Every day, air traffic controllers calmly and skillfully guide pilots safely to their destinations—they even save the lives of general aviation pilots in distress who need help finding the nearest airport quickly. In many of these situations, the pilots didn’t hesitate to contact air traffic control before the situation quickly deteriorated. But beyond the realm of emergencies and distress, pilots often are reluctant to contact ATC—perhaps because they fear they might say the wrong thing (or say it the wrong way) or that ATC might say something they’re not prepared to comply with or understand.
Student pilots often stereotype controllers as an all-powerful force that can’t be reckoned with—at least not without consequences. Let’s call this the Darth Vader effect. But behind the mask of radar scopes, computer screens, and dimly lit buttons are people—controllers who want to hear from pilots, whether it’s a pilot weather report, an update on your in-flight fuel situation, a request for a progressive taxi or flight following, or a request for clarification of a clearance.
When anything is beyond your ability to fly safely, know that declaring an emergency won’t get you into trouble; doing so usually works to keep you out of trouble. It’s your privilege and right to make the call whenever you’re uncomfortable. However, getting special attention from ATC doesn’t require declaring an emergency (see Aeronautical Information Manual Section 4-2-4(c)). Just end your initial call to ATC with “student pilot”—this enables controllers to provide you with extra assistance and consideration.
Demystifying ATC is an ongoing process during your flight training. The AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Say It Right online course provides helpful tips about proper radio communications. Also, ATC’s Operation Raincheck program offers a great opportunity to learn about ATC systems and limitations, controller responsibilities, and, perhaps more importantly, a chance to get to know controllers on a more personal level. Please, call your nearest ATC facility to learn whether they allow visits or if access has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. A few hours spent with controllers will leave you thinking, “They’re good people after all.”