Written by Chief CFI Greg
As if learning to fly wasn’t challenging enough, there is also the task of essentially learning a new language, that of aviation radio communication. While it does seem very overwhelming at first, there is definitely a combination of art and skill to using the right words when communicating with air traffic control (ATC). Believe me, these skills are appreciated by others who may be distracted or annoyed by nonstandard or excessive communications. The best communicators exist at all levels of pilot certification, from student pilots to airline transport pilots. They combine standard phraseology with common sense, and they acknowledge controller transmissions with just the required readback information. Nonessential information is never read back unless the pilot wants to verify a controller’s instructions.
There are two main sources of information that will ensure your next radio call will be clear, concise, and correct: the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and the Pilot Controller Glossary (PCG).
The AIM Section 2, Chapter 4 "Radio Communications Phraseology and Techniques" is the best reference for learning good ATC communication skills and phraseology. Because the FAA writes it, the AIM is the most authoritative source for instrument flight rules procedures. Unlike the federal aviation regulations, the AIM is not legally binding, but it is the most current and detailed source of FAA-recommended procedures. There are three sections I would like to highlight in Chapter 4: 1) initial contact format, 2) frequency changes, and 3) student pilots.
1. Initial contact: should include the four W’s: Who you are calling, Who you are, Where you are, and What you want.
“Portsmouth Ground, RV Niner Two Two Charlie Alpha, november ramp, taxi, information bravo”
2. Frequency change: while the instruction must be acknowledged, there is no requirement, however, to read back the frequency unless you question whether or not you heard it correctly and want confirmation.
Controller: “RV Two Charlie Alpha, contact Boston Departure on one two five point zero five”
Pilot: “RV Two Charlie Alpha”
3. Student pilots: To receive additional assistance while operating in areas of concentrated air traffic, it is recommended that student pilots identify themselves as such, on initial contact with each different frequency (ground control, tower, departure, etc)
Pilot: “Portsmouth Tower, RV Nine Two Two Charlie Alpha, holding short runway three four at alpha, VFR departure to the North-East, student pilot”
The PCG contains a laundry list of words and their definitions which provide a common understanding of terms by all users of the airspace system. Using the terms in the PCG ensures your radio call is clear because everyone knows what the definition of the word is, and concise, because the message is being conveyed in as few words as possible. As you review the PCG, take note that the terms used most often are displayed in bold/italics, in particular:
BLOCKED—Phraseology used to indicate that a radio transmission has been distorted or interrupted due to multiple simultaneous radio transmissions.
CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF—ATC authorization for an aircraft to depart.
CLEARED FOR THE OPTION—ATC authorization for an aircraft to make a touch and go, low approach, missed approach, stop and go, or full-stop landing at the discretion of the pilot. It is normally used in training so that an instructor can evaluate a student's performance under changing situations.
CLEARED TO LAND—ATC authorization for an aircraft to land. It is predicated on known traffic and known physical airport conditions.
CLOSED TRAFFIC—Successive operations involving takeoffs and landings [touch-and-goes] or low approaches where the aircraft does not exit the traffic pattern.
EXPEDITE—Used by ATC when prompt compliance is required to avoid the development of an imminent situation.
FLY HEADING (Degrees)—Informs the pilot of the heading they should fly. The pilot may have to turn to, or continue on, a specific compass direction in order to comply with the instructions. The pilot is expected to turn in the shorter direction to the heading unless otherwise instructed by ATC.
GO AROUND—Instructions for a pilot to abandon his approach to landing. Additional instructions may follow. Unless otherwise advised by ATC, a VFR aircraft or an aircraft conducting visual approach should overfly the runway while climbing to traffic pattern altitude and enter the traffic pattern via the crosswind leg. A pilot on an IFR flight plan making an instrument approach should execute the published missed approach procedure or proceed as instructed by ATC; e.g., "Go around" (additional instructions if required).
HAVE NUMBERS—Used by pilots to inform ATC that they have received runway, wind, and altimeter information only. (Note: this is used in lieu of checking in with the current ATIS identifier).
