Have you ever needed to talk to ATC but had to wait in line because another pilot was asking the controller to “say again?” We all know those situations can be frustrating, but if you have been a pilot for any length of time, odds are you have either spoken these words yourself or heard them from ATC (probably more than once). The FAA pilot/controller glossary defines the phrase “say again” in the following manner: “Used to request a repeat of the last transmission. Usually specifies a transmission or portion thereof not understood or received; e.g., ‘Say again all after ABRAM VOR.’”
Why you may need to ask the controller to “say again”
There is more than one reason you could need to request a repeat of the last transmission. Some of the most common situations that prompt a communications breakdown and need for “say again” include:
- The controller is talking too fast.
It is no secret that some controllers speak more rapidly than others, especially when they are extremely busy and overtasked. If the controller is juggling many aircraft or is repeating a common set of instructions, they may speak too quickly for the pilot to keep up.
- The controller is using nonstandard terminology and phraseology.
Aviation words and phrases are standardized for a reason. The goal is to ensure that both controller and pilot give the same meaning to what has been said. If either party goes off script, there is a greater chance for misunderstanding and need for clarification.
- The pilot is flying into an unfamiliar airport.
Radio comms are a lot easier when you are flying into and out of your home airport. You are already familiar with the layout, taxi routes, frequencies, and common ATC instructions. When you fly somewhere new, on the other hand it is easy to get tangled up with new approaches and complex taxi routes.
- There is too much in-cabin chatter.
To understand the controller, you need a quiet cockpit free from the distractions of others’ conversations. If a passenger is chatting your ear off, it is easy to miss a key piece of an ATC transmission.
- The radio volume setting is too low.
Before you can understand a radio transmission, you must first hear it. One of the more embarrassing pilot communication mistakes is accidently turning the radio volume down too low.
- You are a new pilot or are out of practice on radio communications
When we are first starting out, we are all “consciously competent” pilots needing intense focus to manage the multitasking necessary for piloting an aircraft. As we gain more experience, we build our skills and juggling all the demands of flying gets easier. The same is true if we have had a long break from flying. When we first climb back in the cockpit, we are more likely to need the controller to “say again” than we are after we have logged some hours and built our skills back up.
Why the controller may need to ask you to “say again”
“Say again” is not a phrase reserved solely for pilots to use. You may also hear it directed to you from ATC for similar reasons. Perhaps you spoke too quickly or used nonstandard verbiage. A poorly positioned microphone or faulty radio can also garble communications.
In a busy airspace, it is easier to accidentally walk on another transmission. If someone cuts into your message, the controller will ask you to “say again.” Depending on the airfield or airspace, the controller could be juggling the needs of aircraft across multiple channels. If you transmit a detailed message before the controller has acknowledged you and told you to “go ahead,” they may be speaking with another aircraft and not be ready to copy your transmission. In this case, you are setting yourself up for a “say again” response.
How to decrease your need for “say again”
Although odds are we will all need to use “say again” at some point, there is good news. You have the power to improve your ATC communication and decrease the need for “say again” by taking the following actions:
- Remind passengers to stop talking as soon as they hear a radio transmission begin.
Unlike fellow pilots, your passengers are not trained on aviation communications. They may not realize that their casual conversation during an ATC radio transmission can distract you and prevent you from understanding the call. During your preflight brief, explain the importance of clear radio communications and ask everyone to stop talking when you are on the radio.
- Check your radio’s volume setting prior to use.
How many times have you or someone you know missed a call from ATC or repeated your own call because you thought the controller didn’t hear you only to later realize that your radio’s volume was set too low? This is one of the most embarrassing but also the most easily preventable radio faux paus a pilot can experience. To fix the problem, ensure a volume setting check is part of your preflight. You can also make it a habit to confirm the radio volume setting prior to transmission and before repeating a radio transmission that you think went unanswered.
- Invest in a high-quality ANR headset with electret microphone.
Some cockpits are louder than others, and besides being bad for your hearing, the extra ambient noise can impact your radio communication as well. To offset the impact of noise on your comms, invest in a higher-end over-ear active noise reduction (ANR) headset. This style of headset will provide the maximum level of noise reduction. Look for a headset with an electret style boom mic for the clearest audio transmissions.
- Learn and review standard aviation phraseology and terminology.
The more comfortable you are understanding and using aviation communication words and phrases, the easier it is to make and receive radio calls. The goal is to gain a level of competence that doesn’t require you to consciously decipher the meaning of a received message or spend minutes determining how to reply.
- Practice radio communication techniques.
The best way to improve radio communication skills is to practice, and the easiest way to practice is with an app that you can take anywhere. The ARSim Aviation Radio Simulator app is available for both Android and Apple devices.
The interactive, self-guided learning style coaches you through task-based scenarios and gives feedback on your practice comms. It even analyzes speech rate and phraseology choices to provide correction as needed. Train with thousands of scenarios at over 300 airports and airspaces all from the comfort of home.
ARSim is available for download on the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store and can also be accessed on the web.
- Think before you speak.
As you practice and build up your aviation communication proficiency, the words and phrases needed for each transmission will come naturally. Until then, quickly rehearse the message in your head before making contact. As the old saying goes, it is “push to speak, not push to think.”
Remember, asking the controller to “say again” when you are unclear on their last transmission makes you a good pilot not a bad one. Your response of “say again” indicates you are not afraid to admit that you either didn’t hear or didn’t understand what was said. Rather than hide behind a fear of looking or sounding like you don’t know what you are doing in the cockpit, your “say again” demonstrates your confidence in flying the airplane. You are aware of the potentially serious safety consequences of a miscommunication and are going to seek clarification whenever needed. By valuing safety over pride, you demonstrate one of the hallmarks of a good pilot.