Radio Techniques That Make You Sound Like A Pro
By Earl Kessler ATP, CFII
Most pilots learn at the beginning of their training to Aviate, Navigate then Communicate. The emphasis on what to say and how to say it is always given a back seat to flying the airplane and figuring out where you are in the initial and intermediate training, but eventually as a pilot gains greater levels of flight competence, it is then time to focus on honing ones radio communications skills. Since these skills never come naturally, learning the language of the aeronautical airwaves is advisable to be succinct in communicating your needs and intentions to ATC and other pilots. The following tips are an accumulation of dos and don’ts that will give your skills a polishing and perhaps, get you respect from your fellow pilots and first class treatment from ATC.
What Not To Say On The Radio
1. “Clear of the active”, or “Taking the active” at a non-towered airport.
a. The only place you find an “Active” runway is at a Class B, C or D airport with an operating control tower. This phrase at a non-towered airport, like Stead with 4 runways in use at once is a waste of airwave time and not useful to other pilots
b. There is no “requirement” that airplanes land on a certain runway in calm wind conditions. Someone monitoring the frequency for a while can get an idea how to approach the airport if you state the runway you are using, whereas “active” gives the approaching pilot no clue.
c. If you want to say you are clear of a runway, say “Clear runway 26”, same with taking a runway, say “departing runway 26”
2. “Any traffic, please advise”
a. This is a phrase that was specifically targeted in a previous version of the AIM as a “Never use” phrase. The reasons not to use it are:
i. Other pilots may all come on the frequency at once re-announcing their position and congest or block the CTAF.
ii. You may get multiple answers from other airports sharing the same frequency.
iii. You should monitor the CTAF several miles out to get a mental picture of whom and where the traffic is, like your own mental radar.
3. “We have the traffic on TCAS or TIS” to the ATC controller
a. ATC cannot accept this as a positive identification for traffic. They need to know that you have visual contact with the traffic.
b. TCAS or TIS does not necessarily identify the target of the callout. There may be multiple targets and ATC wants your eyes out of the cockpit for safety.
4. Fish finder, Discovery Channel
a. Nicknames for the TCAS or TIS (Traffic advisory and collision avoidance systems). As stated above, ATC finds this information useless, just don’t mention it. You don’t tell ATC what your manifold pressure is, or the names of your kids either.
5. Nicknames for your N number (Mickey Mouse or Uncle Charlie)
a. Know the phonetic alphabet. It is worldwide, universal and required for ATC.
b. If you give them the wrong phonetic, they will tie up airtime correcting you. They will know you are an amateur and others will question your competency.
c. If you really want a call sign, you must apply to the FAA for it.
6. “With you”
a. ATC smirks every time you say it. You are not in the tower, you are in your airplane.
b. It is better to give your call sign and altitude so they don’t have to ask. “With you” is non-informative and superfluous.
8. “This is”, as in “Norcal Approach, This Is Cessna 8532U, request”
a. another superfluous phrase that you can drop.
b. Of course this is you. Just say, “Norcal Approach, Cessna 8532U, request”
9. On the CTAF for a non-towered airport, “Springfield Area Traffic”
a. Another word that gums up the works and has worked its way into the amateur ranks is “Area”
b. It is unneeded filler and needs to be dropped, just say “Springfield Traffic”, surely you won’t find “Area” on the sectional by the airport name.
10. “up to 8,000” instead say climbing 8,000
a. Saying “to” can be confused with “2’
b. Saying “Climbing” instead of “to” is more pertinent information minus the confusion factor.
11. “leaving 10,000 for 8,000”, instead, say “leaving 10,000 descending 8,000”
a. same as previous, gives more data in same words.
b. “for” can be confused with “4”
12. “Position and hold” is an extinct phrase not to be used again.
a. ICAO standard is “line up and wait”
13. “Over the peanut factory”. Instead, say “3 miles southeast” with your altitude.
a. If I am a local, I probably know where the peanut factory is. As an outsider visiting your airport for the first time, I don’t know the local landmarks.
b. It is better to say 3 miles southeast, and then add over the peanut factory if it doesn’t congest the frequency.
c. If possible, more exacting info such as, “East Northeast” or “South Southwest” is helpful and instills confidence in others listening of your competence.
14. “Traffic, Cessna 44J, downwind RWY 16, Pahrump”. Say the name of the airport instead
a. A recent trend among some pilots is to skip the name of the airport at the beginning of the transmission and start only with “Traffic”
b. The AIM states that you should begin and end the transmission with the name of the airport. That way if someone tunes in during mid-sentence or just isn’t paying
attention, hearing it twice adds to safety and situational awareness.
c. Lots of airports share the same frequency for CTAF, saying it twice as AIM suggests better ensures you will be understood.
d. Say “Pahrump traffic, Cessna 44J, downwind Runway 16, Pahrump”
15. “Crossing runway 32”. Instead say, “taxiing across runway 32 on Alpha”
a. If you are on the ground, you are taxiing.
b. You can cross a runway at an altitude from ground level on up. Saying “crossing” will cause other airborne pilots in the area grief. “Taxiing across” never leaves any doubt.
c. If you are crossing in the air, give your altitude so others are aware for traffic avoidance and situational awareness.
