Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Find Your Voice

Learning to Talk

Becoming an aviator requires learning several new competencies ranging from the intellectual to the physical. When I began flight training, I anticipated needing to develop many skills, but did not expect that learning to talk would be one of them.

Time spent with experienced pilots reveals that many have a "radio voice". A good radio voice is crisp and direct, confident and professional, but comfortable. In a realm where the primary connection between pilots and controllers is established verbally over the airwaves, a pilot's voice is his or her first means of making an impression.

October 2, 2003: The beacon at Three Rivers Municipal Airport (KHAI)

I had not found my Voice at the time I earned my private pilot certificate. I could communicate effectively at non-towered fields because I was comfortable in that environment, but I was horrifically awkward any time I needed to key the mic and speak with air traffic control (ATC). Part of this was an artifact of training at an non-towered field where I simply did not get in-depth practice with ATC. Not surprisingly, in this root cause lay the solution.

Even after I purchased Warrior 481, I continued to be ATC-shy. This was partially due to my peer group, many of whom shunned towered fields and talking to ATC. They planned cross country flight routes that avoided controlled airspace and rarely availed themselves of flight following. Thus socialized, I followed suit for a time. For example, my cross country flight from Guthrie, OK to Three Rivers, MI after buying Warrior 481 was flown largely (though not entirely) without the use of flight following.

September 21, 2003: N3470R (rented out of Three Rivers) on the Air Zoo ramp. It was my first time flying into AZO without an instructor, my first time talking to Clearance Delivery, and the first time (after departing AZO) I let a non-pilot passenger take the controls. It was evidently quite a day.

However, as a new aircraft owner in 2004, I came to realize that avoiding ATC would limit the utility of my airplane. Not only is flight following a fantastic safety feature, but there are a lot of terrific destinations encircled by controlled airspace. "Mic fright" would rob me of those opportunities. I decided to develop my Voice so that I could take better advantage of all aviation has to offer.

Building Blocks

To my mind, developing the Voice entails a few steps that build on each other. The most fundamental is knowledge. Understanding the verbal protocols between pilots and different types of controllers (e.g., approach versus tower versus clearance delivery) is essential. I knew some of this information when I received my private pilot certificate, but there were holes in my knowledge. If there was a significant gap in my primary training, this was it.

From a foundation of knowledge comes the ability to practice with ATC to internalize radio procedures. At first, transmissions from ATC seem rapid and voluminous. However, they are typically well organized and context-specific. Simply knowing which information to expect at which times attunes the ear and makes it easier to hear and understand what is being said.

With internalization eventually comes confidence born of comfort and familiarity. A confident voice is the verbal equivalent to a firm handshake and direct look in the eye. It conveys to the controller that the pilot knows what he or she is doing (though actions can certainly undermine that first impression later).

Impressions Matter

Why is it important to make a good impression on ATC?

The answer is simple: because air traffic controllers do a lot of optional things to make pilot's lives easier. Want flight following (an optional service)? Seeking a better routing? Want to sight-see in controlled airspace? If a pilot has the Voice, a confident and professional manner, controllers are often willing to help out above and beyond their basic mandate of separating IFR traffic. On the other hand, if a pilot is verbally "all thumbs" and the controller gets an impression of low competence, they might be far less accommodating. After all, why invite trouble?

For example, I recall an evening VFR flight from Le Roy, NY to Pontiac, MI in 2008. I had just crossed the border from Canada into the United States and was prompted by Selfridge Approach to contact Detroit for continued flight following. It was near the end of a long day and I had just spent 1.5 hours droning along over southern Ontario without much stimulation. I was tired and my call to Detroit lacked the necessary crisp professionalism. I may not have been behind the airplane, but I was behind my own mouth. After hearing my muddled call, the Detroit Approach controller promptly dropped me from the system ("squawk VFR") and suggested I call Pontiac tower when I got a little closer. In other words, my call did not inspire confidence, he was under no obligation to deal with me, so he chose not to. If I had my act together that night, I am certain that Detroit would have provided flight following all the way to my destination. After all, Detroit Approach had accepted the hand-off from Selfridge in the first place.

Like many other flying skills, the Voice has a shelf life and can spoil if not maintained.

Developing the Voice

I set about developing my Voice by hitting the books (or, book, in this case). I purchased the fifth edition (1998) of Paul Illman's "The Pilot's Radio Communications Handbook" and studied it carefully. The book is well organized by scenario. After digesting each chapter, I practiced. By this I mean that I talked to myself -- a lot; usually in the car on the way to work. I would play out different scenarios and talk through both the ATC and pilot parts. This became such a habit that sometimes, a decade later, I still catch myself doing it (I know, I'm weird).

February 14, 2004: A younger me (no gray hairs!) as a docent at the Air Zoo, comfortably ensconced in the cockpit of an F6F Hellcat.

