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No-Go on the RADIO

What Not to Say

By Susan K. Parson

Source: FAA Safety Briefing, May/June 2020

A few years ago, I occasionally (okay, regularly) found myself watching a now defunct and highly formulaic “reality” show called “What Not to Wear.” The fact that it appeared on The Learning Channel assuaged some of the I-shouldn’t-be-watching-this guilt (educational, right?). I also rationalized by saying I was learning about better fashion. Sort of.

For those unfamiliar with the show, here’s the shtick. Each episode featured a person — almost always a woman — whose family or friends deemed her a fashion disaster. Shows opened with viewing “secret video footage” documenting the poor victim’s many #FashionFails, thus setting the stage for a very public intervention by hosts Stacy and Clinton with the TLC camera crew in tow. Stacy and Clinton would show her the error of her ways by having her watch the painful secret video footage. Next they would dramatically discard virtually every item in her existing wardrobe. Then came revelation of The Rules for suitable sartorial selections, a supervised shopping expedition and, finally, the big reveal of the newly minted glamazon to her cheering family and friends.

Ten Rules for the Radio

So, what does a long-gone reality show have to do with GA? Whenever I fly in a GA airplane, I find myself wishing I could adapt the formula to create an aviation-themed educational program called “What Not to Say.” In this fantasy, I would secretly tape radio disasters and, like TLC’s Stacy and Clinton, pounce on the perpetrators with an offer to set them on the path to proper and professional-sounding pilot patter. Also like Stacy and Clinton, I would require each audio offender to ditch inappropriate radio habits and to equip them with “The Rules” for proper aviation radio transmissions.

Here’s a list of what not to say, with the corresponding rules for radio righteousness.

DON’T: Make up your own terms.

DO: Learn the language! Plane English has its own grammar, syntax, diction, pace, and vocabulary. Its dictionary, the FAA Pilot/Controller Glossary, precisely defines the meaning and proper use of aviation terms. To sound like a pro on the air when you are in the air, listen, learn, and practice with apps (e.g., LiveATC, PlaneEnglish) or an aviation-band radio.


DON’T: Be long-winded.

DO: Think Twitter, not blog. The Prime Directive for aviation communications is brevity. As you work to learn Plane English, practice writing what you might say and make it a personal challenge to cut words to the absolute minimum. Nobody wants to endure an audio blog.


DON’T: Use aviation frequencies for personal conversations.

DO: Confine your transmissions to aviation business, using correct words and phraseology.


DON’T: Copy the audio mistakes of other pilots, such as “taking the ‘active” or asking “any traffic in the area (to) please advise.” However commonly used, neither of these phrases is correct and both are the audio equivalent of tossing litter out the window of your car.

DO: Use correct phraseology. The point of aviation radio transmissions is to give and receive useful information. Therein lies the problem with the two transmissions cited above.

In the first example (“the active”), a pilot approaching a non-towered airport for landing should be listening to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) to build a mental picture of traffic and the traffic pattern. Hearing pilots talk about “the active” tells the incoming pilot nothing about which runway is in use. While it is best to completely delete “the active” from your aeronautical vocabulary, at the very least you should include the runway number (e.g., “departing runway 35”).

In the second example (“any traffic in the area please advise”), it is the incoming pilot’s responsibility to listen, build a mental picture of other traffic, and transmit intentions. Just imagine what would happen if every pilot at a busy non-towered airport decided to respond separately to this ill-advised request.


DON’T: Transmit before you know what you need to say.

DO: Think before you speak. The standard formula is short and simple: (a) who you are calling; (b) who you are; (c) where you are in terms of distance, direction, and altitude; and (d) what you want to do. If you are new to aviation or prone to mic fright, consider creating a fill-in-the-blanks template that you can keep on your kneeboard as a script or cue card.


DON’T: Speak before you listen. I can hardly think of a flight in which I didn’t hear someone get “stepped on” or “blocked” because of too many pilots trying to talk at the same time.

DO: Listen first! One of the tricks I learned in Toastmasters International is counting to five (“one-thousand ONE, etc.”) before starting to speak. It feels like an eternity, but it’s not. Rather, it’s an opportunity to gather your thoughts so you can start speaking in a calm and measured way as opposed to nervous stammering or babbling. The same idea works in aviation communications. When you change to a new frequency, make it a habit to count to five while you listen to avoid stepping on someone else. If you don’t hear anybody else, verify that you have entered the correct frequency and — important — that you don’t have a stuck mic.

Also remember that controllers often work multiple frequencies. If you have been hearing ATC issue instructions to another aircraft without hearing the pilot’s response, keep in mind that you may be hearing only half the conversation and try to time your own transmissions accordingly.


DON’T: Talk too fast.

DO: Use a measured pace. All pilots “know” about the legendary fast-talking folks in Air Traffic Control. While some controllers — especially those at super-congested airports like Chicago’s O’Hare — do indeed use the pace of an auctioneer’s patter, it’s mostly an urban legend. Either way, though, it’s not expected, required, or desirable for you to “compete” as if it were a speed-speaking contest. Always remember that the goal is to make your message understandable, ideally with just one transmission.

air traffic controllers


DON’T: Say “roger” or otherwise pretend you understand if something is unclear.

DO: Ask the sender to “say again” or ask a clarifying question if there’s something you don’t understand.


DON’T: Hesitate to use the word “unable” if you can’t comply with an ATC instruction.

DO: Stock your aviation vocabulary with this very useful word.There is no shame in being “unable” to, say, fly into bad weather or take a “slam-dunk” descent. You don’t need to lead with a detailed explanation — ATC will query as needed. Just say “unable” to communicate that essential point right away.


DON’T: Hesitate to declare an emergency or ask for help when you need it.

DO: Speak up! You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: if you have an emergency, say so. Post-emergency paperwork is uncommon but, even if there is a request, far better to be alive and well to comply. Also, if you need help to avoid an emergency, ask for what you need.

No doubt this list could expand but following these ten rules is a great start to sounding like a pro on the radio.

Susan K. Parson is editor of FAA Safety Briefing and a Special Assistant in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service. She is a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.

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