Do You Suffer From Push-to-Talk Phobia?
Improve Your Aviation Communication with Virtual Reality
by Jennifer Caron, FAA Safety Briefing Copy Editor
Content disclaimer: Products and services mentioned in this article, and/or external, non-FAA links within, do not constitute official endorsement on behalf of the FAA. This article has been updated; it was originally featured in the November/December 2017 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.
Do you get nervous or intimidated when talking on the radio or with air traffic control? Don’t worry. You’re not alone. Just the sheer amount of information you receive from ATC to get an initial clearance can be overwhelming, let alone having to comprehend what the fast-talking controller just said, and then attempt to read back what you “think” you just heard.
Fortunately, thanks to virtual reality, there are online, real-time, controller-to-pilot platforms and software programs that can help you train for aviation radio communications — all in the comfort of your home. In this article, we’ll take a look at four 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 thumb the mic switch and utter 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. You’ll be hesitant at first, 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 a few simulation options.
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 skills you pick up in your virtual aircraft will easily transfer to your real-life cockpit.
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-Internet-Protocol (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.
Next up in the genre of simulation tools is Plane English. Created by two Purdue University aviation alumni, Plane English is an app that you can use on your mobile device to simulate radio communication between you and ATC. It’s a self-guided learning experience in a realistic, interactive environment featuring thousands of real world, random scenarios in all phases of flight. Multiple lessons become increasingly complex, presenting challenging situations and dialogues with ATC in each phase of flight to help you improve your skills. You’ll get real-time feedback and analysis of your phraseology, speech accuracy, and speech rate performance to build and track your radio proficiency. Plane English can help you practice your way into long-term success the next time you key the mic. It’s available for Android and iOS on the App Store and Google Play at planeenglishsim.com.
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. FAA-approved as a basic aviation training device, 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.
PilotEdge is a software program that connects your computer-based, flight simulator software to the PilotEdge 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 types, 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.
Content disclaimer: Products and services mentioned in this article, and/or external, non-FAA links within, do not constitute official endorsement on behalf of the FAA.
Jennifer Caron is FAA Safety Briefing’s copy editor and quality assurance lead. She is a certified technical writer-editor in aviation safety and flight standards.