I was fortunate that the Kalamazoo / Battle Creek International Airport (AZO) was nearby for practice. Not only that, but I had a good motive for actually landing there. As a docent at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, I gave tours on Saturday mornings. Though my home was a mere 10 minute drive from the museum, I would drive 45 minutes to South Haven, launch in my airplane, and land at Kalamazoo to volunteer at the Air Zoo. When my time at the museum was done, I would make the same trip in reverse.

I burned a lot of gas doing this, but really honed my radio technique.

Though Kalamazoo is not a terribly large airport, it has radar and thus possesses the key ATC functions present at much larger airports. In addition to tower and ground frequencies, Kalamazoo has two approach/departure frequencies and requires all departures (including VFR) to contact Clearance Delivery prior to Ground. The latter is not a universal practice (though Rochester does it, too), but it was terrific experience for me.

[Side note: when I reviewed my logbook for this article, I discovered another factoid. My first five flights into or out of AZO while flying left seat were in five different airplanes: N734XX (C-172), N8082F (C-150, deceased), N9327U (C-150, deceased), N3470R (PA-28-180, pictured above), and, of course, N21481 (PA-28-161).]

I gave myself a good foundation of knowledge, internalized it through practice with ATC at Kalamazoo, and over time developed my confidence on the radio. It was a gradual process and I was not consciously aware that it was happening. As a result, I still remember the day I realized that I had finally found my Voice.


Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hours) Total Time (hours)
26 Mar 2005 N21481 AZO (Kalmazoo, MI) - LWA (South Haven, MI) 0.6 297.9

I was on the ramp at the Air Zoo, sitting at the controls of my idling Warrior. In the right seat was another Air Zoo volunteer who had been begging me for an airplane ride. I had obtained departure information from Clearance Delivery and contacted Kalamazoo Ground for taxi instructions.

The current taxi diagram for AZO, which has changed only slightly since 2005

"Warrior 481, taxi runway one seven via Bravo, Alpha, Charlie."

Ugh. This would require taxiing over most of the airport to get to the departure end of 17. I read back the taxi instructions and applied throttle to get underway. Shortly after turning onto taxiway Bravo from the Air Zoo ramp, Kalamazoo Ground called again.

"Warrior 481, I have a change for you. Will you accept an intersection departure from runway 17 at Foxtrot?" I smiled. This was a relatively common practice and eliminated a long, indirect taxi to the other side of the airport in favor of departing on runway 17 about midfield. Though this halved the amount of available pavement, there was still more than enough remaining to launch a Warrior.

"Affirmative, 481." I responded immediately. I noticed that my passenger seemed confused and explained that we were being given a simplified taxi route that would have us depart from the middle of the airport rather than the north end.

I advanced the throttle and resumed taxiing. Before we reached Foxtrot, however, Ground called again.

"Warrior 481, another change for you. I've got traffic inbound for one seven. Taxi to runway two seven via Bravo, Foxtrot, cross runway one seven - three five." With a southwest wind, I had no concerns with the runway change. I keyed the mic and crisply read back the instructions. Again, my passenger eyed me with some concern.

While running up at the threshold of runway 27, we watched the aforementioned traffic, an airliner, land on runway 17. Soon enough, we were climbing away from Kalamazoo en route to South Haven.

"Wow, that was crazy how they kept changing their instructions to you," exclaimed my passenger. I had not given it much thought because each change made sense in context. Then I realized, had such a scenario been dropped in my lap just a year earlier, I probably would have found it harrying. In that moment, I wondered if my prior communications with the controller had given him confidence that I could handle the changes as he threw them at me.

I had found my Voice!


As Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie once wrote, "I'm not young enough to know everything." I certainly have not reached a state of self actualization on the radio. But I do passably well and worked hard to get myself there.

I still remember the day I logged my 500th flight hour. I landed at a local airport and another pilot said to me, "You have great radio presence! Do you instruct out of this airport?" Not surprisingly, I was very pleased with this compliment.

June 15, 2011: 4,500' over Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International

I am certain that the Voice is what gained me an invitation to fly VFR directly over Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport at 4,500' in 2011, despite the fact that I planned to skirt the Bravo airspace. A direct route over the airport made logical sense, but I suspect that the Atlanta Approach controller would not have suggested it had I been tongue-tied when I initially contacted him for flight following. After all, Detroit Approach was disinclined to provide even VFR advisories to me the night I was off my game. As a VFR pilot, receiving an invitation to enter the inner core of Bravo airspace, particularly some of the busiest airspace in the world, was a very novel experience.

Overdoing It

This brings me to a recent episode that inspired my thinking about the Voice in the first place. Although I think that confidence is a key ingredient of the Voice, I think it is possible to become too comfortable with ATC. I recently overheard the following exchange between Rochester Approach and "Stan" (not his real name), a highly experienced instrument rated instructor with whom I have flown before.

November 17, 2012: Greater Rochester International (KROC)

"Rochester Approach, Experimental 123 at four thousand, practice VOR alpha approach into Le Roy."

"Experimental 123, squawk 1234 and ident."

"There you go." Yup . . . he actually said, "there you go" and nothing else.

