we are all sitting up in the tower or down in the radar room with crisp white shirts, and little skinny ties, in thick-rimmed glasses, looking like some Apollo 13 mission control room. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We are professional, but you’re talking to real people just like you who are generally not very intimidating at all. When you talk to us, try to keep that in mind because our job is not to intimidate you or slow you down! Our jobs to help keep you safe and get you on your way as efficiently as possible.
The last misconception I’ll mention is about how people often think we are a bunch of stressed out lunatics. That’s simply not true either. Yes, we have an important and safety-sensitive job to do and I’m not trying to minimize that in any way. What I’m saying is that I think the old guard cultivated that image, and maybe for good reason. But the newer group of controllers don’t necessarily fit the old-school stereotype anymore.
What are some common mistakes that new pilots make with ATC?
Unnecessary fear/mic fright. Sometimes this leads to not asking for clarification. Also, reading back everything verbatim. Or the opposite, not reading back important things like runway assignment and taxi route or hold short readbacks.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve heard a pilot say?
Whenever pilots say funny things, I grab the recording and put it at the beginning of my podcast as a funny pre-roll.
One time another controller told a pilot on the ILS (instrument landing system) that he was number two to follow an aircraft on base. The pilot said, “I’m on the ILS, that means I’m number one.” Nobody knew what to say to that, but we all had a good laugh.
On a more serious note, an older gentleman was getting ready to take off and he was stumbling over his words so badly that we thought he was having a medical problem. He probably rambled incoherently about the hold short line for almost 30 seconds. For everyone’s safety, we suggested he taxi back to parking and we sent the airport rescue EMT to check on him. He turned out to be fine, but he decided not to fly that day. It was strange, but doing the right thing still comes naturally.
Today, I had a guy say, “I lost my traffic, so I’m turning base.” Not only strange, but very dangerous. Don’t be this guy.
And in a strange bit of communication, I had a Meridian (P46T) return to land because of an inoperative transponder. He figured out that it was a squat switch issue.* After he landed, He got out, poked around with the squat switches in the landing gear, and was able to fix the issue. He took off again and everything worked fine. I fly those and learned something. Good communication goes both ways!
Have you ever seen a pilot or plane get into a dangerous situation because of miscommunication?
It happens all the time that people have the wrong aircraft in sight and then follow, cutting off somebody on final. This happens quickly and is hard for us to see until it has already happened. Very dangerous.
What do pilots need to practice more when it comes to communications?
Loosening up. Because then you’re free to be good.
If you could give pilots in training one piece of advice when it comes to communicating with ATC, what would it be?
Understand the system better. Truly understand what it is that we do at each kind of facility. It seems like people think that there’s a universal set of rules that just need to memorized, and then they’ll be good at talking to ATC. But like most things, the emphasis should be on understanding the larger system, not just memorizing phraseology. The system is complicated and you can’t memorize it all.
Different types of facilities have varying needs. You’ll be able to communicate so much better because you’ll know innately what you need to say to get things done. We don’t want to impede your progress. Quite the opposite, actually. We want to sling traffic as fast as possible, and we expect you want the same. Everything moves more smoothly when we each know what the other wants.
Under normal circumstances, I always recommend visiting ATC facilities whenever possible. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option for the time being. But you can always listen to liveatc.net to keep immersed in the language. Plus, use PlaneEnglish as a tool to practice. Oh, and listen to aviation podcasts!
Learn more about Podcasting on a Plane on the show’s website, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, YouTube, Google Play and other podcast streams. While you’re there, check out Brandon’s show on radio communications apps featuring PlaneEnglish founder Muharrem Mane.
* A squat switch is an electrically operated switch mounted on the shock strut of an aircraft. As long as the aircraft’s weight is on its landing gear, the squat switch may prevent certain actions, such as the operation of the undercarriage retraction lever or pressurization of the cabin.