Communicating with air traffic controllers can be intimidating, especially for students and rusty pilots. Fortunately, we have some useful tools at our disposal.
First and foremost, tell ATC that you’re a student pilot. Add it to the end of the first radio transmission, for example: “Lebanon Tower, Cherokee 1234, 15 miles to the north at 3,000, inbound for landing with information Delta, student pilot.” This indicates that you may need additional assistance, and it hopefully removes any reservations you may have about asking for assistance. ATC now anticipates that need and will be more flexible and understanding.
Thirdly, if you need to change the clearance you were assigned, say so. I was recently approaching a towered airport for landing and according to the automatic terminal information service traffic was landing on Runway 25. However, as I was approaching from the north, ATC assigned me Runway 18. I’m sure the controller thought I would prefer that runway, but I was new to the area and had already planned out how I would approach and land on Runway 25. So, I contacted ATC and asked for Runway 25 and the controller cleared me to land on that runway instead.
Finally, perhaps the most powerful option available is the word “unable.” We don’t have to accept an ATC clearance. Safety is the top priority for controllers and pilots, yet it is the pilot in command who has the responsibility to make decisions to ensure the best possible outcome. If doing so would jeopardize safety in any way, or if for any reason you’re not able to comply, do not accept the clearance or instruction. Simply say “unable.” ATC will then work with you to understand the situation and amend the clearance accordingly.
The FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) is an excellent resource. Chapter 4 Section 2 focuses on communication, and the Pilot/Controller Glossary—found in the back of the AIM—defines terms commonly used by ATC.