In this article, we’ll take a look at three virtual reality platforms that you can use in concert with your home computer or desktop flight simulator, to practice and sharpen your aviation communication skills.
The best part is that the skills you master in your virtual aircraft will easily transfer to your real-life cockpit as well.
First, let’s talk about the “push-to-talk phobia.”
“Say Again? … Over”
It’s a fact that both student pilots and seasoned aviators have at one time or another experienced what I like to call the “Say What?” syndrome. That’s the “huh??” moment that occurs when you can’t understand the fast-flowing stream of non-stop aviation lingo blaring from your radio. If you’re not familiar with how ATC communicates, it can be very intimidating and downright nerve-wracking to push that thumb down and speak those two humbling words, “Say again?”
Do not be shy about making that request! It is critical for safety. Remember that ATC is working to maintain aircraft separation and keep everyone safe. Controllers would much rather have you request a repeat transmission to clarify the instructions than have you act on the basis of what you think you heard. They want you to get it right.
“What’s Our Vector, Victor?”
So how do you learn to “speak ATC” and overcome your fear?
Learning the language of aviation is not unlike learning a foreign language, or any other new skill.
At first you’ll be hesitant, but the best way to overcome your hesitation is through knowledge, training, practice, and still more practice. The longer you practice hearing and speaking your new aviation language, the more fluent you will become, and the more confident you will be when speaking on the radio.
“Tower, Request Taxi”
When you first start learning to fly, you learn the phonetic alphabet, phraseology, and then you train and practice radio communications with your instructor. Some instructors make it a priority for students to spend some flight time at a towered field to practice ATC communications during flight, or to view first-hand operations inside the tower.
But that’s not your only option these days. Whether you’re a student looking for more practice or a certificated pilot who normally operates from a non-towered airport, simulation offers a low-cost way to build your aviation communication skills.
“We Have Clearance, Clarence”
Today’s pilots have the opportunity to use a range of simulation tools to learn and practice radio and ATC communication skills under surprisingly realistic conditions. Desktop computer programs are not typically FAA-approved, but the skills you can acquire and improve via “sim city” practice readily transfer to “real life” flying.
Let’s take a look at three simulation options for communication.
First up is VATSIM, or Virtual Air Traffic Simulation Network. VATSIM is an online simulation platform that hosts, at no cost, an international network of virtual pilots and controllers so you can practice your “avgeek speak.” Real people from around the world simulate flights with thousands of other users in the real-time airspace, all while using their home computer. Users download and install VATSIM’s pilot software to connect up with their home flight simulator software.
The VATSIM network presents a flight environment that’s as close to reality as possible without being in the actual cockpit. Here, users simulate real air traffic procedures and radio phraseology using any type of aircraft, airframe, or panel. You can either fly as a pilot using flight simulation software, or direct traffic as a controller.
Pilot-to-controller communication is performed using voice-over-IP (VOIP), or by text message. Controllers and pilots interact real time as you file flight plans, fly to real-life airports, and perform flight following operations. You can learn and practice your aviation phraseology, detect any problem areas that need work, make mistakes, and recover knowing that you’re “flying” on the ground without repercussions. The network also features virtual pilot and controller training online.
VATSIM provides an opportunity for students, experienced pilots, and those returning to the cockpit to practice in a fun, non-intimidating environment to increase proficiency and sharpen radio communication skills. VASTIM can be found online at vatsim.net.
You may be familiar with Redbird’s flight simulators, available at aviation schools and flight training providers. But did you know that Redbird also makes simulators you can use at home?
The Redbird TD simulator is a table top device that you can use to practice your push-to-talk skills from home. The TD operates Redbird’s optional Parrot software that simulates controller-to-pilot interaction. Using voice recognition, Parrot learns your voice and speech patterns, and also responds to your commands.
As you perform your flight simulations, Parrot is self-aware, meaning that it knows at all times where your aircraft is located, what type of conditions exist during your flight, and which ATIS to read out based on the parameters you’ve chosen for your flight or location. The Redbird TD performs as a self-directed, real-time air traffic controller, deciding what instructions, clearances, vectors, etc. you will need for guidance during your simulated flight.
Redbird provides even the most novice pilot with an interactive, non-threatening environment to practice radio proficiency. Visit redbirdflight.com for more details.
Next up in the genre of simulation tools is PilotEdge. This is a software program that connects your computer-based, flight simulator software to PilotEdge’s voice and data network. With a membership plan, serious pilots can practice a wide range of aviation operations such as IFR and VFR flight, ATC-initiated holds, transitions through multiple airspace, and emergency procedures.
PilotEdge takes each user’s aircraft type, position, heading, etc., uploads it to the servers, and shares that information with the simulators of other virtual pilots nearby. The result is an interactive, real-time display of a shared virtual airspace. You’ll see each other’s aircraft and have the chance to communicate with other pilots on your frequency.
PilotEdge guarantees ATC coverage and interaction with live, real air traffic controllers (either active-duty FAA air traffic controllers, retired controllers, or enthusiasts) as towered airports are fully staffed and CTAF frequencies are supported at non-towered airports. PilotEdge welcomes pilots who take their flying seriously; but if you misinterpret a call, or read back your clearance incorrectly, live controllers will help you to correct it. If you don’t have a strong grasp on ATC communications, PilotEdge features training and workshops as well that can help improve your aviation lexicon. Visit pilotedge.net for more details.
“Tower, Request Landing”
Whichever simulation tool you decide to fly, all are realistic, fun, and interactive. Most important, though, they provide a non-threatening way to learn, stay sharp, and improve your ability to communicate with professionalism, confidence, and skill.
Simulator use can push the fear out of push-to-talk, and help you practice your way into long-term success in the real world, the next time you key the mic.
Jennifer Caron is an assistant editor for FAA Safety Briefing. She is a certified technical writer-editor, and is currently pursuing a Sport Pilot Certificate.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2017 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.