This was part of a great communication workshop held by NATCA, the National ATC Association. Worth reading it, as it describes exactly what they like to hear and how for some phases of IFR flights and make some excellent points on how they like pilots to talk to them. This is very applicable to simmers flying with an ATC service like Pilot Edge or Vatsim. Apologies if some words (in brackets) were not clearly intelligible.
Portland Tower Controller: Let’s start. Know what to expect! Wherever you are [in the US] we use the same phraseology. We have a handbook with phraseology we’re supposed to use so that if you come to Oshkosh or Portland you get the exact same clearance format. Knowing what to expect is half the battle, the format is: Who are you? Where are you? And why you calling me, what you want from me? Alright. [If I am working] clearance delivery: I am expecting you to have filed a plan, and have maps, reference things on board. Once I read you the clearance, read back your clearance in the same formula that it’s given to you. Think of it like this. I give you my phone number. Are you not expecting it in a certain pattern? I was in Italy two weeks ago and someone gave me their home number in a completely different format we do. I was completely thrown off. ATC is the same way: we know what to expect, and if you give us something different, it’s tough to wrap your mind around. So read it back in the format that was given to you. Now, once you done that you’re ready to go to ground control.
If I am working ground. Same again. Who are you? Where are you and what you want from me. Have the airport taxiways chart with you. Read back ALL runway assignments and hold short instructions. Underlined. That’s for a safety reason. There are three times (actually four) when you must read back verbatim. Number one: a runway assignment. When I taxi you out you must respect that runway assignment. Number two: Runway hold short instructions. Read back verbatim. Number three, any time I ask for it! This is the greatest job ever! You get to tell people what to do, how fast they can do it! Now there is a fourth, when you are on an approach, but these three on the ground you have to repeat verbatim. Now you know the three times you must read it back exactly. And… if you’re lost or unsure: stop and ask! Please don’t guess! Yes I will respect you a lot more and I will take care of you if you communicate with me. Tell me. ‘You know what? I am lost!’ or ‘Is this the right intersection? Am I supposed to turn here or there?’ I would much prefer that, instead of you don’t know how you got there [and didn’t communicate]. Where I am in Portland, before you get to the taxiway from the general aviation ramp, there is a roadway. You have no idea how many people have turned into it. Surely the taxi center-line did not take you there. I would love you to ask for a progressive taxi. There is no shame on you. If you are unfamiliar with the airport please ask for progressive taxi. I will give you step-by-step instructions. Say you are new to the airport or a student pilot, there is no shame in that. I am going to treat you with kid gloves, I am going to take care of you. [If it is crowded] I will create a hole for you to fit in so that you will be successful. Yeah. But you have to tell me.
Next: Tower procedures, when to call the tower on departure. Ok! Piston driven aircraft. I’m expecting you to call me and let me know when you are ready. The assumption is that you will do a run up on your way in. The book says that you’re going to notify me when you’re ready. We expect you to be ready upon reaching [the runway holding line]. If you need more time, let me know ahead! I can work around it.
Arrivals. When to call the tower? Well if you aren’t already talking to approach control, a ‘pop up’ if you will, give us a call about 10 miles out of the airport, I mean 10 miles from the boundary of the controlled airspace. The reason is if I’m not able to give you service right then, to figure out a plan for my airspace, that gives you time to figure out a plan B before busting my airspace. Good rule of thumb, 10 miles out of controlled airspace. The book here says that you will acknowledge all ATC instructions. Pay particular attention to wake turbulence advisories. Then the book say what words you should use to acknowledge. Roger, Wilco, Affirmative, Negative. Those are all acceptable words, with different meaning of course, but all acceptable.
When exiting the runway. The tower should provide you with exit instructions. In the event they don’t, just exit at the nearest acceptable taxiway. The book says in absence of instructions you are expected to turn off at the first available taxiway. In addition to that if you do receive instructions but are unable to comply, please advise. Then cross the holding line and contact ground.
Now as for some approach procedures I will turn it on to our Minneapolis Approach colleague.
Minneapolis Approach Controller: Let’ see. I listen to seven frequencies on my position. I talk to all of them. You will hear just your frequency but I may be talking to someone else on another. If you hear me talking and don’t hear the answer, just wait a second! Also, I expect pilots will know what to say when they start keying their microphone. Know who I am, tell me who you are. Please don’t call me ‘Center’ if I am working the approach. Tell me where you are at, what you want to do, and then STOP. I don’t want to know you have a blue Cessna, you have a dog in the back and you are pulling zero Gs. I may give you a squawk and an altimeter at the same time. Read back, so that we know we are at the same altitude. Then I see you tag up with your ID. Hear back – Read back. If I tell you 6000 and you tell me 5000… Now I know. We need to be on the same page so I will repeat the altitude. We need to use good phraseology. If I give you an altitude you have to read that altitude back. Ask me if I say something and you don’t understand me. Just ask. No harm in saying ‘Approach I don’t understand what you are saying’, or ‘I am unfamiliar, I don’t know where the airport is’.
So it’s a lot of phraseology at the center of this stuff. Make it standard. Do you know the secret of aviation? No? Right! Because there is none. We all work together. So how you answer is important. Roger for me means that you heard me. It doesn’t mean that you are doing what I said. Wilco means you are going to comply. Another thing, If I say your tail number wrong, I may not be talking to you, there may be another aircraft with just one number or letter off yours. It’s very important to listen. Listen for your call sign. And talk to us, we are not scary! Don’t hesitate to call us if you need something or to clarify something. We want to get you home safe!