485 Words About What I’ve Learned by Listening to Air Traffic Control (Part 1)

I started to listen to ATC in college when I flew a lot, alone. In those days you could listen to ATC while you flew by plugging in one of those cheap headphone sets into the armrest. Now I listen on my phone through an app. while I’m picking up the house or sitting outside in the yard. I find it calming, almost meditative, and full of many lessons for life. It’s surprisingly predictable and grounding but also interesting. Here’s a “part one” of things I’ve learned from Air Traffic Control. 

Air traffic control reminds me about the importance of accurate communication. The directions are very clear and they must be followed, exactly. If not, well, planes are going to crash in the sky. There’s no room for error. For this reason, absolutely every direction is repeated. It’s not repeated like a robot in the same exact words, but it is repeated such that there’s no doubt the message has been received. So you might hear something like this: 

ATC: Wisconsin 6154 Chicago runway 2-8 center

Pilot: 2-8 center, Wisconsin 6154

ATC: American 1539, descend and maintain seven thousand and two one zero knots or greater. 

Pilot: Two ten or greater, seven thousand, American 1539.

 It’s very hard to be confused about who is talking to whom when you’re listening to ATC.  I’m sure there’s data on exactly how often directions are misunderstood or misheard, but in my experience (and on the channels that I listen to) it’s not very often. That said, when it’s misunderstood, it’s sometimes a significant error,  so you can see why the protocol is to repeat the instructions every time. 

Air Traffic Control Reminds Me I Don’t Have to Do Everything Many controllers talk to a pilot throughout the course of one flight. Each one passes the pilot on to the next one.  It’s like a relay where one person focuses on their specific leg of the race. I love listening to landing approaches. The job is to get everyone organized, lined up, and ready to land. Someone else brings them all the way in. 

Air Traffic Control Reminds Me of the Importance of Kindness in Small Things Main ATC channels are all business, all the time, both because they’re too busy for other stuff and because of protocol. In fact, the longest “conversations” I ever hear resemble this one I heard during a storm last week when things were getting dicey up there. 

ATC: That’s the plan, anyway

Pilot: It’s good to have a plan 

ATC: Even better when it works.

That’s like… a really long conversation for ATC (at least at O’Hare.) That said, there is a lot of courtesy packed into simple communications. 

“Good Day” and “Good Morning” seem to be favorites and some pilots jump in there with a cheery tone you can’t help but notice.

“Good Morning, Chicago approach!” 

Good Morning, indeed. 


#WritersWrite and I write almost every day. I sometimes share my thoughts publicly in this series called “500 Words or Less” This practice allows me to explore a variety of different topics in a restrained/contained way and learn what resonates with people. I wrote it, not AI. If you share, please give proper credit. © Traci Smith, 2023. All Rights Reserved.

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