Controllers form a mental image of pilot competance based solely on how a pilot sounds over the radio. Simply put, pilots who practice professional radio technique get better ATC service than pilots who don't. Here's some advice on how to sound like you really know what you're doing.
October 9, 1995
If you ever wonder why ATC seems to give preferential treatment
to airliners and bizjets and to discriminate against small planes,
you need only monitor any busy ATC frequency. As a serious general
aviation pilot, nothing frustrates me more than hearing a lightplane
driver tie up a busy frequency and aggravate a controller through
poor radio procedure.
SoCal screeeee, Cardinal glorph greep five niner forple wheeee
orcle mummmphf, climbing out of two for whoo wheee screee, enroute
from whorfle to hooo screeech squeal clearance through your Class
SoCal Approach, Cardinal niner three five niner two is climbing
to six point five, enroute from Whiteman to John Wayne, request
clearance through your Class Bravo airspace.
Cardinal niner three five niner two, SoCal Approach, squawk
zero four seven one, say your position and altitude.
Cardinal five niner two just off Whiteman Airpark, showing
nineteen DME on the Los Angeles, ahhh..., just a second..., on
the Los Angeles one seven zero radial, climbing through two for
six point five.
Cardinal five niner two, SoCal Approach, verify position. If
you're off Whiteman, you should be on the Los Angeles three five
zero radial, not the one seven zero radial.
SoCal Approach, Cardinal five niner two, sorry about that,
my position is eighteen DME on the Los Angeles three fifty radial,
climbing out of three for six point five, going to John Wayne
via direct Seal Beach, request clearance through your Class Bravo.
Cardinal five niner two, you're outside my sector. Remain clear
of the Los Angeles Class Bravo airspace, and make your request
to SoCal Approach on frequency one two six point three five.
Cardinal five niner two, roger, changing.
This sort of unclear, time-wasting, amateurish radio procedure
occurs hundreds of times a day, and gives general aviation pilots
a bad reputation in ATC circles.
Controllers even use slang terms
such as "lid" (a pilot with bad radio procedure) and
"flib" (flying little itinerant brother, or worse) when
their push-to-talk buttons aren't depressed.
Because there are so many lids out there, it's doubly important
for serious general aviation pilots like us to make sure that
our radio procedure is clear, tight, and professional. Controllers
form a mental image of our competance based solely on how we sound
over the radio. If we want to get the best possible ATC service,
it's vital that we sound like we know what we're doing.
The most important hallmark of professional radio procedure is
clarity. The archaic AM radio technology used for air-to-ground
communications has very poor fidelity, made worse by the high
noise level in many of our cockpits. The use of simplex communications
channels means that out transmissions are often "stepped
on." To make matters worse, spoken English is full of ambiguities
and homonyms that are easy to misinterpret; for example, "to"
and "two" or "for" and "four".
The most important tool we have to ensure that our communications
are received correctly is strict adherence to standard FAA radio
phraseology as set forth in the Airman's Information Manual. Studies
have shown clearly that the use of non-standard and improvised
phraseology is a major contributor to miscommunication, particularly
the "hearback" problem in which the recipient of a transmission
hears what he expects to hear rather than what was actually said.
Nonstandard phraseology also sounds amateurish. There's only one
correct way to communicate altitudes, headings, frequencies, and
callsigns. Using standard phraseology is one hallmark of the professional.
Altitudes below 18,000' should always be stated in hundreds
and thousands of feet: "four thousand" or "seven
thousand five hundred" or "one seven thousand two hundred."
Higher altitudes should be stated as "flight level one niner
zero". It is more and more common to hear other non-standard
methods of communicating altitudes. We often hear decimal altitudes
("leaving two point five for eight point five") or implied-thousands
("out of two four oh for one eight oh"). Occasionally,
we hear such non-standard phraseology from an airline crew. This
doesn't make it right or acceptable. If a controller used such
phraseology, he'd be written up and given remedial training. Too
bad pilots aren't held to a similar standard.
