Thoughts On Talking To ATC

When I got my licence I kind of thought posting would get a little sparse as I ran out of new things to talk about, but as you can all see, I haven’t. A lot of the things that were new before, now I’ve had time to think about it, and get used to it, and discuss it with other pilots, and now I have more thoughts about it. One of the things that comes up a lot is ATC.

There’s the stereotypes. People make jokes about how ATC are all snarky assholes, and how they think that pilots are all incompetent morons.

Obviously that’s not the reality. I mean, there’s the odd pilot out there that does something dumb. And student pilots will screw things up lots. I know I’ve made mistakes, and when that happens, it’s impressive how ATC takes it in stride. They are in a position where they could draw everyone’s attention to a pilot’s mistakes, but they never do. They do their best to allow pilots to save face.

At St. Andrews, ATC there knows there’s two flight schools on site, and there’s almost always going to be someone flying around their airport with very little experience. ATC at the neighboring airports also knows the registrations for all the school’s planes. It can be a little unnerving for ATC at Winnipeg International Airport to ask you straight up if you have an instructor on board, but I realize it’s the registration that tips them off that there’s probably someone relatively inexperienced at the controls, and it’s helpful for them to know that. I’ve been to a couple of presentations by air traffic controllers, and they pay attention to how confident a pilot sounds on the radio, and adjust their handling of that pilot if they sound uncertain.

They always emphasize in those presentations is not to be embarrassed that ATC is aware that you’re inexperienced, because ATC is there to look out for you. They’ll help keep you from crashing into other planes. This is always a good thing. ATC, if you tell them you’re an inexperienced pilot as you’re going into a busy airport, that makes them very happy, because then they know they’ve got someone they should keep a closer eye on, and they can do a little handholding, like calling your base turn or vectoring you into the circuit (giving you specific headings to turn to as you go along.)

It’s a little strange to be talking to a disembodied voice. A lot of new pilots take a while before their instructor gets them making radio calls at all because the student may be that uncomfortable with it. I’ve spent the last ten years doing tech support over the phone, so I’m used to the disembodied voice. Even so, this is a little bit different. I’m now talking to someone who can see me, but I can’t see them.

Well, they’re in the tower, and I can see the tower, so I guess I can see them just as well as they can see me, but still, it’s weird. Sitting ready for takeoff, and haven’t quite managed to squeek in my radio call between five other planes in the circuit, and ATC addresses me and asks if I’m ready to take-off. Or like in Brandon, I asked where to park to get fuel, and he says, “See that pump about fifty feet in front of you?”

The thing to remember, if you’re a pilot that’s nervous about talking to ATC, is they’re just people. They’re not mean – I’ve never had ATC be mean to me, they’ve always been professional. Sometimes they sound grumpy, but hey, who sounds perky all the time? They’re working shift work, give them a break.

And as grumpy as they might sound, you’re not bothering them by talking to them. Like me at my job, I get people apologizing for bothering me when they call in, and I’m like, dude, you’re not bothering me, I get paid to do this. ATC is there to do a job, and talking to you is their job. They’re not scary. They’re there to help us.