Sounding Like a Pro

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.

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If you ever wonder why ATC seems to give preferential treatmentto airliners and bizjets and to discriminate against small planes,you need only monitor any busy ATC frequency. As a serious generalaviation pilot, nothing frustrates me more than hearing a lightplanedriver tie up a busy frequency and aggravate a controller throughpoor radio procedure.

SoCal screeeee, Cardinal glorph greep five niner forple wheeeeorcle mummmphf, climbing out of two for whoo wheee screee, enroutefrom whorfle to hooo screeech squeal clearance through your ClassBravo airspace.

Blocked!

SoCal Approach, Cardinal niner three five niner two is climbingto six point five, enroute from Whiteman to John Wayne, requestclearance through your Class Bravo airspace.

Cardinal niner three five niner two, SoCal Approach, squawkzero four seven one, say your position and altitude.

Cardinal five niner two just off Whiteman Airpark, showingnineteen DME on the Los Angeles, ahhh…, just a second…, onthe Los Angeles one seven zero radial, climbing through two forsix point five.

Cardinal five niner two, SoCal Approach, verify position. Ifyou’re off Whiteman, you should be on the Los Angeles three fivezero 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 Waynevia direct Seal Beach, request clearance through your Class Bravo.

Cardinal five niner two, you’re outside my sector. Remain clearof the Los Angeles Class Bravo airspace, and make your requestto SoCal Approach on frequency one two six point three five.

Cardinal five niner two, roger, changing.

This sort of unclear, time-wasting, amateurish radio procedureoccurs hundreds of times a day, and gives general aviation pilotsa bad reputation in ATC circles. Controllers even use slang termssuch as "lid" (a pilot with bad radio procedure) and"flib" (flying little itinerant brother, or worse) whentheir push-to-talk buttons aren’t depressed.

Because there are so many lids out there, it’s doubly importantfor serious general aviation pilots like us to make sure thatour radio procedure is clear, tight, and professional. Controllersform a mental image of our competance based solely on how we soundover 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 isclarity. The archaic AM radio technology used for air-to-groundcommunications has very poor fidelity, made worse by the highnoise level in many of our cockpits. The use of simplex communicationschannels means that out transmissions are often "steppedon." To make matters worse, spoken English is full of ambiguitiesand 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 communicationsare received correctly is strict adherence to standard FAA radiophraseology as set forth in the Airman’s Information Manual. Studieshave shown clearly that the use of non-standard and improvisedphraseology is a major contributor to miscommunication, particularlythe "hearback" problem in which the recipient of a transmissionhears what he expects to hear rather than what was actually said.

Nonstandard phraseology also sounds amateurish. There’s only onecorrect way to communicate altitudes, headings, frequencies, andcallsigns. Using standard phraseology is one hallmark of the professional.

Altitudes below 18,000′ should always be stated in hundredsand thousands of feet: "four thousand" or "seventhousand five hundred" or "one seven thousand two hundred."Higher altitudes should be stated as "flight level one ninerzero". It is more and more common to hear other non-standardmethods 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. Thisdoesn’t make it right or acceptable. If a controller used suchphraseology, he’d be written up and given remedial training. Toobad pilots aren’t held to a similar standard.

Headings, radials, and bearings should always be statedas three digits: "heading three three zero" or "theArmel one two five radial" or "the one eight zero bearingto the outer compass locator". Never say "heading threethirty" or "the one twenty-five radial". And neversay "oh" when you mean "zero".

Frequencies should always be stated using decimal notation:"one two six point eight" or "one one niner pointzero five". In cases where the integer portion of the frequencyis obvious, it may be omitted: "ground point niner".But the word "point" should never be dropped. Don’tsay "one twenty-six eight" or "one nineteen ohfive".

The beauty of standard phraseology is that you can hear a numberout-of-context and immediately know what it is. For example, "threefive zero" is clearly a heading, "one three five pointfive" is obviously a frequency, and "one three thousandfive hundred" or "flight level three five zero"are unquestionably altitudes. Once you start using "point"in altitudes and dropping it from frequencies, it becomes easyto get confused. Don’t do it.

Callsigns for non-airline aircraft consist of the aircraftmanufacturer or model name followed by the aircraft registration.It’s okay to use either "Cessna 12345" or "Cardinal12345" so long as you’re consistent about it. But pleasedon’t use "Cessna" on one transmission and "Cardinal"on the next.

Don’t use non-standard mnemonics ("Conquest two four sixMickey Mouse") or non-standard numerics ("Cessna triple-fiveeight" or heaven forbid "Cessna triple-nickel eightball")or in your callsign. If you think you’re impressing ATC or otherpilots with such cutesy-poo phraseology, you’re dead wrong.

If ATC abbreviates your callsign to the last three charactersof the registration (e.g., "Cardinal 345"), then youmay also use the shortened callsign. Don’t abbreviate your callsignunless and until ATC does it first. When handed off to anothercontroller, always revert to using your full callsign.

