Week Seven: Air Traffic Control

Study was the theme of this week but I did manage to go up solo for the second time and meet up with an Air Traffic Controller. Now that the BAK and First Solo is complete, the next real push is going to be for the Private Pilot Licence or PPL. Which means study, lots of study. Due to the course being full time integrated it means it moves quick, after all, in about a year you’re meant to have your CPL. There is a lot to get through in a relatively short amount of time, so I’m using the time before our PPL ground school starts to read up and study as much as I can, which is not a fast process.

I’d imagine if you ask anyone ‘is studying easy?’, they’d probably say no. I love all the various disciplines that make up piloting, like the mechanical and engineering side right through to the complexity of weather, those multiple fields are one of the main reasons I went down this road in the first place. There is just so many fascinating things to learn and feed your mind with. However, to learn everything required is not easy, there are plenty of brand new concepts and ideas to comprehend, some of which can be quite hard to grasp and might need a chat or two with an instructor, or watching an animation on YouTube if you’re quite visual like me, before it actually clicks and sinks in. I do like studying and maybe I’ll be eating my words in the future but I have always liked researching things and understanding them to a core level. It’s not enough for me to just know if you press a button a light comes on, I want to understand the system and everything else that makes it happen. I guess that means studying works for me, because all the aviation study I’m doing does exactly that by going into great depth on everything. It’s time consuming though, our textbooks are combined PPL and CPL which I actually like, maybe overkill for the PPL but having the clearly outlined CPL parts in there is great for a better and more full understanding of the topic for me, plus maybe it will help when we eventually do our CPL subjects.

I did my second solo this week too, there was a go around in there that I wasn’t quite expecting as I was sandwiched between two jets, but good experience none the less. I did my Pre Area Solo exam too, it wasn’t all that dissimilar from the previous exams really, a little more tailored to inbound procedures and airspace. I also met up with Sally Balharry, one of the Air Traffic Controllers in the Gold Coast Tower. I had some questions and thought it would be good to meet up with an actual controller to go through them and also run some scenarios. The instructors are more than happy to do this, but I also want to get out there and talk with people in the industry, so who better to talk ATC with than a controller, right? It was incredibly beneficial talking with Sally, I had a lot of ‘what if?’ questions, and going through some scenarios with curly, non-standard procedures was great and helped to put me at ease with some concerns.

I do want to expand on this, because it was the biggest issue I had with ATC. The biggest takeaway from our conversation was not to get too hung up on exactly the right way to phrase something. It can be intimidating talking to ATC and you don’t want to sound silly by stuffing up a call, but guess what? You will. You do. I considered myself a confident radio operator, often talking with Firecom in the Rural Fire Service, but this is a different environment with different procedures and terminology and I’m no exception, it’s intimidating and the skills take time to acquire.

What I’m really trying to hit on here is not the standard calls you will make and hear time and time again, but the sorts of calls like, if you’re out on your first or second solo with no instructor to look to and the airspace is busy, ATC might have momentarily forgotten you’re a student and on your downwind call they ask you to take Runway 35 on a short approach when 32 is the main active runway. I had no idea what to say when Sally put me in that situation during one of our scenarios and feebly said yes. She said to think about it, a very low hour solo student like me, would I really take 35? Have I ever landed on 35? To which I said I’d prefer 32. Right answer, but where in the book does it list the standard response for that call? It doesn’t, because it’s not standard, it’s where you as the pilot in command need to make a decision based on your skills and experience. So in this case I would say something like “I would prefer 32” or “would prefer to orbit until I can land on 32”. I’m sure the exact wording could be debated over for hours, but the important thing here is that you have thought about it and decided you’re not experienced enough for the requested procedure, and replied back in simple English, rather than say yes to something or stress over the correct phrasing and potentially end up in a bad situation. The controller will then probably look at your strip on their screen, realise you’re a low hour student and get you to orbit, or something to that effect until the pattern is clear.

I hope that might help, it might be a little out there, but it can happen and when you’re learning at a busy Class C airport with lots of movements you might be asked to do something completely new and perhaps beyond you, so being prepared for it is key. You’ve probably heard it before, failure to prepare is preparing to fail. I did mention a few weeks back about putting a flight log template up for download, but I should actually do a nav with it first to make sure it’s correct which should happen this week coming up, so if it does work I’ll put that up next week. Until next time.

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