Say Again? #66: Common Phraseology


Do you get nervous on the radio? Me too. After a slight delay to handle a family matter, I arrived at Oshkosh just in time to do my very first radio interview. And I mean just in time. The radio interview was at 12 noon and I didn’t get there until 11:30 a.m. or so. There’s nothing like being in a hurry and doing something for the first time to make you nervous.Being rather unprepared didn’t help, either. Fortunately, I knew the subject matter well, so that didn’t add to my nervousness. That and the fact that my hosts — Mike and Mel — were very gracious and worked hard to put me at ease helped it all go rather well.I’d like to try to do the same for you this month. I want to run through some standard situations and explain the phraseology you’ll need to know. You’ll still be nervous if you aren’t used to talking on the radio. But hopefully this will help you learn the subject matter and put you at ease.


Checking in on a frequency is just like introducing yourself to someone new. Just as in real life, you may be nervous about it first, but with practice it becomes easier and easier. Here, let me start:

Hello Joe, my name is Don Brown. I’m a controller at Atlanta Center and I’d like to talk to you about phraseology.

It’s always helps if you can use the name of the person you’re talking to when starting a conversation. “Hey you” will work, but it’s better if you can use their name. The phraseology for an initial contact with a ATC facility is virtually identical:

“Hello Atlanta Center, this is Skyhawk One Two Three Four Five and we’d like V-F-R advisories.”

In aviation, we just drop a few words out and shorten others so it comes out like this:

“Atlanta Center, Skyhawk One Two Three Four Five, request V-F-R advisories.”

I can’t really say why, but a lot of folks seem to think their level of competence is linked to how fast they can talk on the radio. Either that or they are really, really nervous. Again, it’s just like you’re introducing yourself. Slow down. Take your time and speak clearly. Don’t make the person you’re introducing yourself to have to ask you to repeat your name.

“Atlanta Center … Skyhawk One Two Three Four Five … request V-F-R advisories.”

It works the same way whenever you first call on a new frequency:

“Hickory Tower, Cessna One Two Three Four Five, request clearance to Asheville.”

“Atlanta Center, Air Force One, level, flight level three one zero.”


After that, you have to stop thinking in terms of having a conversation. From then on, we’re trading information and to do that effectively, you have to use your callsign in every transmission so we’ll know who is talking. I could write an entire column just on using your callsign, but that’s a pretty sad statement and it’d be really boring. If you don’t believe me, you should read this:

AIM 4-2-4. Aircraft Callsignsa. Precautions in the Use of Callsigns …

If you ever catch yourself saying “we” on the radio, you’re probably headed down the wrong path. “We” is not a callsign. “We” is not requesting 8,000; Skyhawk N12345 is requesting 8,000.

“Atlanta Center, Skyhawk One Two Three Four Five, request eight thousand.”

Now, I want you to notice that you don’t have to make a request to make a request. If you’ll do it this way, you won’t find yourself saying “we,” either. Let me show you how to do it wrong so you’ll see what I mean:

“Three Four Five, request.”“Three Four Five say request.”“We’re requesting eight thousand.”

Did you notice that the pilot didn’t use my callsign? That is the way to get my attention — not by making a request to make a request. Say my name: Atlanta Center. Did you notice that he didn’t use his full callsign? Do you know when to use your full callsign and when to use an abbreviated callsign? I bet you’ve heard the guys at the airport give their opinion about it. A long, long time ago I got to hang out at the airport and listen to pilots having conversations about these things. I bet the conversations haven’t changed: “You only have to use your full callsign when you first check on the frequency. After that, you can shorten it up. It saves a lot of time.”That is the “common wisdom.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t agree with what the book says.

ATC specialists may initiate abbreviated callsigns of other aircraft by using the prefix and the last three digits/letters of the aircraft identification after communications are established. The pilot may use the abbreviated callsign in subsequent contacts with the ATC specialist.

That little bit of wisdom is contained in the same section of the AIM as above, 4-2-2.


