Communications Should Be Simple

Okay … I’m in full rant mode on this topic. How hard is it to communicate with ATC? Apparently it’s more difficult than anyone can imagine.

I mean, we start communicating not long after we take our first breaths, don’t we? Crying is communicating, right? Then we learn our first words, then we stumble to put those words into sentences – and before long we’re texting (albeit disjointed) thoughts to all of our friends.

Communication is something at which we’re accomplished by the time we start grammar school. So why is it so bloody frkn hard to communicate with ATC? Let’s get the simple stuff out of the way, first.

Well, first there’s mike fright. Put a microphone in front of anyone and (unless he or she is a hambone – like me) he starts to stammer, she start to stutter, we get all bloody tongue-tied. Why? We’re afraid to sound like pinheads on the radio.

We should get over mike fright fairly quickly, right? I mean, anything that’s new to you, you struggle with at first. Remember your first few landing attempts? But then you practiced and got better and, then … TA-DA … you soloed, and your life was changed forever. Amen.

For some reason, though, competent pilots become incompetent wankahs when they open the mike key. Let’s go through a couple of simple examples and see if we all can get a tad better at something we’ve been doing for a long time.

At Montgomery Field in San Diego (my home), for the last few years ATC has been using the phrase, “Stand by,” after you call up asking for takeoff clearance. I’ve had heated discussions with Tom Dray, the former Air Traffic Manager at MYF, about the frustrating use of that phrase: “STAND BY.” What’s it mean … and what should we reply when confronted with it?

According to the Pilot/Controller Glossary, ‘Stand By’… Means the controller or pilot must pause for a few seconds, usually to attend to other duties of a higher priority. Also means to wait as in ‘stand by for clearance’. The caller should reestablish contact if a delay is lengthy. ‘Stand by’ is not an approval or denial.

Basically, ATC is telling you, “Go away, Kid, ya’ bother me.” It’s a blow-off.

What we’ve expected to hear, in lieu of a clearance for take off, is, “Decathlon 62973, hold short of Runway 28Right.” And what we’re expected to reply is, “Decathlon 62973, hold short of 28Right.” There’s the rub.

WE are to blame for the use of the ridiculous blow-off phrase, “Stand By”. WE forget that when given a “Hold Short” instruction, WE are supposed to reply with our call sign and runway number. WE are not supposed to say, “Hold short of the right,” “Hold short,” “Roger,” or any of the other bullshit ways WE have of replying to a very specific instruction: “Decathlon 62973, hold short of Runway 28Right.”

If WE replied, every time, with the phrase, “Decathlon 62973, hold short 28Right,” WE wouldn’t have to listen to the blow-off, “Stand By”.

Frustrated by years of pilots ignoring standard phraseology when instructed, by call sign, to hold short of a specific runway, ATC at MYF has decided to blow us off because of our communicating incompetence. Because, when a controller says, “Decathlon 62973, hold short of Runway 28Right,” that controller has to hear those exact words, “Decathlon 62973, hold short 28Right,” in reply. Those exact words have to be heard on the tape – and every communication with every ATC facility is recorded so that superiors can review controllers’ performance and, when necessary, discipline someone.

And once the controller has told you, “Decathlon 62973, hold short of Runway 28Right,” he or she has to repeat that instruction until he or she hears the exact proper reply, which always and forever requires the call sign and hold short instructions issued for the specific runway mentioned.

Hell, I’ve heard some weenies repeat four or five different unspecific responses when repeatedly told, with call sign, to hold short of a specific runway. “Hold short of the right.” “Hold short.” “62973, holding short.” “Roger, holding short.” Hell, if I were a controller, I’d be equipped with a high-powered rifle with a scope.

And … when we get blown off by, “Stand By,” how are we expected to reply. Well, basically, when you get blown off, you don’t bother to reply. If you have to, you could acknowledge the blow-off with your call sign. But “Stand by” just means “Shut-up and leave me alone,” and doesn’t require a response.

Don’t get all pissy and say, “Decathlon 62973 will HOLD SHORT 28RIGHT,” because that isn’t what you were told to do. I know some self-righteous individuals who feel that they’ll instruct ATC of proper procedures by repeating the proper “hold short” phraseology. Well, we brought the blow-off phrase upon ourselves, so let’s all get over it and, should it ever happen that MYF ATC feels like braving the icy waters of issuing proper hold short clearances, maybe we’ll all be a touch smarter and reply with the proper phraseology when told, by call sign, to hold short of a specific runway.

