I’ll guess that 80% of my flying is done in continuous radio contact with ATC, either IFR, VFR in class B/C/D airspace, or VFR with flight following in class E/G airspace. This kind of flying has its own challenges, but one of the biggest ones is learning to read controllers’ minds (I’m sure that they’d tell you the same about dealing with pilots). If you can figure out what the controller is thinking — what her or his plan is to get you to the approach or the airport, why you’re being vectored, what traffic he or she is worried about, etc. — you can anticipate what’s going to happen next, and sometimes you can even help out a bit, especially if you can tell that the controller’s getting overwhelmed (again, just as controllers do with pilots).
Mind reading is also sometimes necessary, though, simply because of sloppy terminology. Here’s what happened to me yesterday — I was returning to Ottawa VFR, and a few miles from the airport, terminal control passed me to tower with a minimum altitude restriction of 2,000 feet still in force. Here, as far as I can remember, is what the tower controller said:
Tower: BJO, I’m going to have you follow the downwind for 25 first, then bring you around for the left downwind on 22 [my intended runway].
This is pretty normal when arriving at the airport from the southeast — they want to keep me out of the departure path of 25 and have me cross the middle of the jet runways at circuit altitude. But what about my altitude restriction? When you’re cleared to any leg of a circuit (in Canada, anyway), you are automatically cleared to descend to circuit altitude, but was I cleared for a downwind leg? I didn’t hear any clearance in the controller’s communication — feel free to leave a comment if you disagree — but my amazing powers of telepathy told me that because the tower controller used the word “downwind”, he thought he had cleared me; unfortunately, if I had acted on his assumption and ended up with a loss of separation with an IFR aircraft, the tapes would have shown me in the wrong. I decided to help things along a bit a couple of miles from the airport:
Me: Tower, BJO has an altitude restriction of 2,000 feet. Is it OK to descend to circuit altitude now?
Tower: Sure BJO, descend to 1,500 feet. For future reference, a clearance to downwind lets you descend to circuit altitude.
Yep, I read that one correctly — he thought he’d cleared me to downwind. I thanked him (no point wasting radio time on a long discussion), and counted myself lucky that he wasn’t wearing a foil hat to shield his brain waves.