Airline flights use the company name or designated company callsignfollowed 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 unavailableto ATC and other aircrews. Airtime comes close to airspace asa controller’s most precious resource. Squandering precious airtimeis a good way to get on a controller’s "lid" list.

The key to tight, professional-sounding transmissions is to anticipatethe items of information that the controller needs from you, andto transmit precisely those items…nothing more, nothing less.Giving the controller more information that he needs wastes preciousairtime. Omitting needed information requires that the controllerquiz you for the missing items, that that also wastes airtime.

Another common way to waste airtime is to transmit a well-formulatedrequest at a bad time—for example, when the controller is busyon the interphone or talking on another frequency. Except forvery brief requests (e.g., cancelling IFR) or times when you’requite 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 acknowledgebefore transmitting your full request.

When you do transmit your request, don’t make ATC play twentyquestions with you. Try to anticipate what information the controllerneeds and provide that information in the standard sequence. Here’sa 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 southwestof Will Rogers at six thousand five hundred, squawking four onetwo seven, a Cessna 210 slant alpha, request an IFR clearanceto Austin via Victor 17 at eight thousand.

If ATC already knows some of this information, you can omit givingit. For instance, if you’re already receiving VFR advisories anddecide you want an IFR clearance, you can omit your present position,altitude, and type:

Fort Worth Center, Centurion 6896R, request an IFR clearanceto Austin via Victor 17 at eight thousand.

This request is short enough that you can probably blurt it rightout 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 whenyou’re filing a flight plan, but ATC has no use for such informationand no way to enter it into the ATC computer. (The only exceptionis if you declare an emergency…then ATC will request some orall of this information to facilitate search-and-rescue.)

Handling a Handoff

Perhaps the most frequent radio transmission pilots make is theinitial callup following a handoff from one controller to thenext. Keep these short, sweet, and minimal. Avoid throw-away phraseslike "with you" or "checking in" that conveyno information. To many controllers, such phrases sound like fingernailson a blackboard.

Your basic post-handoff transmission should include these fourelements:

  • 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 fivehundred.

In addition, if you are climbing or descending and are handedoff to a different facility, report your current altitude forMode C verification:

Cincinnati Departure, Cessna 42648, passing four thousand fivehundred, climbing niner thousand.

Omit the current altitude report when being handed off to anothersector within the same facility. ATC is required to verify yourMode C only once per facility.

Avoid the use of unnecessary prepositions such as "to","for", or "at"…they’re too easy to confusewith the digits "two", "four", or "eight".Don’t say "climbing to niner thousand" or "descendingto two thousand five hundred" or "level at one threethousand."

Upon handoff to the ATC facility that controls the airspace aroundyour destination airport, specify that you have the current ATISinformation. You can usually tell what facility this is by lookingat the communications frequency section of the approach plate.

Finally, if you have a special request for the controller to whomyou’ve just been handed off, append the word "request"at the end of your check-in transmission, and wait for the controllerto 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 acknowledgewith a readback…never with a mere "roger" or "wilco."Consistent readbacks are a fundamental strategy for protectingyour certificate. If you mishear a clearance and don’t read itback, any subsequent non-compliance with ATC instructions willbe held to be strictly your fault. If you read back the clearanceincorrectly and the controller fails to catch and correct yourerror, you will generally not be held at fault.

You need not read back a long, complex clearance verbatim. It’sokay to shorten a readback by omitting standard phraseology, solong as all airways, fixes, radials, altitudes, frequencies, transpondercodes, and other important elements are included. In fact, suchabbreviation of readbacks is good practice. Here’s an example:

Twin Cessna 38X, turn left heading three three zero, maintainfour thousand six hundred until established on the localizer course,cleared for the localizer DME back-course alpha approach to theSanta Maria Airport, radar service terminated, contact the toweron 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, clearedfor the approach, one one eight point three at KOAKS.

Some pilots think that it is unnecessary to read back a transpondercode change, but controllers disagree…they want you to readit back. Similarly, some pilots believe that they don’t have toreport vacating an assigned altitude when in radar contact witha Mode C transponder, but again controllers disagree…they wantyou to report vacating an altitude. There’s a good reason forthis. While it’s true that a controller can see your code or altitudechange by watching the data block on his radar screen, this wouldrequire that the controller fixate on your data block. He’s usuallyway to busy to do that. So please do read back code changes andreport vacating altitudes.

Professionalism

Proper radio procedure is one facet of professionalism. Professionalismis a function of how you conduct yourself as an airman. It hasnothing to do with what ratings you hold on your certificate,nor whether or not you get paid to fly. Professionalism is anattitude. All aviators should strive to achieve it in everythingthey do. Professional aviators set high standards for themselves,and expect professionalism from the other participants of theairspace system in which they operate. All of us have a responsibilityfor assuring quality in that system. And one good place to startoccurs every time we depress the transmit button.