While you’re in that section of the AIM, scroll on down the page a little bit and take a look at this section: 4-2-7 — Phonetic Alphabet. This is the last thing I’ll say about callsigns and we’ll move on.If you fly an aircraft with a callsign that ends in letters, please try to use the phonetic alphabet. I know everybody wants to sound cool on the radio. I was young once. I know how it is. But now I’m old and I don’t hear so well anymore. The “cool” is just confusing now.I had a guy on the frequency the other day who kept calling himself Elsie. I can’t imagine why a guy would want to call himself Elsie but he did it over and over again. I thought maybe the company that has Elsie the Cow as a mascot owned the airplane or something.

“Learjet One Lima Charlie, descend and maintain three thousand six hundred.”

“Down to thirty six hundred Elsie.”

“Learjet One Lima Charlie, Morganton airport twelve o’clock, one zero miles, report the airport in sight.”

“We’ll call the airport Elsie.”

Well, you can call the airport Elsie or you can call yourself Elsie but I’d rather you just stick to standard phraseology. It isn’t nearly as cool (or as funny) as some of the stuff I hear but it’s a lot less confusing.

Up and Down

The most common of phrases in the en route environment are the ones dealing with altitudes. Pilots somehow twist themselves into knots with these phrases and I’m not sure how it happens. There are four simple words I want you to remember:

  1. Level
  2. Leaving
  3. Climbing
  4. Descending

If you’ll use your callsign and those four words, you’re halfway home on using correct phraseology.You can read about this is the AIM but it’s kind-of like that communications exercise in class. You know, the one where you try to give the guy (who’s playing the role of the real dumb robot/computer) precise instructions on how to strike a match. In other words, it’s frustrating to put it all together.I’ve already covered the first phrase but I’ll do it again so you can string all this together:

“Atlanta Center, Cessna One Two Three Four Five, level six thousand.”

Who you’re calling (Atlanta Center), who you are (Cessna N12345) and what you are doing (level 6,000).But what happens if you aren’t level?

Atlanta Center, Cessna One Two Three Four Five, leaving four thousand six hundred, climbing to six thousand.

Gasp! I used the dreaded “to” word! Well, yes I did. So does the AIM:

AIM 5-3-1(a) When operating in a radar environment: On initial contact, the pilot should inform the controller of the aircraft’s assigned altitude preceded by the words “level,” or “climbing to,” or “descending to,” as appropriate; and the aircraft’s present vacating altitude, if applicable.EXAMPLE-
1. (Name) CENTER, (aircraft identification), LEVEL (altitude or flight level).
2. (Name) CENTER, (aircraft identification), LEAVING (exact altitude or flight level), CLIMBING TO OR DESCENDING TO (altitude of flight level).

Now before somebody swoons, let’s think about this thing. There is no such altitude as “two six thousand.” That would be Flight Level two six zero.

“Atlanta Center, Air Force One, leaving Flight Level one eight five, climbing to Flight Level two six zero.”

If you want to avoid something, avoid these phrases that really aren’t in the book: “for”, “out of”, “at”, “up to”, “down to” and a dozen other ways people have found to confuse the issue.

“We’re out of eight for ten.”

“… with you at six.”

“Airliner six forty six for fourteen.” (Heard that one the other day.)

“Atlanta Center, Airliner Six Forty, leaving six thousand, climbing to one four thousand.”

See the difference? There’s another difference you should note: If you’ll always say “climbing to” or “descending to” — when you start flying in the higher altitudes — you’ll give the controller a chance to catch the error when you mistake a heading assignment for an altitude change. You see, the habits you’re learning now will stick with you throughout your flying career. You may not ever become an airline pilot but you just might get rich and buy yourself one of those new VLJs one day.

“Eclipse One One Victor Juliet, fly heading two one zero.”

“Two one zero eleven veejay”

It takes about 10 to 15 seconds for a turn to become noticeable on a Center controller’s radarscope. The controller isn’t going to sit there and watch your target until it turns; he’ll go do something else — work some other airplanes — and then come back to see if the turn has taken effect. It’s a really nasty surprise to find out that, instead of turning, the pilot has descended. Trust me. I’ve seen it happen. Using correct phraseology can prevent it.

“Eclipse One One Victor Juliet, fly heading two one zero.”

“Eclipse One One Victor Juliet, leaving flight level two five zero, descending flight level two one zero.”

“Eclipse One One Victor Juliet, negative, maintain flight level two five zero. Turn left heading two one zero.


