Keeping in touch with ATC

Business Jet Traveler » February 2008
There is a wealth of meaning to be found in volume, tone of voice, timing and
Friday, February 1, 2008 - 4:00am

Digital text messaging might be the preferred communications medium of the future, but when it comes to air traffic control (ATC), pilots and their counterparts on the ground still need a live human voice at the other end of the earphones. Texting may be fine for many forms of messages aloft, and in fact, it has been widely used for years by airlines and many business-jet operators. But for the minute-by-minute give-and-take needed to keep airplanes in line with ATC, the well-disciplined open party line we have today works better in a lot of ways.

It's true that there is a danger of misunderstanding a slightly garbled word in a critical circumstance, but ATC phraseology is carefully chosen and has evolved over the years to minimize that risk. For example, we use a phonetic alphabet for letters, just like the military. A is Alpha, B is Bravo and so on. And to avoid confusing the numbers "five" and "nine" on a static-filled frequency, "nine" has long been pronounced "niner"-one of the clichйs that comedians often lampoon when making fun of pilotspeak.



There is a wealth of meaning to be found in volume, tone of voice, timing and other more subtle nuances of word of mouth. It's one thing to instruct a pilot to "descend immediately" to avoid a traffic conflict. But when the controller's voice gets louder, the pitch rises and the words accelerate as if they were trying to catch up with the jet, the message carries an infinitely adjustable level of impact-even though the words remain the same. We experience this subtle form of "nonverbal" verbal communication all the time-in our interactions with colleagues, children, spouses and telemarketers.



Either consciously or not, controllers also use pilots' voice patterns as a means of measuring their experience and their familiarity with local procedures. Does the pilot respond to direction promptly and confidently? Or is there a pause, followed by unsure hemming and hawing, and ending with a statement of fact, but with a verbal question mark attached, as in, "Uhhhhh, Roger. I'm cleared direct to the...uhhh, outer marker?" This is a pilot who deserves an extra watchful eye on the radar screen, but might not have elicited scrutiny if all his communications had arrived via text messages.



Listening to the ATC "party line" provides pilots with an overview of the air traffic situation that they cannot grasp from their cockpit monitoring equipment, no matter how sophisticated it is. Other aircraft might be visible as blips on the cockpit navigation screens--just as they are viewed by air traffic controllers on the ground--but without the cadence of the air traffic controller's voice giving a rhythm to the picture, it's like watching an action movie with the mute button on. You need a soundtrack to really connect the dots.



Besides all the practical reasons, communication with air traffic controllers would lose a lot of character if it all took place via text messaging. I remember years ago watching a traffic cop at a busy corner. He was a real performer, blowing his whistle and gesturing to drivers in exaggerated pantomime-speed up, slow down, wait right here until the woman with the baby carriage crosses the street. People used to come into town just to watch him. His old post is now manned by a computerized traffic light and it just isn't the same.

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