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IN the Air and ON the Air

Decoding (and Parroting) Pilot Patter

by Susan Parson, FAA Safety Briefing Mar/Apr 2018

I pride myself on being a word-wrangler. On my first flight lesson, though, I couldn’t lasso a single syllable of the static-filled gibberish flowing from the little Cessna’s radio. If you’ve had a similarly baffling experience, here’s the not-so-secret “decoder ring” for pilot patter.

Letters and Numbers

First things first. To avoid confusion with similar sounding consonants, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has a standard phonetic alphabet for aviation use:

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.

Pilots mostly pronounce numbers as in regular English but with a few exceptions. Zero (0) is always “zero,” not “oh.” Three (3) becomes “tree.” Five (5) becomes “fife.” Nine (9) becomes “niner.”

So if the tail number is N1359T, the pilot and the controller will pronounce the airplane’s call sign as: “one-tree-fife-niner Tango.” You may or may not hear the call sign start with “November” because, as the first character in the call sign for any U.S.-registered aircraft, the “November” for “N” is assumed.

Note that for tail numbers, altitudes, and other such transmissions, pilots and controllers pronounce the individual digits: “fife niner” rather than “fifty-nine.”

Grammar

Now that you know the letters and numbers, let’s look at the “grammar” (structure) and vocabulary. Aviation language follows a sequence of “Ws.” With pronunciation as we’ve indicated earlier, a pilot might say something like: “Phoenix Approach (whom you are calling), Skyhawk one-tree-fife-niner Tango (who you are), two-zero miles west at fife-tousand, fife hundred feet (where you are, both laterally and vertically), landing Falcon Field” (what you want to do).

The Air Traffic Controller (ATC) uses a similar sequence to respond: Skyhawk one-tree-fife-niner Tango (whom ATC is calling), Phoenix Approach (who is making the call), radar contact, twenty miles west, fife-tousand fife hundred feet (where the aircraft is). Maintain present heading; descend and maintain tree-tousand, fife hundred feet” (what ATC wants you to do).

The letters, numbers, and facility names will vary, but the structural sequence is the same.

Phrasebook

Now let’s decode some useful words and phrases:

ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) is recorded information on current weather and airport information, such as runways in use. Each ATIS recording has an alpha-numeric designator. The recording for “ATIS information Foxtrot” follows “ATIS information Echo.”

Squawk: This word refers to the aircraft’s transponder code, which can be either a standard code (1200 for visual flight rules — VFR) or a discrete code assigned by ATC. It can be a noun (“say assigned squawk”), an adjective (“squawk code is 2345”), or a verb (“squawk 5423”).

Mayday: Hopefully you will never have to use this one, but “Mayday” means emergency. In case you’re wondering, the word is a corruption of the French term for “help me” (m’aider).

Mystery Man “Roger”

Last but not least … ever wonder why pilots say “Roger?” Here’s a plausible explanation.

The fledgling aviation industry adopted (and adapted) practices from established industries, like telegraph. In the telegraph business, the receiver would send a single letter “R” in Morse code to communicate receipt and comprehension.

Early pilots did the next best thing by transmitting the word “Roger,” the phonetic alphabet version of “R” before ICAO adopted the current scheme. Then, as now, it was simply an acknowledgement that “I have received and understood your last transmission.”

Learn More

Aeronautical Information Manual’s Pilot/Controller Glossary - https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/media/PCG_10-12-17.pdf

FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) Radio Communications Phraseology and Techniques - https://www.faasafety.gov/gslac/alc/libview_normal.aspx?id=17272

Aeronautical Information Manual - https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/

Susan Parson (susan.parson@faa.gov, or @avi8rix for Twitter fans) is editor of FAA Safety Briefing. She is an active general aviation pilot and flight instructor.