[As an aside, on a recent tour of the Rochester tower, I asked a controller for his biggest gripe with GA pilots. His response: not using call signs in radio communications. He went on to note that it was not just the GA types who had this problem.]

Rochester responded with "radar contact", an admonishment to maintain VFR, and a reminder that no separation services would be provided. While cruising through Rochester's airspace en route to Sodus, I eyed the broken cloud deck at approximately 3,000 feet. I wondered how Stan was going to remain VFR as he came down through that ceiling from 4,000 feet.

Sure enough, "Rochester Approach, Experimental 123, what do I gotta do to make that IFR?"

The Rochester controller was clearly taken aback and responded with what I can only describe as a patronizing and mildly pedantic tone. "Well, you would need to request an IFR clearance and I would need to issue you a new squawk code." His transmission ended crisply, as though punctuated with an unspoken, but strongly implied, "duh".

Stan responded with something to the effect of "OK, let's do that."

After a slight delay, Rochester returned with, "Experimental 123, squawk 4567."

"There you go," announced Stan. Seriously? Again?

Stan absolutely knows what he is doing. He has been flying for decades and, in the time I have known him, he has taught me some valuable things. But I wonder if he has perhaps become so comfortable with ATC that he no longer strives for professionalism in his radio work.

Find Your Voice

As a member of the Williamson Flying Club, I interact with a broad cross section of pilots on a regular basis. They run the gamut from highly experienced to relatively inexperienced. Many of them are students or recently certificated. I see a lot of myself in the less experienced pilots, particularly where reticence to chat with ATC is concerned. Some fear crossing that magenta circle into Rochester's airspace. This is unfortunate because Rochester is a great facility and the controllers are not only welcoming, but actively encourage training operations. Still, having been possessed of mic fright myself, I empathize with the anxiety of the less experienced.

I encourage them to practice with Rochester, to find their Voice and their confidence with ATC. It's worth it. Good communication is a gateway to more interesting destinations and bigger, safer aeronautical adventures.

After hearing Stan the other day, however, I wonder if this message should be tempered a bit: become comfortable with ATC . . . but maybe not too comfortable.


  1. Great post! So many pilots and those still in training deal with this issue.

    My CFI and CFII both role played ATC for working on communications. I flew under and around the Philly class Bravo so they made sure I could do the pilot speak. I grew up a Amateur Radio Operator so mic fright didn't really exist for me. Besides, you have met me Chis, I'm a yapper once I get started. :)

    I do agree with your assessment; sound professional and confident and the return service from ATC is very accommodating. Stumble and stutter through your calls and you can get kicked to the curb.

    1. Thanks, Gary. Personally, I'm on the other end of the spectrum. I don't even really like talking on the phone to people I don't know well!

      Having the Philly Bravo so close probably served you well. Where I learned to fly, you could do quite a bit without ever talking to anyone. That made those times as a student when I did need to talk to someone kind of rough.

  2. Great post. I always get frustrated with myself when I sound like a student pilot. I think I am usually clear, to the point and standard in my phraseology. But every once in a while I have the "ummms." Keeps me humble, I guess.

    I trained out of towered fields, so I actually feel less confident at non-towered fields. I still hesitate when I think "now what field is this again?"

    Always something to work on.

    1. I always find radio errors to be very humbling as well.

      And, yes, we used to mock the students flying out of Kalamazoo when they came to my non-towered field. It was clear that they were not comfortable on the radio and they used to fly HUGE patterns. :-) I don't really think that one way is better than the other, though I think I could have benefited from more exposure to the towered fields during training.

      That's what is so great about aviation - there is ALWAYS something to work on! As long as you realize that, it never gets boring.

  3. Wow, this was seriously a great post. The kind of post I'm definitely going to forward to students that ask me about ATC / radio comms in the future. Well done! On that note, I certainly hope some of your students and friends at SDC read this, too.

    Learning to fly at Stewart it's easy to understand why some may not learn to fully utilize ATC. Like your former home(s), I wouldn't be surprised by a sizable contingent that shies away from the radio for a variety of reasons. But I'm with you - I nearly always talk to ATC when I'm going anywhere beyond the local area. If nothing else, might as well get some services for my tax dollars, right?

    Thinking back, I can't say for sure when I found my Voice but I absolutely recall when I knew I had it: on our big trip around Lake Michigan in 2010. Being able to review it later on video certainly helped, but calling a very busy Chicago Approach and being granted VFR Advisories along the lakeshore - and then negotiating all the handoffs through to Kalamazoo - confirmed to me that ATC trusted I knew what I was up to that day. Perhaps it even occured sooner, since DTW cleared me into their Bravo the prior summer in the lowly 150.

    1. Thanks, Steve. Based on what I have heard in your videos, I think you do well on the radio. In fact, I'm sure that the first example of your radio work that I ever heard was on that trip around Lake Michigan while you were talking to a Kalamazoo controller.

    2. ^ A Kalamazoo controller who, I later coincidentally discovered, was in one of those AOPA "talk with ATC" sort of videos. Small world, aviation is.