Headings, radials, and bearings should always be stated
as three digits: "heading three three zero" or "the
Armel one two five radial" or "the one eight zero bearing
to the outer compass locator". Never say "heading three
thirty" or "the one twenty-five radial". And never
say "oh" when you mean "zero".
Frequencies should always be stated using decimal notation:
"one two six point eight" or "one one niner point
zero five". In cases where the integer portion of the frequency
is obvious, it may be omitted: "ground point niner".
But the word "point" should never be dropped. Don't
say "one twenty-six eight" or "one nineteen oh
The beauty of standard phraseology is that you can hear a number
out-of-context and immediately know what it is. For example, "three
five zero" is clearly a heading, "one three five point
five" is obviously a frequency, and "one three thousand
five hundred" or "flight level three five zero"
are unquestionably altitudes. Once you start using "point"
in altitudes and dropping it from frequencies, it becomes easy
to get confused. Don't do it.
Callsigns for non-airline aircraft consist of the aircraft
manufacturer or model name followed by the aircraft registration.
It's okay to use either "Cessna 12345" or "Cardinal
12345" so long as you're consistent about it. But please
don't use "Cessna" on one transmission and "Cardinal"
on the next.
Don't use non-standard mnemonics ("Conquest two four six
Mickey Mouse") or non-standard numerics ("Cessna triple-five
eight" or heaven forbid "Cessna triple-nickel eightball")
or in your callsign. If you think you're impressing ATC or other
pilots with such cutesy-poo phraseology, you're dead wrong.
If ATC abbreviates your callsign to the last three characters
of the registration (e.g., "Cardinal 345"), then you
may also use the shortened callsign. Don't abbreviate your callsign
unless and until ATC does it first. When handed off to another
controller, always revert to using your full callsign.
Airline flights use the company name or designated company callsign
followed by the flight number. Airline callsigns are never abbreviated.
Keeping it Short
Brevity is second only to clarity in professional radio procedure.
Every second of airtime that you consume is a second that is unavailable
to ATC and other aircrews. Airtime comes close to airspace as
a controller's most precious resource. Squandering precious airtime
is a good way to get on a controller's "lid" list.
The key to tight, professional-sounding transmissions is to anticipate
the items of information that the controller needs from you, and
to transmit precisely those items...nothing more, nothing less.
Giving the controller more information that he needs wastes precious
airtime. Omitting needed information requires that the controller
quiz you for the missing items, that that also wastes airtime.
Another common way to waste airtime is to transmit a well-formulated
request at a bad timefor example, when the controller is busy
on the interphone or talking on another frequency. Except for
very brief requests (e.g., cancelling IFR) or times when you're
quite sure that the controller is listening and ready to copy,
it's usually best give just your callsign and the word "request"
(or "VFR request"), then wait for ATC to acknowledge
before transmitting your full request.
When you do transmit your request, don't make ATC play twenty
questions with you. Try to anticipate what information the controller
needs and provide that information in the standard sequence. Here's
a good guide for an initial pop-up request to ATC:
ATC facility name
AT present altitude
aircraft type designator and equipment suffix
REQUEST requested service (e.g., IFR clearance, VFR flight following)
VIA requested route
AT requested altitude
Fort Worth Center, Centurion 6896R, request.
Centurion 6896R, squawk four one two seven and say your request.
Fort Worth Center, Centurion 6896R, twenty eight southwest
of Will Rogers at six thousand five hundred, squawking four one
two seven, a Cessna 210 slant alpha, request an IFR clearance
to Austin via Victor 17 at eight thousand.
If ATC already knows some of this information, you can omit giving
it. For instance, if you're already receiving VFR advisories and
decide you want an IFR clearance, you can omit your present position,
altitude, and type:
Fort Worth Center, Centurion 6896R, request an IFR clearance
to Austin via Victor 17 at eight thousand.
This request is short enough that you can probably blurt it right
out on the first call.
Avoid giving the controller information that he doesn't need.