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Here at Montgomery, we’ve got another hold short confusion opportunity for which ATC has no blow-off call. You’re cleared to land on Runway 28Right. You bang your Bonanza onto the runway, and you slow as you approach taxiway Golf. ATC says, “Bonanza 123SH, hold short of Runway 28Left on Golf,” and oftentimes ATC will add, “Remain with me.”

Sounds simple, yah? Oh, how we murder ATC phraseology. You say, “Bonanza, 123SH, hold short.”

YOU have forced ATC into several more communications. ATC says, “Bonanza 123SH, hold short 28Left.” YOU say, “Bonanza, holding short of the Left.” ATC says, “Bonanza 123SH, I say again … hold short 28Left.” YOU say, “Hold short 28Left.”

What ATC should now say is, “You frkn Bonanza BOZO, depart immediately from this airport and never frkn return. Incompetent jag-offs like you shouldn’t be allowed into the sky.” But, of course, they can’t.

ATC says, “Bonanza 123SH, I need to hear your call sign and the phrase “Hold short of Runway 28Left.” And, once in a long while, the Bonanza beat-off actually repeats the correct phrase, “Bonanza 123SH, holding short Runway 28Left.” Of course, by that time, three airplanes have had to extend their downwind legs and are approaching Phoenix. By that time, the Cessna that was landing on 28Left, requiring you to repeat your call sign and hold short instructions, has already landed, taxied clear, called ground control and is happily on his way back to Gibbs. What a weenie you are, Bozo Bonanza driver.

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Whilst we’re on the topic, here’s another tower rant. Why do normal (I assume) pilots have to repeat every single frkn word they hear when ATC speaks. You’re on downwind for 28Right. ATC says, “Cirrus 123FA, you’re following a Cessna ahead of you about to turn base, you are number two, cleared touch and go 28Right.” And you say, “Cirrus 123FA, following a Cessna ahead about to turn base, number two, cleared touch and go 28Right.” When all you really had to reply was call sign and runway: “Cirrus 123FA, 28Right.” If you wanted to, you could have added, “Cessna in sight, #2 28Right,” but it’s not essential communication and that’s what we need more of – just essential communication.

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there used to be a tv show called Dragnet. Its star, Jack Webb, Lt. Joe Friday on the show, used a catch phrase all the time: “Just the fact, Maam. Just the facts.”

All you really need to say to ATC is “Just the facts,” Maam. Runway and call sign, Maam.

OR … call sign and Runway.

Runway and call sign.

OR … call sign and Runway.

Can it get any simpler? “Decathlon 62973, you’re number three behind a King Air on three mile final, cleared for touch and go Runway 28Right.” What do you say? “Decathlon 62973, 28Right.” If you’ve got the King Air in sight, you can tell them that, too. “King Air in sight for 62973,” but only if it’s not too damned bizzy.

Runway and call sign, Maam.

Call sign and Runway.

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Finally (lest you think I’ve run outta ranting stamina), there’s one more simple way to save a lotta chatter on the frequency. You’re in the north pattern doing touch and goes on 28R. ATC says, “Cessna 123BJ, you’re number two following a Stearman on short final, cleared touch and go 28Right.” And, being the mindless little lemming that you are, you say, “Cessna 123BJ, following the Stearman on short final, cleared touch and go 28Right.”

There are ten extraneous words you’ve just prattled that serve no purpose. You’re doing touch and goes on 28R. You’ve been doing touch and goes on 28R. Why say it – you and the controller know it, right? And why, ferbloodyfrknsake, repeat that you’re following a Stearman on short final. What should you reply?

“Cessna 123BJ, 28Right.

It’s simple, it’s concise and it conveys all the information required in the transmission: CALL SIGN AND RUNWAY.

If it’s not bizzy and you wanna clarify, you can say, “Cessna 123BJ, 28Right, Stearman in sight.”


Got it, kids? Runway and call sign. Call sign and Runway. ‘Nuff said. Now go practice it.

Runway and call sign.

Call sign and Runway.

Posted in Rants, Training Topics