My airplane was stopped in the middle of the runway at the Athens Ben Epps Airport (KAHN). I was a student pilot and it was my first time flying solo – just me in the Cessna 172 – at the tower controlled Class D airport. I heard the tower call me. “Cessna 916, back taxi runway niner.” At the time I was not familiar with this term. What does THAT mean? NOW what do I do? On the last few flights leading up to this point, I was more or less doing everything. My instructor was there to help if needed, and if I ran into something new, I was a glance or a question away from help.
Let’s back up to a few minutes earlier. While on a regular training flight with my instructor, after landing, he asked me to taxi (maneuvering a plane on the ground) back to the flight school to drop him off. Once a student pilot is ready to solo, it is not often known which flight will lead to the solo. It is traditional for the instructor to send the student up without much warning (but with lots of preparation). The typical solo exercise is to takeoff, fly the traffic pattern around the airport and land – three times. Between each landing, you usually taxi off the runway and use a taxiway to get back to the other end of the runway to take off again. I had just made my first landing and had been doing great on the radio until I heard that request from the tower to “back taxi runway niner.” I had flown most of my flights at this airport and had never heard it before. So now I’m faced with a decision. Do I accept the instruction and take my best guess as to what it means? Do I tell them I’m a student pilot and ask what it means? I’m in the same airspace as a bunch of pros – I can’t sound like the newbie. Well, I did what I was trained to do. If in doubt, just ask. “Athens Tower, Cessna 916, confirm 180 degree turn on the runway and taxi back the the beginning of niner?” The tower confirmed, and I can only imagine my instructor, Reid, standing by watching, worried I had forgotten everything he taught me as I turned around on the runway and taxied back to the start before taking off again.
Aviation radio is almost like a language in and of itself. Like our native language, we don’t learn it with a handbook – we learn it little by little, in context, as we grow up. Sometimes we don’t even know why we say some of the expressions we say. Dressed to the nines? What does that even mean? Using the radio is daunting for many new pilots, and even many experienced pilots could use some polish. Studying the pilot/controller glossary in the FAR/AIM (Federal Aviation Regulations & Aeronautical Information Manual) and the FAA Radio Communication Phraseology & Techniques guide are necessary study tools to becoming a pilot. I have the FAR/AIM app on my iPad and find it to be a great and necessary reference, although I would personally start with something a little more user friendly if you are just beginning. Here are some resources to help you gain an edge, whether you are a student pilot or a pro.
1. LiveATC (Website/App)
LiveATC is a website and mobile app that allows you to listen live to different select aviation frequencies from around the world. When I was first gaining interest in flight training, I would keep a tower feed playing even though I had little idea what any of it meant. It gave me a sense of the words, flow and culture of aviation radio. Now as a licensed pilot, I still listen in so I can stay plugged in – and because I’m an avgeek. In the app, there is a “Diagram” button to pull up a map of the airport. This feature is great to work on your situational awareness. Listen to a radio call and then mentally place where the plane is on the field or where it is coming from. I recommend listening in to your local general aviation airport to best represent the training environment you’ll be flying in. Athens (KAHN) and Peachtree Dekalb (KPDK) are great airports around me that are busy enough to host constant action.
2. MZeroA VFR Radio Communications (App)
This is the first resource I found after my seven year hiatus from flying when I needed to brush up on my radio knowledge. Jason Schappert does a great job with his videos that show arrivals and departures in each different airspace category. A student pilot can use this not only to learn, but to brief the radio aspect of a flight before going into some bigger than usual airspace. There is a practice section, too, where Jason will talk as if he is the tower and then pause to allow you to respond as if you are the pilot, followed by the correct response. After looking online, I found that MZeroA has released a ton of videos on YouTube as well as podcasts through iTunes. There is an online ground school, which is a great way to get interactive training if you are studying for a particular license or rating. Get the app here.
3. “Say Again, Please” (Book)
This is a classic book by Robert E. Gardner. It contains not only a conversational type of approach to learning radio techniques, but has some simulated flights to help you understand how it all fits together. You can find a copy of Say Again, Please on Amazon for a very reasonable price.
4. Vatsim Network (Website/Software)
Using a flight simulator can be an incredible tool to aid flight training (read my blog about it), and radio communication can be a part of that, too, thanks to the internet and some cool technology. Vatsim (Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network) is a platform to network your flight simulator with other flight simulators, creating a virtual world with other real pilots. Not only will you share the skies with these other pilots, but you can talk to people acting as air traffic controllers – just plug in a headset with a microphone. This is a great way to practice your radio procedures in a very low stakes environment. There are tutorials on the Vatsim website as well as plenty of YouTube support for getting it up and running. It makes my inner avgeek very happy.
5. Practice With A Friend (Activity!)
Every flight school has a little die cast airplane sitting around it somewhere, but it isn’t there because somebody brought their child to work. Chair flying is valuable time spent (take a look at chair flying in my blog here) and you can chair fly the radios, too. Here’s how it works. With an experienced pilot friend or instructor, pick a spot to represent your airport – a table works great. Whether you draw it out on a sheet of paper or just agree to a basic imaginary layout, decide where on the table your airport is. Start your little airplane out at the ramp, or wherever you would start at your home airport. If your airport is a pilot-controlled airport, make each radio call that you would make in the airplane before moving it into the next position and making another radio call. If you are at a tower controlled airport, let your friend or instructor play the part of the tower and give you the appropriate clearances. It might seem like child’s play, but this sort of chair flying is worth its weight in gold.
Loud And Clear
At the end of the day, the reason for aviation radio is communication – it isn’t a performance or an album you are laying down. So while you shouldn’t make a habit of sloppy form, and you should strive to be professional on the radio – don’t worry about “messing up.” Practice with the method that works best for you, learn from your mistakes, and if you are unsure, ask. Yes, controllers are busy, but they also tend to be very helpful. Oh, and you are cleared for takeoff.
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