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How to Talk Like a Pilot

The Basic Elements of Aviation Communication

By Jennifer Caron, FAA Safety Briefing Jan/Feb 2018

Have you ever seen the 1960s television series Dragnet with Sgt. Joe Friday? He was that no nonsense kind of detective who did everything by the books. A “just the facts” gumshoe, Joe Friday took his job seriously, and was always professional and precise.

Sgt. Joe was no gabby blabbermouth who talked a lot just to hear himself speak. No, sir! He spoke in concise, fact-based, monotone dialogues:

"This is the city: Los Angeles, California. I work here. I'm a cop."

Even if you’ve never seen the show, you already know where it takes place, who Sgt. Joe is, and what he does — in just four short phrases. It’s clear, concise, and to the point. He gave you “just the facts, ma’am.” That’s all the information you need for situational awareness.

Let’s take this cue from Sgt. Friday as we consider the basic elements of aviation communication.

Be Concise, but Be Precise

Brevity is important in “aviation-speak,” but precision and understanding is key. Your radio transmissions should be as concise as possible while still ensuring that the controller understands what you want to do. Equally important is for you, the pilot, to understand exactly what ATC wants you to do. This principle also applies to non-towered airfields. Radio calls to the Unicom frequency should be as brief as possible to shorten your time on air, but they must also be accurate to help you and other pilots see and avoid. Here are a few tips:

Write everything down. Get into the habit of writing down ATIS information, taxi instructions, and ATC clearances. This is especially helpful for instructions that are complex. Write down basically everything you’ll need to read back to the controller.

Here’s why. The act of writing information confirms what you think you heard. It reinforces your understanding of what you need to do, and it allows you to plan what to say before you say it. It also helps reduce the possibility that you’ll forget part of the instruction and have to request “Say Again?” to get it right.

Take advantage of the sequence that ATC uses to issue IFR clearances and use the CRAFT acronym to jot down your clearance instructions in the order they’re given — Clearance limit, Route, Altitude, Frequency, and Transponder.

With your notes in front of you, you can speak clearly, confidently, and without pauses (“ums and ahs”) or hesitation. Your notes will also allow you to cut out excess verbiage and shorten up your readbacks to just the facts. “Runway 25” can shorten to “25,” for example.

Don’t get sloppy. Make sure you read back ALL of the facts. Don’t shorten “taxi to runway 25, via taxiway Hotel, hold short 27,” into “taxi to 25 hold short 27!” You have to acknowledge that you know a taxiway route is required to reach your destination.

At non-towered fields, many pilots will use the jargon, “taking the active,” when they’re about to move onto the runway. It may sound cool, but it’s not. Non-towered fields do not have an “active” runway and, more importantly, such transmissions convey no useful information. Transmit “departing 27” instead so your fellow aviators will know which runway is in use.

Taxi diagrams serve a purpose. Use them. You can jot everything down on your taxi diagram, either with traditional pen and ink or by using the annotation features in most popular aviation apps. Get into the habit of drawing out the route you’re instructed to take right onto your taxi diagram. Do this even at your home airport, and for every flight. This best practice verifies your assigned route and confirms accuracy. It will help you think about what you want to say before you key the mic, and it will also help you avoid runway incursions.

Use your call sign. Every time you transmit, identify your aircraft by its call sign — which is your aircraft’s type, model or manufacturer’s name, followed by the digits/letters of the FAA registration number, aka tail number. Call sign aircraft identification is a mandatory requirement by the FCC (the body that governs radio communications). That said, you can certainly add concise information about color or paint scheme in busy, non-towered airspace (or, as requested, at events like air shows) to help other pilots spot you quickly.

Once you have established two-way radio communication, it’s common for ATC to abbreviate call signs on subsequent communications by using just the aircraft prefix and the last three digits/letters of its registration. Once the controller has used such abbreviations, you can follow suit.

Aim for Professionalism

air traffic controller

Take all your radio calls seriously. You are a certified, professional pilot, and just like Sgt. Friday, you should take a no nonsense, disciplined approach to your transmissions. Always strive to use standard phraseology.

