By Paul Wiley
This article is intended for pilots flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR). It is intended to cover important highlights and to summarize the basic communications procedures recommended by the FAA to facilitate the safe and orderly flow of air traffic to and from airports. We will also include some traps to avoid and tips to help you when communicating with ATC. The goal of this article is to promote understanding within the pilot population as to the proper communications procedures and practices ATC expects pilots to use, as well as best practices for communicating with other pilots at non-towered airports.
Basic ATC Communications
Communications with ATC should be stated:
- Clearly – state your message and intentions so there is no misunderstanding about what you are saying.
- Completely – Don’t force the controller to query you to understand all of what you should have told him in your initial transmission.
- Succinctly – Your transmission should be to the point and not include extra or unnecessary information.
- Honestly - Do not wait to ask ATC for help if you think you need it e.g., low on fuel, not sure of your present position or needing to divert due to weather. Fess up!
As a rule, each transmission should include:
- Who you are (i.e., aircraft type and tail number or call sign)
- Where you are - on the ground or in the air - using specific location information, preferably locations that are charted and known to ATC and other pilots.
- What you want. If you have a request requiring a lengthier explanation, a good practice is to state who and where you are and then simply say: “I have a request.”
Tips for better communications:
- Study the Pilot/Controller Glossary. This excellent resource is located in an appendix of the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM).
- Also review AIM Chapter 4, especially sections 2, 3 and 4; Chapter 5 all sections; Chapter 6 all sections; and finally, Chapter 7 especially related to Pilot Reports (PIREPS).
- For non-towered airports, study the table in the AIM Chapter 4 (Table 4-1-1) titled: “Summary of Recommended Communication Procedures.”
- If you are a new pilot, think about what you want to say first and listen to and practice with your instructor (and at home) before you key the mic and start talking. Write down common and often used phrases if you have to as this will help you learn standard phraseology.
- Wait a few seconds and listen before transmitting to avoid transmitting when someone else is already transmitting or expecting a response. Be patient; however, if the frequency is very busy, sometimes you just have to break in at the first opportunity.
- When receiving a clearance from ATC, follow these three steps: 1) write it down, 2) read it back, 3) dial it in (e.g., a transponder “squawk,” departure heading, altitude assignment or comm frequency). Double check that you have correctly set up your avionics before transmitting.
- With newer radios there is usually a “flip/flop” function to allow 2 comm frequencies (active and stand-by) to be displayed simultaneously. Take advantage of this to enter the new frequency into the stand-by display and then switch that to be the active frequency. This will allow you to go back to the previous frequency if contact cannot be established on the newly assigned frequency.
- Study and use the airport taxi diagram, especially if you are flying into an airport for the first time. Note “hot spots” and always ask for help if there is any confusion about taxi instructions or if you are not sure of your position. You can always ask for “Progressive Taxi” and ATC will provide instructions in stages or incrementally as you taxi.
- Read back: certain instructions from ATC must be repeated back to ATC. When reading back instructions, be sure to include your aircraft tail number with your read back. See more on clearance read back in the AIM.
- Practice with the avionics in the aircraft you are flying so that you can enter new frequencies quickly and efficiently.
- Think ahead and set up your radios in advance so that, when you do need to change frequencies, you can do so with one button push instead of several.
- Thinking ahead also means getting the ATIS or ASOS/AWOS before contacting the tower or before entering the airport traffic area at a non-towered field.
- For busy airspace: On the initial call to ATC, especially when the frequency is busy, a slight pause (say 1 second) after initial contact is helpful to the controller. This may seem contradictory, but a slight pause will help the controller, who may be multi-tasking, get into “listening mode” and thus less likely to miss something in your transmission. Example: “Phoenix Approach (slight pause) Cessna 5521C two miles south of Deer Valley request Class B transition and flight following to Marana, leaving 4 thousand for 6 thousand 5 hundred.”
Common Traps to Avoid:
- When initial contact with ATC is made (or initial call to “traffic” or unicom at a non-towered airport), use your aircraft type and full tail number. Example: Skyhawk 351 Papa Bravo. Once ATC or unicom responds, the correct response becomes: Skyhawk 1 Papa Bravo, i.e., just the last 3 numbers/letters are used for brevity.
- Use the correct phraseology and words to state your intentions or to answer a question from ATC so that there is no misunderstanding. Example: ATC asks: “Bonanza 123TK do you have traffic in sight?” Bonanza 123TK responds: “Roger.” This response is incomplete and incorrect. Roger means you have received and understood the transmission (and compliance with any instructions is implied). The correct response would be: “Bonanza 123TK affirmative, traffic in sight,” or “Bonanza 123TK, negative looking for traffic.” If a question from ATC requires a yes or no answer, the response should be “affirmative” for yes, or “negative” for no.
- It is critically important that certain ATC instructions be repeated back to ATC to ensure understanding and compliance. Example: ATC instructs: “Cessna 123CP hold short of runway 7 right,” the correct response: “Roger, Cessna 3CP holding short runway 7 right.” Note that the read back must include the aircraft tail number and the specific runway along with the instructions from ATC. Common and incorrect responses include (but are not limited to): “roger, Cessna 3CP,” or “roger holding short,” or “roger holding short runway 7.”
- By far the most common violation for which pilots are cited by ATC involves altitude, i.e., failure to level off, climb to, descend to or maintain the correct altitude. Again, the best way to avoid a violation is to: 1) write it down, 2) read it back, and 3) dial it in (if your aircraft has an autopilot with altitude select capability or an altitude bug or alerter). There are other inexpensive ways to remind pilots of their assigned altitude, including movable devices which can be placed on the altimeter at an assigned altitude. This same advice applies to holding an assigned heading, airspeed or course.