ATC controller

Details matter in ATC clearances

3 min read
Air Traffic Control room

Air Traffic Control is there to help, but they aren’t perfect.

Even in the beginning days of learning to fly, your instructor will teach you the importance of reading a clearance back to the controller instead of saying “Roger”.  Recently on an IFR flight out of the New York area, we were reminded of how easy it is for a pilot and the controller to have two different ideas about the same clearance.

In our case, ATC had given us a clearance, which was read back in its entirety, and not much thought about it after that.  Some fifteen minutes later, ATC asked us a question about our clearance, and what we were told.  Immediately we started running through the clearances received to see if we had made a mistake or misinterpreted something.  Thankfully, it wasn’t our mistake.  The ATC computer had told a new controller that we were on a specific clearance, when in fact they had given us a different amended clearance but it wasn’t logged in the computer, hence the confusion.

This kind of confusion can happen from both sides, ATC or the Pilot.  When dealing with ATC, here are some simple rules of thumb to remember.

  • When reading back your clearance, don’t leave out pertinent details – Students often look for ways to shorten their read back to ATC.  Although there is nothing wrong with this practice, early student mistakes are normally made when they omit key details.  This list doesn’t cover all circumstances, but for starters, never leave out headings, altitudes, hold shorts, clearances (land, cross, etc.), entries (base, downwind, etc.), frequencies, and report (i.e. report left base).
  • Stick with standard phraseology – If you listen long enough to most frequencies, you will hear radio chatter that has nothing to do with the official AIM Pilot/Controller Glossary.  When learning ATC communications, the drive is often to “sound like everyone else” on the radio with comments like “here’s the flash”, or “3.5 in the box”, or my personal favorite “we’ve got’em on the fish finder” (reference to TCAS).  For more items in this category, read The 7 deadly sins of radio communication.
  • Know the vocabulary – It is easy to misunderstand someone when they are communicating in a language that you don’t speak fluently.  The Pilot/Controller Glossary is the singular source for the language of ATC communications.
  • If you aren’t sure, ASK! – Once you read back your clearance, you are held to it.  Clarify any statements that you don’t fully understand right away, or do not accept the clearance if you aren’t confident that you can comply with it.
  • Practice – Even if you aren’t based at a tower controlled field, find opportunities with your instructor to practice your ATC communications.  Call for flight following on a cross country, contact flight service to open a flight plan (don’t forget to close it when you land), if you have a towered field near-by, consider extending your flight time to accommodate a few landings at that airport.  You don’t always have to dedicate a full lesson to ATC communications.  Most of the time, small exposure time and time again is the best method to learning the new language.

Don’t shy away from tower controlled fields and the ATC system.  Learn to master the new language and open a new world of flying opportunities and services.

Flight Training Central Staff
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