In general, ATC has no use for:
estimated time enroute
fuel on board
souls on board
aircraft home base
These flight plan items are of interest to Flight Service when
you're filing a flight plan, but ATC has no use for such information
and no way to enter it into the ATC computer. (The only exception
is if you declare an emergency...then ATC will request some or
all of this information to facilitate search-and-rescue.)
Handling a Handoff
Perhaps the most frequent radio transmission pilots make is the
initial callup following a handoff from one controller to the
next. Keep these short, sweet, and minimal. Avoid throw-away phrases
like "with you" or "checking in" that convey
no information. To many controllers, such phrases sound like fingernails
on a blackboard.
Your basic post-handoff transmission should include these four
Some pilots (including me) prefer to use the word "maintaining"
instead of "level" although the AIM recommends the latter.
Kansas City Center, Commander 3598H, level one three thousand.
Cincinnati Departure, Cessna 42648, climbing niner thousand.
Palm Beach Approach, Arrow 3467P, descending two thousand five
In addition, if you are climbing or descending and are handed
off to a different facility, report your current altitude for
Mode C verification:
Cincinnati Departure, Cessna 42648, passing four thousand five
hundred, climbing niner thousand.
Omit the current altitude report when being handed off to another
sector within the same facility. ATC is required to verify your
Mode C only once per facility.
Avoid the use of unnecessary prepositions such as "to",
"for", or "at"...they're too easy to confuse
with the digits "two", "four", or "eight".
Don't say "climbing to niner thousand" or "descending
to two thousand five hundred" or "level at one three
Upon handoff to the ATC facility that controls the airspace around
your destination airport, specify that you have the current ATIS
information. You can usually tell what facility this is by looking
at the communications frequency section of the approach plate.
Finally, if you have a special request for the controller to whom
you've just been handed off, append the word "request"
at the end of your check-in transmission, and wait for the controller
to ask you for the specifics of your request.
Readback Without Fail
Whenever you receive a clearance, altitude change, heading change,
transponder code change, or frequency change, always acknowledge
with a readback...never with a mere "roger" or "wilco."
Consistent readbacks are a fundamental strategy for protecting
your certificate. If you mishear a clearance and don't read it
back, any subsequent non-compliance with ATC instructions will
be held to be strictly your fault. If you read back the clearance
incorrectly and the controller fails to catch and correct your
error, you will generally not be held at fault.
You need not read back a long, complex clearance verbatim. It's
okay to shorten a readback by omitting standard phraseology, so
long as all airways, fixes, radials, altitudes, frequencies, transponder
codes, and other important elements are included. In fact, such
abbreviation of readbacks is good practice. Here's an example:
Twin Cessna 38X, turn left heading three three zero, maintain
four thousand six hundred until established on the localizer course,
cleared for the localizer DME back-course alpha approach to the
Santa Maria Airport, radar service terminated, contact the tower
on one one eight point three at KOAKS intersection.
Los Angeles Center, Twin Cessna 38X, heading three three zero,
maintain four thousand six hundred until established, cleared
for the approach, one one eight point three at KOAKS.
Some pilots think that it is unnecessary to read back a transponder
code change, but controllers disagree...they want you to read
it back. Similarly, some pilots believe that they don't have to
report vacating an assigned altitude when in radar contact with
a Mode C transponder, but again controllers disagree...they want
you to report vacating an altitude. There's a good reason for
this. While it's true that a controller can see your code or altitude
change by watching the data block on his radar screen, this would
require that the controller fixate on your data block. He's usually
way to busy to do that. So please do read back code changes and
report vacating altitudes.
Proper radio procedure is one facet of professionalism. Professionalism
is a function of how you conduct yourself as an airman. It has
nothing to do with what ratings you hold on your certificate,
nor whether or not you get paid to fly. Professionalism is an
attitude. All aviators should strive to achieve it in everything
they do. Professional aviators set high standards for themselves,
and expect professionalism from the other participants of the
airspace system in which they operate. All of us have a responsibility
for assuring quality in that system. And one good place to start
occurs every time we depress the transmit button.