IDENT—A request for a pilot to activate the aircraft transponder identification feature. This will help the controller to confirm an aircraft identity or to identify an aircraft. Do not confuse this with squawk, which means to tune the transponder code or transponder operating mode, such as Mode C, altitude reporting, a controller gives you.
IMMEDIATELY—Used by ATC when such action compliance is required to avoid an imminent situation.
LINE UP AND WAIT—Used by ATC to inform a pilot to taxi onto the departure runway to line up and wait. It is not authorization for takeoff. It is used when takeoff clearance cannot immediately be issued because of traffic or other reasons.
MAINTAIN—Concerning altitude/flight level, the term means to remain at the altitude/flight level specified. The phrase "climb and" or "descend and" normally precedes "maintain" and the altitude assignment; e.g., "descend and maintain 5,000." Concerning other ATC instructions, the term is used in its literal sense; e.g., maintain VFR.
MAKE SHORT APPROACH—Used by ATC to inform a pilot to alter his traffic pattern so as to make a short final approach.
MAYDAY—The international radiotelephony distress signal. When repeated three times, it indicates imminent and grave danger and that immediate assistance is requested.
NEGATIVE—"No," or "permission not granted," or "that is not correct."
NEGATIVE CONTACT—Used by pilots to inform ATC that the previously issued traffic is not in sight. It may be followed by the pilot's request for the controller to provide assistance in avoiding the traffic. Used by pilots to inform ATC they were unable to contact ATC on a particular frequency.
RADAR CONTACT—Used by ATC to inform an aircraft that it is identified on the radar display and radar flight following will be provided until radar identification is terminated.
RADAR SERVICE TERMINATED—Used by ATC to inform a pilot that he will no longer be provided any of the services that could be received while in radar contact. Radar service is automatically terminated, and the pilot is not advised in the following cases: 1. An aircraft cancels its IFR flight plan, except within Class B airspace, Class C airspace, a TRSA, or where Basic Radar service is provided. 2. An aircraft conducting an instrument, visual, or contact approach has landed or has been instructed to change to advisory frequency. 3. An arriving VFR aircraft, receiving radar service to a tower controlled airport within Class B airspace, Class C airspace, a TRSA, or where sequencing service is provided, has landed; or to all other airports, is instructed to change to tower or advisory frequency. 4. An aircraft completes a radar approach.
REPORT—Used to instruct pilots to advise ATC of specified information; e.g., "Report passing Hamilton VOR."
SAY AGAIN—Used to request a repeat of the last transmission. Usually specifies transmission or portion thereof not understood or received; e.g., "Say again all after ABRAM VOR."
SAY ALTITUDE—Used by ATC to ascertain an aircraft's specific altitude/flight level. When the aircraft is climbing or descending, the pilot should state the indicated altitude rounded to the nearest 100 feet.
SAY HEADING—Used by ATC to request an aircraft heading. The pilot should state the actual heading of the aircraft.
SPEAK SLOWER—Used in verbal communications as a request to reduce speech rate.
SQUAWK (Mode, Code, Function)—Activate specific modes/ codes/functions on the aircraft transponder, e.g., "Squawk two—one-zero-five." Squawk does not mean that the pilot should press the transponder's IDENT button.
STAND BY—Means the controller or pilot must pause for a few seconds, usually to attend to other duties of a higher priority. Also means to wait as in "stand by for clearance." The caller should reestablish contact if a delay is lengthy. "Stand by" is not an approval or denial.
TRAFFIC—A term used by ATC to refer to one or more aircraft.
TRAFFIC IN SIGHT—Used by pilots to inform a controller that previously issued traffic is in sight.
UNABLE—Indicates inability to comply with a specific instruction, request, or clearance.
VERIFY—Request confirmation of information; e.g., "verify assigned altitude."
WILCO− I have received your message, understand it, and will comply with it.
Like many other skills, radio communication is something you master with practice and patience. Above all, relax, be calm, and speak clearly. If you don’t know the correct PCG term, or can’t remember it, don’t worry about it. Just use plain english like you are having a conversation with an old friend.
For future study, check out the Airline Owners and Pilots Associations (AOPA) online course Say it Right: Mastering Radio Communication. Completion of the course will get you FAA Wings credit. You can download kneeboard cards with sample radio calls and light gun signal reminders here.