Here’s a section of the AIM I don’t believe I’ve ever quoted:

4-4-6. Pilot Responsibility upon Clearance Issuanceb. ATC Clearance/Instruction Readback.2. Read back altitudes, altitude restrictions, and vectors in the same sequence as they are given in the clearance or instruction.

I think reading back any clearance in the sequence given is good advice. As a matter of fact, I’ll go one further: Reading back a clearance exactly like a controller said it is not a bad way to go if you’re new to working with ATC. It has its limits but it’s not a bad way to start out thinking about phraseology. With just a little modification, you’ll find yourself using standard phraseology. That is, assuming the controller is using standard phraseology. Most do. Well, at least most of the time.

“Cessna One Two Three Four Five, fly heading one five zero, descend and maintain five thousand.”

I could live with it if you just repeated it verbatim. Seriously. It would be better than half the readbacks I hear these days. But again, with just a slight modification, you’re using standard phraseology.

“Cessna One Two Three Four Five, fly heading one five zero, leaving six thousand, descending to five thousand.”

There are a couple of things I’d like to point out while we’re here. First, notice that the pilot didn’t respond with the controller’s callsign — Atlanta Center. In this case, it isn’t necessary because the controller initiated the exchange. Secondly, notice that the pilot uses the callsign at the beginning of the transmission.Believe it or not, this little tidbit of phraseology has been debated for years. Do you put the callsign at the beginning of the transmission or at the end? For my money, there is no contest. Put it at the beginning.In case you’re interested, the logic of those that suggest putting it at the end of the transmission goes like this: If a controller hears the callsign first, he knows the right aircraft got the clearance and he stops listening. In order to prevent that, they’ll read back the clearance and make the controller wait until the end to hear the callsign. Supposedly, this will force the controller to pay attention to the readback — to ensure it’s correct. I’ll assume they didn’t pull this theory out of thin air and it has some validity to it. OK, so what do you start the readback transmission with?

“Skyhawk One Two Three Four Five, climb and maintain seven thousand.”

If (and it’s a real big if) you use standard phraseology, it will come out fine.

“Leaving six thousand, climbing to seven thousand, Skyhawk One Two Three Four Five.”

However, what you start a readback with changes with every clearance.

“Skyhawk One Two Three Four Five, fly heading one five zero.”

“Fly heading one five zero, Skyhawk One Two Three Four Five.”

It also reverses the order of an initial check in. After all, this wouldn’t make much sense would it?

“Atlanta Center, level flight level three one zero, Air Force One.”

My main argument for using your callsign first is because people tend to get sloppy. Familiarity breeds contempt. And lets face it: Phraseology just isn’t a sexy subject. It’s mundane. It’s Boring! After you’ve been flying for 20 years and have made a million transmissions, it’s really, really hard to get excited about it all.Controllers have the same problem. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve issued this transmission, I would be a wealthy man indeed:

“Airliner One Twenty Three, cross SHINE at and maintain one one thousand, two five zero knots, Charlotte altimeter three zero zero zero.”

“… en and two fifty triple zero one twenty three.”

Don’t Fall Asleep

They got in the habit of saying their callsign last because somebody made the recommendation way back when. They decided long ago to keep their transmissions as short as possible because they fly into busy places and they know first-hand how crowded the frequency can get. “Eleven” is faster than saying “one one thousand.” Saying “three zero zero zero” just sounds geeky and takes too much effort. They’ve been here and done this a thousand times before and they just want to get home.I understand. Really, I do. I still think you should use your callsign first. Even if you can’t work up the effort to use standard phraseology and make sure you don’t cut off that first word in your transmission.

“… twenty three, SHINE at ten and two fifty, three triple zero.”

Maybe, just maybe, if the controller gets a chance to hear that “ten” instead of what he thought was “eleven” cut in half — “en” — he might catch the mistake. There’s only a one in a million chance that you’ll get it wrong and another airplane will be in the way at one zero thousand, but I’ve seen it happen. More than once, as a matter of fact. Maybe that makes me unlucky. Or maybe it just means when you work in a facility with three million operations per year, that “one in a million” comes around more often than you think it should.Have a safe flight.

Don Brown
Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association

Want to read more from air traffic controller Don Brown? Check out the rest of his columns.