Sounding Like a Pro

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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.

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 Bravo airspace.

Blocked!

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.

Communicating Clearly

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 five".

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 time—for 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

  • aircraft callsign

  • present position

  • AT present altitude

  • aircraft type designator and equipment suffix

  • REQUEST requested service (e.g., IFR clearance, VFR flight following)

  • TO destination

  • VIA requested route

  • AT requested altitude

For example:

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:

  • departure point

  • estimated time enroute

  • fuel on board

  • souls on board

  • aircraft home base

  • aircraft colors

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 elements:

  • ATC facility name

  • aircraft callsign

  • CLIMBING, DESCENDING, or LEVEL

  • assigned altitude

Some pilots (including me) prefer to use the word "maintaining" instead of "level" although the AIM recommends the latter. Examples:

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 hundred.

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 thousand."

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.

Professionalism

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.