I recently saw a post on  Twitter or Facebook from an individual in the middle of their flight training. They were having problems getting the hang of the proper radio terminology.  aircraft radio headsetI can remember that as an instructor in the Air Force I would often encounter students who had the same problem.

It would seem that when they pressed the button to talk into the radio microphone that it would simultaneously disconnect their other hand – the one on the control stick. As a new student they only had the ability to concentrate on one thing – either flying or talking. Gradually the radio terminology in the traffic pattern and the practice area became familiar and they were able to multi-task, but sometimes it was a real struggle.

Then just when they were feeling comfortable they progressed to the instrument phase of training and the problem surfaced again. Instrument procedures, specifically transitioning from the enroute phase to the instrument approach can involve radio terminology that sounds like a foreign language to the new student.

I can remember flying as a student with a “guest” instructor on one of my early instrument approach training flights. Occasionally one of the academic instructors would sit in for your regularly assigned instructor so that they could get their monthly flight time. This individual was an Air Force Major (O-4) by the name of Finfinger.

We had finished our practice area work and were next going to go to Midland, Texas to fly a high TACAN approach – primarily a military maneuver, it is similar to a VOR approach, but it starts at a much higher altitude and includes a steep descent (penetration) as part of the course reversal. I doubt they even have them now. Anyway, I was having problems with the radio that day and the Major tried to help me out.

We were out in a practice area assigned by the training base and needed to contact Midland Approach and get clearance to the initial approach fix for the high approach.  I had changed to the proper frequency but was slow to figure out just how to phrase what I needed to say. He got on the radio and said:  “Hello, Midland?  This is Major Finfinger and I want to go to Midland and fly and approach.”

Well, that was all true, but it sure wasn’t what was written in the training manual. Midland called back and said “OK, Major. Any idea where you are?” he said “Well, we’re up north of the airport someplace at 20,000 feet.” They gave him a squawk code for the transponder and asked if he wanted a high approach or a low one. He said High TACAN, please.

By then the radar had made a sweep and they found us. They gave us our position, confirmed the altitude and gave us a heading to fly toward Midland. We were cleared to descend to the initial approach altitude and told to proceed direct to the TACAN when we received the navigation signal and cleared to enter the holding pattern there.

The whole operation just taught me that it doesn’t really matter what you say or how you say it, the right information will eventually be passed to the people who need it. If you don’t give the controller what they want, they’ll ask for what they need. If they don’t’ understand what you want then you word it a different way until they do.

Yes, eventually I had to learn the proper terminology, but the more experience I got “in the system” the more familiar the correct terms became and the easier the right words came to mind.

Learning to fly is not hard, but it is complex and it’s accomplished in an environment that is not like any other that you are likely to encounter. You can’t know it all at once. Putting that burden on yourself will overwhelm you and make you wonder how you’ll ever get it right. Don’t worry, it will come as you gain more experience.

Just remember to say three things – who you are, where you are and what you want to do.  Simple, huh?

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2 responses to “Major Radio Lessons”

  1. Dave Avatar

    Great post! So many times we make things much more complicated than the need to be. While this technique may not work in New York airspace, it is completely relevant for most new students. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Tracy Avatar

    Dave, thanks for stopping by. I agree – in a busy Class B the controller would probably just tell you to go away (Calling New York, stand by and remain clear of the Class B – you’d have to go refuel before he would call back). On the other hand, some of the Class C and D areas that I have flown through would probably enjoy the change of pace.
    – tr