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Student Pilot Tips For Dealing With Control Towers

written by: Andrew Jones•edited by: Jason C. Chavis•updated: 5/24/2010

Learning to speak with ATC is stressful and intimidating. It takes time to learn all the lingo and also to develop an ear for interpreting garbled radio chatter. Moreover, air traffic controllers are not always the most patient people in the world. It's normal to feel overwhelmed at this stage.

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    Understanding the Controller's Job

    In order to become more comfortable with Air Traffic Control (ATC) interactions, it helps to understand the job of the controller. The single biggest problem between controllers and pilots is a mutual lack of understanding of each other's capabilities. Controllers are not magicians who can read your mind and predict your intentions. It is easy for pilots (especially students) to assume that a controller has more information than he really does. By the same token, controllers occasionally issue instructions that are difficult or impossible for a pilot to carry out. The better a pilot understands the controllers job, the better prepared he is to anticipate and prevent potential conflicts.

    Most control towers are happy to give pilots a tour of their facilities, and this benefits both the pilot and the controllers. Be sure to take advantage of this opportunity, especially at airports you regularly fly from. They will explain their job to you, demonstrate the equipment they use, let you watch them work, and answer your questions. The experience can be very enlightening, and can help you to better understand what they are dealing with. The better you understand their work, the better you will be able to make their job easier, which, in turn, will allow them to make your job easier as well. An added benefit to doing this at airports you frequently use is that you will meet some of the controllers you deal with in person. Putting a face to a voice can often help make the communications process easier.

    It can also be beneficial to try your hand at an air traffic control simulator. There are several such products available, and even though they are intended primarily for entertainment, they are realistic enough to help a pilot get an idea of the kinds of challenges faced by controllers in real life. Two products of note are ATC Simulator 2 and Tower Simulator.

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    Think Before You Speak

    One of the most common problems student pilots have with ATC communications is not including all the information the controller needs. This causes the controller to have to ask the pilot additional questions. This further clogs up the airwaves, and makes the controller's job harder, which, in turn, creates more tension. At a busy airport, the airwaves can be very crowded at times, making it difficult for anyone to get a word in edgewise. Thus, students must learn not to punch the mic button and speak to controllers spontaneously, but to formulate their statements mentally before speaking them over the air. This skill takes time to develop. The student will continue to make mistakes for a while, but deliberate practice will help the student to gradually improve. One must remember that the student's mind is more saturated than that of a seasoned pilot, and so ATC communication will naturally become easier as he becomes more competent with his other flying skills.
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    The COMM1 VFR Simulator

    There is a very effective piece of software available to help students improve their basic communications skills. It is the , which retails for about $100. The software is interactive, and simulates realistic VFR (Visual Flight Rules) tower communication. The software is interactive, and includes several hours of virtual pilot/controller dialogues, in which the student participates by speaking into a microphone connected to the computer. The student's responses are digitally recorded for later playback, so that the student can hear and learn from his/her mistakes.