I remember when I was first learning to fly and the thought of having to talk on the radio terrified me. Everything was new and my brain was so busy just trying to tell my hands and feet what to do to keep the aircraft flying that I didn’t have any headspace left to figure out what the hell I was supposed to say to ATC. As I got more comfortable in the air though, and with a bit of practise, talking on the radio eventually became something that felt natural and easy to do.
In this article we’re going to look at the basics of radio communication, some examples, and tips that’ll help make it easier for you whilst you’re learning to fly. Keep practising and you’ll be sounding like a professional in no time.
Listen before you transmit. If you’ve just tuned into the frequency and start talking right away, then you might interrupt someone else’s communications; wait a few seconds at least to make sure the frequency is clear first.
Think before your press the transmit button, saying “umm, ahh” on the radio does nothing but clog up the airwaves. Know what you’re going to say before you start speaking; if it’s long and/or complicated then write it down first if it’s safe to do so.
Talk clearly and concisely. The microphone needs to be close to your lips, so close to that you can almost give it a kiss, in order to make sure ATC can hear you. Pause for a moment after you press transmit to make sure your first word or two aren’t cut off in the transmission. Speak in a normal tone and volume, avoid using slang, and do your best to use the correct terminology (as indicated in the pilot/controller glossary).
What to Say on the Radio?
When you make your first radio call to a facility or controller that you haven’t talked to yet there are usually four or five things that you will always say to them:
- YOU – this is who you’re talking to
- ME – which aircraft make or model and tail number you are flying; make sure to pronounce the tail number phonetically e.g. N1021X is said “November One Zero Two One X-ray”.
- WHERE – your position and altitude (if airborne)
- WHAT – what you want to request
- WITH* – what ATIS/weather information you have (*usually only necessary if you’re contacting a facility associated with an airfield e.g. tower, ground, approach, or departure)
Example 1: “Hillsboro Tower, Arrow 1021X, ten miles north, three thousand five hundred, inbound to land, with information Echo.”
Example 2: “Hillsboro Ground, Skyhawk 403SP, at the south ramp, request taxi for west-bound departure, with information Alpha”
Subsequent Contacts and Replies
After establishing contact with a facility (i.e. they have replied with your tail number), you will be able to shorten your future radio calls as long as you remain on that frequency by just including the following:
Note that, when replying to ATC instructions, it’s standard practice to append your call sign (the ME part) to the end of your reply, not the beginning like when you initiate contact.
Let’s expand on the first example from above and see what that conversation with ATC might look like:
Pilot – “Hillsboro Tower, Arrow 1021X, ten miles north, three thousand five hundred, inbound to land, with information Echo.”
Tower – “Arrow 1021X, Hillsboro Tower, descend and maintain two thousand, remain clear of class delta.”
P – “Descend and maintain two thousand, remain clear of class delta, 1021X”
T – “Arrow 1021X, altitude your discretion, clear to enter class delta, report right downwind three one right.”
P – “Altitude my discretion, clear to enter class delta, report right downwind three one right, 1021X.”
P – “Arrow 1021X, right downwind three one right, to land.”
T – “Arrow 21X, three one right, number two to a Cessna on base, clear the option.” (Notice that Tower has abbreviated our call sign to three numbers/letters now, so we are clear to do that in our further communications.)
P – “Three one right, number two, traffic in sight, clear the option, 21X.”
General Radio Tips
Practise Before you go Flying
- Study and memorise the phonetic alphabet, I found that a good way to practise this was by spelling words and registration plates I saw whilst driving.
- Study the pilot/controller glossary, paying particular attention to the words in bold.
- Ask your instructor to help you write out the standard radio calls that you will need. Add these radio calls into your chair flying and practise them with friends.
- Listen to LiveATC to hear real pilot/controller communications. Pretend you’re one of the pilots talking to ATC and see if you can figure out the correct response before they do.
There’s a lot going on when you’re flying and sometimes, you’re going to miss radio calls just because you’re busy doing something else. It’s important though that you make an effort to listen out for your aircraft callsign and other aircraft; this will help build your situational awareness, which is an important factor in airmanship and flying safely.
Avoid adding extra distractions by doing things unnecessary to flying e.g. taking a selfie or updating your Facebook status. This doesn’t mean that you need to adhere to the ‘sterile cockpit’ rule (14 CFR §121.542) like an airline pilot but just be mindful of what distracts you and build the discipline required to focus on the task at hand.
If you’re a student pilot on a solo flight, then I highly recommend that you append the words “student pilot” after your call sign the first time you contact a new controller/facility. This will let ATC know that you are still learning, and they will be much more understanding and try and help you out if they can.
Example: “Portland Tower, Skyhawk 403SP, student pilot, request you call my base turn.”
If in Doubt, Use Plain Speak
Whilst it would be great to be able to memorise and use the correct phraseology all the time, sometimes you might just forget the right words, or there may be no standard terminology for what you want to say. If that’s the case then don’t worry about saying the wrong thing, just use plain English to get your point across. It’ll be a learning point, and something you can investigate when you’re on the ground and have more time.
ATC Isn’t Always Right
Controllers have busy jobs with a lot of responsibility, and sometimes they can make mistakes or slip up. It’s important that, as pilots, we work with ATC to help make the skies safer. If the instructions you receive from ATC seem incorrect, or you think there might have been a call sign mix up, then ask for clarification. Don’t blindly follow ATC instructions if they don’t make sense. For example, you’re on downwind about to make a call for a touch-and-go, runways 31L and 31R are active:
Pilot – “Arrow 21X, right downwind, three one right, touch-and-go”
Controller – “Arrow 21X, clear touch-and-go, one three right”
P – “Say again, Arrow 21X.“
C – “Arrow 21X, clear touch-and-go, three one right.”
Often just saying “say again…” is enough to prompt a controller to notice the error they made; however, if they repeat the same instruction and it still doesn’t make sense to you, then ask for clarification by saying something like this:
Pilot – “Arrow 21X is right downwind, three one right, confirm you want us to change to runway one three right?”
At this point, the controller will usually either correct to give you your original request, or they will explain why you need to follow their new instructions and give you further directions.
What if My Radio Isn’t Working Properly?
Modern technology is pretty reliable, but there is always a chance that something might go wrong, so it’s important to know what to do in that situation. In the event of radio problems, here’s what I recommend you do, in this order:
- Remember ANCA – fly the aircraft first and maintain a safe height, heading, and airspeed.
- Dummy checks – check the volume, mute button, squelch, frequency, headset plugs, try a different transmit button or headset etc. One of these is usually the cause of your radio problems.
- Troubleshoot it – test another frequency, try a different radio if you have one, check the circuit breakers or fuses, look in your aircraft POH for further recommendations if safe to do so.
Still not working? Follow the suggestions in AIM 6-4 and:
- Squawk 7600
- Maintain VFR and land as soon as practicable
- Try monitoring a nearby NAVAID that has voice capability, ATC may attempt communication through that.
- If your phone is nearby then try calling tower, or FSS, or anyone that can relay your situation to ATC.
- Continue transmitting your intentions with “transmitting blind” in your calls, just in case ATC can hear you but you can’t hear them. Example: “Skyhawk 403SP, transmitting blind, six miles west, one thousand five hundred, inbound to land, runway three one left.”
- Look for ATClight signals, and land if it’s safe to do so.
Talking on the radio can be intimidating and distracting when you first start flying but it’s an important skill to master. Start with the basics, do your best to learn the correct phraseology/terminology, and continue practising and improving your radio communication skills. By doing so, you will improve your situational awareness and become a safer pilot.