Manage the mic. Make sure it’s not stuck in the transmit position. Do not transmit just to transmit. For heaven’s sake, please do not use the frequency for personal conversations.

For non-towered airfields, take into account that a Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) may be shared by several airfields. Always begin and end your transmissions with the airport name. Self-announced radio calls or Unicom requests are intended to enhance situational awareness.

“It drives me nuts when pilots say ‘any traffic in the area, please advise,’” says Sarah Patten, Air Traffic Control Specialist at FAA Potomac TRACON. “It’s my biggest pet peeve.” She adds that “by asking any traffic in the area to advise, they're inviting every plane to key up at the same time, resulting in an indecipherable squeal, and they're also not accounting for any aircraft in the area that may not have a radio. The airport I fly out of, for example, has quite a few of these,” Patten explains.

“A better option for pilots might be to use a second com radio to monitor the CTAF,” suggests Patten, “and to recognize that it's always important to scan for traffic no matter where you're flying.” Patten adds that it is important to monitor the CTAF in the vicinity of airports. “By assuming that everyone in the area is talking on the radio, it's easy to get complacent with traffic scanning, which can lead to some nasty surprises,” cautions Patten.

Lastly, don’t announce your every position or action, only the ones that prevent conflicts in flight, the traffic pattern, or during taxi. Some airports, especially ones that share a congested frequency, desperately need pilot discretion when making radio calls. Keep in mind that all communication frequencies are typically a party line, and only one person can talk at any one time.

Remember — effective pilot/controller communications are key to safe operations.

Here are a few resources you can use to improve your radio technique.

1. Learn the Lingo.

Pilots will find the Pilot/Controller Glossary very helpful in learning what certain words or phrases mean. Good phraseology is concise, it’s accurate, and it’s the mark of a professional pilot. Jargon, chatter, gabbiness, and slang have no place in proper, professional ATC communications. All pilots can benefit from reviewing the P/C Glossary from time to time to sharpen up phraseology and technique. You’ll find a copy of the Glossary here: go.usa.gov/xn43f (PDF download).

If your aircraft is hibernating for the winter or if you haven’t flown in a while, stay sharp by listening to liveatc.net, the live feed of ATC communications. It’s a great way to listen to the way controllers speak, keep up on the lingo, and pick up a few phrases you didn’t know as you wait for spring.

2. Review the AIM.

The FAA Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) is your one stop, back to basics guide for flight information and ATC procedures. You’ll want to check out Chapter 4 on Air Traffic Control and section 2 of that chapter on radio communications, phraseology, and technique. The AIM was recently updated last year. Visit faa.gov/air_traffic/publications to make sure you have the most up to date version.

3. Listen Before You Transmit.

Many times you can get all the information you need on the active runway just by listening to ATIS. Likewise, when you’re switching frequencies, stop, listen, and make sure it’s clear you’re on the right frequency before you start transmitting. You also want to avoid “stepping on” another pilot who is already transmitting when you join the frequency.

“Pilots should listen not only to hear if someone is talking before they key up, but they should also listen to what is being said,” advises Patten. “I can't tell you how many times I've issued an instruction to a plane, only to have someone else immediately check in before the first plane can read back the instructions. That makes it harder for me to verify that the first plane received my instruction, and frequently creates more work for both the pilot and the controller,” says Patten.

Likewise, if you’re instructed to monitor a frequency, do just that and listen only. The controller will initiate contact as needed.

A good practice when you have a non-urgent request is to let ATC know by transmitting your call sign with the word “request.” The controller will acknowledge and let you know when he or she has the opportunity to listen.

Be Courteous and Keep It Classy

Effective communication is the critical link between pilots and controllers in the air traffic control system. Always be factual, accurate, brief, professional, polished, and courteous in all your radio transmissions. These are the basic elements of proper aviation communication and are the keys to ensuring a strong bond between you and the controller. Practicing and perfecting these basics will not only enhance safety for you, but for all users in the airspace system.

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/media/aim_basic_chg_1_dtd_3-29-18.pdf

Jennifer Caron is an assistant editor for FAA Safety Briefing. She is a certified technical writer-editor, and is currently pursuing a Sport Pilot Certificate.