16. When asked by ATC to “Ident” or “Squawk Ident”
a. Push the Ident Button and remain silent
b. The fastest way to show your amateur status is to say “Roger, Mooney 27H Ident” while pushing the Ident at the same time. Just don’t do it.
c. By pushing the Ident Button, you are creating a bloom on the controller’s radar screen. Also, responding “Ident” is like screaming at the controller. If your transponder is working, they know you are there; you are the brightest item on their screen. If it isn’t working, they will tell you.
d. When ATC’s workload permits they will respond “Mooney 27H, radar contact…”
Things to Say
1. On first call up to any ATC use your entire call sign and aircraft make & model.
a. First, every change of frequency requires the formality of your full call sign on the first contact. There may be similar call signs on frequency and this eliminates all doubt.
b. Thereafter, you may shorten it to the last 3 digits
c. Give them your make and model. There are lots of Cessnas out there, from 150s to Citation Xs. Knowing which, ATC as well as other pilots will know how much airspeed to expect and how much separation is needed.
2. In radar environment, on 1st call up after a hand-off, give your altitude and climbing or descending
a. In order to give you radar service, ATC must verify that their altitude readout on the radar screen is close to what you are reading on your altimeter.
3. Position report in relation to the airport, VOR or a Visual Reporting Point
a. ATCs radar screen has all of the charted VFR waypoints (reporting points) as well as the local VORs and close by airports on their screens and maps.
b. Giving your position in relation to those landmarks saves time in identifying you and provides a greater degree of traffic separation.
4. Progressive taxi instructions beat getting lost on the ground
a. Have the airport diagram handy and studied before you get to the airport
b. If you can’t find your way, stop and ask for “progressive taxi instructions”
c. Generally, the ground control controller is the least stressed person in the tower and can be very helpful in getting you to your ground destination.
5. Know the ATIS information and let Approach know on your first call up after a hand-off from the previous controller.
a. On a first call up it will sound like “Dallas Approach, Skylane 54321, Six Thousand Five Hundred with information Kilo”
b. If you don’t have it, they either will send you back to ATIS to get it or tie up the frequency reading it to you.
c. When listening to ATIS it always says at the end, “Advise on initial contact you have information Kilo” or appropriate phonetic letter.
6. Be aware when there is a change of ATIS so you have current information
a. ATIS usually changes about 55 minutes after the hour or when there is a significant change to weather or items of importance to the safety of flight, (like a closed runway due to a wheels up landing)
c. Check your watch. If you got ATIS 10 minutes ago at 10 ‘til the hour, recheck ATIS before checking in with approach control.
b. Naming the runway gives other listening in the air and on the ground an idea which is the most likely runway that is in use.
c. Saying “clear of the active” at a non-towered airport is a faux pas since be, “Alpine traffic, Piper 64K clear runway 34 Alpine”
7. When you taxi off a runway after landing at a non-towered airport, your call should be “Alpine Traffic, Piper 62K clear Runway 34, Alpine”
a. You need to state the runway you just landed on.
b. All runways at a non-towered airport are considered “Active”.
8. Roger, Affirmative, Negative, Wilco
a. Roger ONLY means “I acknowledge receipt of your last transmission”, not yes
b. Affirmative means (you guessed it) YES
c. Negative is airplane speak for NO
d. Wilco is a shorthand way of saying:
i. I acknowledge receipt of your last transmission
ii. I understand the instructions and/or clearance
iii. I WILL COMPLY with your request
iv. What a wonderful way to say it without a lot of airtime
9. Say Again, Standby and Unable – magic words
a. Say Again is airplane speak for “What?” or “please repeat”
i. Your magic hold button
ii. Tells the controller you are busy and will get back to him when you are not overwhelmed by other tasks (like flying the airplane)
iii. A non-rude way to tell the controller to shut up
i. A simple way to say “I can’t do what you are asking”
ii. Stops the controller in his tracks so you are not required to do something you really can’t.
Most importantly, use this precious airtime with a sense of economy. By learning the proper terminology, you will be judged by ATC as a competent pilot. Gather your thoughts before pushing the transmit button to avoid using “uh” and “ah”. Since Flight Following is a voluntary tool that the controller may allow or deny you according to their workload, your first call-up may determine if you will be accepted into the system. Make it sound professional and succinct and most of the time you will get the service you want and not the contempt of the controller. Needless to say, keep the personal conversations for the phone or coffee shop. The CTAF is not a CB radio and should be respected as a valuable tool, not a toy. To learn the cadence and terminology, handheld aviation radios are a valuable tool and internet sites such as www.liveatc.net broadcast actual ATC transmissions.
In addition, there are computer simulators available online as well as from your favorite aircraft supplies purveyor. Our creator gave us 2 ears and only one mouth, the emphasis was that you can learn and understand a lot more by listening.