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What's Up Doc?

by H. Dean Chamberlain
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News Magazine

Not a very original way of getting someone's attention, but it worked for years for a famous cartoon character. But will it get the attention of someone entering the traffic pattern at your neighborhood non-towered airport on a busy Saturday afternoon?

I think not. The topic of how to communicate with your fellow aviator starts with your first day of flight training. The problem is how many pilots continue to use the FAA recommended communication procedures once they no longer are student pilots. I still have not found the phrase 'You were stepped on' in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). However, if you are reviewing common phrases used on Citizen Band (CB) radio, you will hear the phrase frequently. The common usage of the phrase means someone else was transmitting on the CB radio while you were trying to talk. The result is your transmission was disrupted to the point it was unintelligent to the person you were trying to communicate with. But, the reason I mentioned the phrase 'stepped on' is because I want to remind everyone trying to communicate on a radio or in person to listen before trying to talk. As Ray Stinchcomb, an aviation safety inspector (operations) here at FAA Headquarters said, 'When people are talking, they are not listening. Someone who enters the traffic pattern and constantly announces the aircraft's position around the pattern may not be listening. It is one thing to announce your position, but it is also important to listen for other aircraft in the area about to enter the pattern and to give those other pilots a chance to talk.'

Failure to listen on the designated frequency effectively 'cuts off communication' when it is needed most. That need is greatest on a clear, visual flight rule day at a non-towered general aviation airport. This is the type of day when you are at the greatest risk of having a midair collision. Failure to effectively communicate could result in a deadly situation. It is important to remember that talking is not effective communication. Words must be heard, understood, and the desired action initiated before effective communication has taken place. However, there is one caveat. Not every aircraft has a radio onboard, and there is always the possibility that one that does have a radio onboard may have had a radio failure en route, and then there are always those few pilots in aircraft with radios that never turn the radios on.

'I tawt I taw a puddy tat. I did, I did see a puddy tat!'

This is why Tweety Bird's famous expression is so important. As outlined in Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations part 91, Right-of-way rules: except water operations, subsection 91.113(b) states in part, 'General. When weather conditions permit, regardless of whether an operation is conducted under instrument flight rules or visual flight rules, vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and avoid other aircraft.' All pilots have a responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft whether or not the aircraft involved have functioning radios. As Tweety Bird feared, the 'puddy tat' he failed to see might be his demise. The same is true of the aircraft you fail to see when in visual conditions.

So what can be done? First, pilots can review the FAA recommended communication model in the AIM. Too much radio 'chatter' is as bad as too little self-announcement. Second, we can all learn to listen. For example, if you monitor approach control, if one is available for your local airport, you can listen to its aircraft position reports to increase your situational awareness of nearby aircraft. In addition, you can monitor the designated airport frequency while inbound to get an idea of any aircraft in the pattern or inbound or outbound to the airport. Obviously, if someone is not talking, unless you see the aircraft you will not know it is there. That is why it is a good idea to transmit in the blind for anyone monitoring the common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) when you are inbound to a non-towered airport. The key is not to transmit so much that other pilots cannot announce their positions and intentions.

AIM paragraph 4-1-9, Traffic Advisory Practices at Airports Without Operating Control Towers, says in subparagraph 4-1-9 (a)(1), 'There is no substitute for alertness while in the vicinity of an airport. It is essential that pilots be alert and look for other traffic and exchange traffic information when approaching or departing an airport without an operating control tower. This is of particular importance since other aircraft may not have communication capability or, in some cases, pilots may not communicate their presence or intentions when operating into or out of such airports. To achieve the greatest degree of safety, it is essential that all radio-equipped aircraft transmit/receive on a common frequency identified for the purpose of airport advisories.'