Speak Up or Shut Up?

5 min read
Apr 4, 2024

The late Joan Rivers, a popular comedian from the 70's, had a catchphrase: Enter talking. She'd hit the stage with her switch flicked, and the show would begin.

As a pilot, regardless of your ratings, this isn't how you want to conduct yourself on the radio. There are times when you should say something and others when you should not.

This article presents some common and some not-so-common scenarios to reflect on, ones that you may have encountered somewhere along the line in your flight training or flying. The objective is to consider the circumstances carefully and the possible consequences of speaking up.

Let's start with a non-towered airport. 

As you know, radio communications are not required. However, you still should announce when you are taxiing from parking to anywhere else on the field, be it a hangar to the fuel pumps or an FBO to the runway. Specify the taxiway you're using and your intentions. 

It doesn't matter if you don't hear anyone else on the radio. What if someone is seven miles south and inbound, and you will be heading in that direction? They would welcome hearing you say, "Jones Traffic, Cessna 1-2-3, taxiing from fuel to runway 2-0 for a southbound departure at 2,500, Jones Traffic." The inbound traffic now knows you're heading their way, and if they had been initially inclined not to say something right away, maybe they'll now let you know what their intentions are for your planning. 
Calling out the complete dialog when in the traffic pattern is another time we should speak up. Specify the airport at the beginning and end of the transmission because sometimes it gets cut off with overlapping shared frequency use from other airports. Also include the direction of turns (e.g., left downwind, right base, runway 2-0) with each leg so that everyone knows exactly where you are in the pattern.

These are fairly common review examples. However, when standard communication protocols allow space for personal opinions, matters get more complicated.

That's when the local CTAF gets tied up with unnecessary chatter. It's not the time or place to ask your buddy (whose voice and callsign you immediately recognize) if he's tried the new BBQ place in town.

How about two or more pilots not agreeing with which runway to use due to shifting winds? Pilot A could be approaching from the east and making her runway decision and calls based on the ASOS, whereas Pilot B is about to take off and decides to use the calm wind runway noted in the chart supplement. 

Like the Captain and his XO in Crimson Tide, the pilots in this scenario could be both right and wrong. If you hear even the slightest hint of an escalation heading to a strong disagreement, it's best to wait it out at a safe distance and figure out how the situation unfolds. 
Similarly, should you speak up if someone drops into the pattern out of nowhere by entering on base while you're on downwind about to turn base? It's not the time to lecture them on safe pattern entry, but rather the time to decide how to reduce the likelihood of making mid-air contact. 

You could climb and extend your downwind to let them pass safely (and somewhat rudely) underneath you, but don't unload on them. It would distract you both. You can be sure this has happened more than once in aviation history. Be the pilot who keeps a cool head and stays in control. State your intentions and fly the plane. 

Towered airports and beyond

Suppose you're heading to the local practice area, and you hear ATC trying to call someone, and then you hear that pilot trying to call ATC (tipping you off that the pilot isn't receiving ATC comms). Is it acceptable to offer to ATC that you can help relay the calls? 

Certainly. You aren't interfering; you are helping, and both parties will appreciate it. 

If you're monitoring (or guarding) 121.5 during a cross-country, should you let ATC know if you hear an ELT pinging? 

Definitely. You might just be the pilot who helps find a downed plane, and you can ask ATC if it has had any similar reports because you are hearing the signal clearly. 

Should you volunteer to help look for the plane? 

Circumstances and safety will dictate that choice, but you wouldn't be the first pilot to have offered such help. 
You are en route and see a large plume of smoke building in a distant forest. Should you call Center and let them know you see this? 

It can't hurt. You may very well be the first person to see it and help get firefighting services on their way.  

Suppose it's daytime, and you notice a small plane taxiing with its pitot tube cover on. Maybe it's a maintenance taxi, or maybe it is headed out. What if a low-wing plane is next to you in the runup area, and you see its pitot tube cover on? 

The pilot can't possibly see it, and you won't be interfering to let them know. Otherwise, what could follow might be a very stressful lift-off, climb-out, and immediate return to the runway. 

What do you do about larger aircraft? 

Speaking up on the ramp when you see something potentially amiss with larger aircraft is where you want to be sure you're sure. Whatever you say likely will stop an imminent departure. 

Suppose you see a military trainer with a small door hinge open as it is taxiing out. It looks odd and unusual but you don't really know the aircraft. Maybe it's the landing light door (some trainers have these). 

How about when that big Caravan is getting ready to roll, and you see clearly that its left main chocks are still in place? Without question, it's ok to speak up.  
Some instances are no-brainers, like if you see a baggage door open on any aircraft. If you study the planes around you, there may come a day when you notice something that could prevent them from having a bad day, like seeing that the gas cap on one of the wings is not in place. Don't think this hasn't happened. 

If you see foreign object debris (FOD), let Ground or Tower know, depending on where you are. You would be amazed at some of the things pilots have reported seeing on the ramp, taxiway, or runway (e.g., dumbbells, packages, tools).

The bottom line

Deciding when and how to speak up is not always easy. Think it through carefully, choose your words precisely, and don't lose track of your own operations. 

Talking with your flight instructor about these scenarios and how to react is helpful. We are all in this together, and communicating effectively and efficiently benefits everyone. 

Use correct ATC phraseology, avoid slang, and keep the bandwidth free of excessive chatter. If you follow these communication practices, when you do choose to speak up, you'll be doing so like a pro. 

Previous Article
← The Last Flight