A recent conversation with a friend reminded me that radio anxiety is one of the most-feared parts of flying for student pilots. But it doesn’t have to be. As flight instructors, we often forget what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by radio chatter in a busy airspace. We’ve been doing it for so long that it rolls right off our tongues with ease. But for a new pilot, this type of communication - lightning-speed transmissions between controllers and pilots, peppered with jargon and acronyms everywhere – is a like learning foreign language.
Communicating with air traffic control is a very common fear for student pilots. Controllers talk fast, and sometimes instructors put a lot of emphasis on doing it "right." And there’s already so much going on while you’re flying that handling the radios seems like an impossible addition.
Obviously, the number one priority while flying is safety, and good pilot-controller communication is essential to the safety of flight, which is why it’s emphasized early on in flight training. You do need to learn how to do it right, but it doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety.
There are ways to overcome radio anxiety easily and after a few flights, you’ll be worrying about other important things, like were to go for your next $100 hamburger. Here are a few inside tips for getting rid of radio anxiety:
- Relax: You are going to mess up the radios at first, so just get comfortable with messing up. When you realize that messing up one or two words while talking to the control tower won’t mean the end of the world, you’ll be able to relax a little. Everyone messes up. As long as you get your message across somehow you’ll be just fine.
- Don’t get hung up on being perfect: Your instructor will likely tell you to remember certain things, like the "Three W’s" when you’re reporting your position in the pattern. In this case, you’re supposed to say who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing, which sounds easy until you’re multi-tasking while turning from base to final in the pattern. Remember that it doesn’t really matter if you forget one portion of the required radio call- you can always call again. Or, if you're in a towered environment, ATC will ask you for any missing information they might need and everyone will move one.
- Don’t worry about embarrassment: ATC deals with new and unfamiliar pilots a lot, and they’ll understand. As far as other pilots, they’re all too busy worried about what they’re going to say to even notice a bad radio call. Early on in your training, your instructor might suggest that you avoid ultra-busy airports until you’ve mastered the radios.
- Practice on the ground: Practicing your tower communications on the ground will do wonders for your flight. Grab a buddy and have him or her pretend to be ATC while you "fly" the pattern on the ground.
- Listen: Listening from the ground at or near the airport is the best way to learn ATC lingo, phrasing and terminology, including operations specific to your area or airport. Just grab a transceiver (your instructor or FBO might have one you can borrow) and head down to the airport. Sit at the FBO or on the ramp, grab a bite to eat and listen to the radio.
You’ll hear a few things from the ground that will help with your own radio communications. First, you’ll get a good idea of local procedures and what goes on in general at the airport. Second, you’ll get an idea of the timing of radio calls, which is also important. Specifically, you’ll learn when air traffic controllers do hand-offs, when to contact them when you’re inbound to the airport and what to say upon departure. Finally, you’ll hear other pilots mess up radio calls, which will make you feel better about your own mistakes.
In the end, the best way to learn is by experience. You have to get your feet wet at some point, so don't be afraid to just jump in and do it. Your first few radio calls will probably be a bit rough, but it only takes a few flights to get the hang of it!