Radio Confidence

Many pilots ask, "What can I do to help ATC"? One of many answers is, "Improve your radio confidence." (And, no, this isn't yet another article about phraseology.)


Remember when you first picked up the mic in an airplane, either to ATC or at a non-towered field? Most of us were probably as tentative as a boy trying to get his first date. Even if you’re good at public speaking, few of us gain the comfort without first practicing with prepared remarks. But, on the radio our scripts are too vague and variable; we have to learn along the way. Meanwhile we’re so worried about sounding bad or saying the wrong thing, we often sound bad and say the wrong thing. Fortunately, practice makes perfect—or at least better.

While the objectives of pilots and controllers overlap, their needs and processes don’t. What do pilots need? Aviate, navigate, and communicate, in that order, right? In contrast, nothing in ATC starts without communication, which leads to us navigating pilots accordingly, while the pilot aviates. Pilots might not even have a need for ATC. A perfect example would be a non-towered field out in the middle of nowhere. However, in the world where most of us operate, we’re regularly talking to ATC.

It’s usually just a matter of time to become confident and proficient on the radio. I’ve found that most students who learn near Class Bravo airspace pick it up faster than those who operate solely out of non-towered fields. I also have friends in Alaska who rarely talk to ATC at all due to the nature of their mission, but even in situations like these, there are a few ways to keep your skills up.

Think First

Being good on the radio starts with effective communication as an individual. Can you talk to someone and carry on a conversation without blanking out? Of course you can; you’ve been doing it your whole life. But pilot communication is different—it has its own vocabulary, objectives, and techniques. We learn basic communications in flight training and continue learning as we grow as a pilot.

One of the biggest barriers I regularly encounter—and I’ve seen this become a safety issue far too often—is with pilots, usually students, who are not comfortable speaking English. Right or wrong, the official and universal language of air traffic control is English. That’s why being “proficient in English” is a requirement to be a pilot (or a controller, in most countries). Unfortunately, “proficient in English” is the only requirement and has no criteria. I’ve personally had a full traffic pattern and litterally half the pilots didn’t understand my instructions. (Lesson for us native English speakers: Listen and speak carefully and deliberately in a foreign country.)

Regardless of your English proficiency, to improve your in-flight communications, start with the Pilot/Controller Glossary at the back of the AIM. Yes, it’s nearly 120 pages—you don’t need to memorize everything—but you should study it sufficiently that you’re familiar with what’s being said on the radio. This will tremendously help ATC help you.

Another way a pilot can better work with ATC is knowing how to respond to a controller’s communications. I will often point out traffic to a pilot who then mistakenly thinks that’s who they are following. The Pilot/Controller Glossary defines what is “traffic” and tells ATC how to issue it while telling pilots what to expect when they hear the word “traffic.” It’s almost a command word in that you hear traffic and immediately start looking out the window to search. If ATC adds the words “ALERT” after “traffic,” that means you’re too close to someone/something, so all eyes outside!

Another big one that I like to cite in the glossary is, “Cleared for the Option.” I’ve had pilots, even CFIs ask on frequency, “What exactly is the option?” I’ve even had pilots taxi around the airfield because they thought “Cleared for the Option” meant they could do anything they wanted. With this mindset, two runway incursions almost happened on my watch. “Cleared for the Option” is awesome in that “It is normally used in training so that an instructor can evaluate a student’s performance under changing situations.”

Don’t forget that no matter what your clearance, you can always go around. Say you’ve been cleared for a full-stop landing. That’s what the controller is expecting. So, if you land, stop. Even still, if you don’t like things on short final, go around. As always, though, inform ATC immediately when you deviate from your clearance. For example, sometimes I’ll have six or more playing in the pattern. Everybody is getting touch and goes to keep things moving. If one guy stops, or takes too long to go, it messes things up. That should be requested, or at least announced if unexpected.

Pattern Drill

Beyond the book knowledge is simply practical knowledge and experience. Have thorough discussions with your CFI about the phraseology you’re learning. Then apply that knowledge on your upcoming flight.

Say you’re on a flight review, returning to the pattern for some landings. But your CFI has a couple other things in mind and tells you to ask for a “Pattern Drill.” You have no idea what that means.

At some Class D airports, the Tower has developed a procedure that is given to flight schools to allow a series of maneuvers like a 360 on downwind, a 270 to base, a short approach, a go around, and a few other surprises. The CFI knows what’s up, but these might be unknown to the pilot. They allow the CFI to watch the pilot react to surprise instructions, and get more comfortable with the radio.

When a CFI requests a pattern drill, traffic permitting, the tower controller will issue these instructions, quite literally out of no-where. My personal favorite is the “GO AROUND!” I personally won’t send anyone around past the threshold without a legitimate safety issue, but before then the drill helps pilots stay flexible, alert, and get more comfortable on the radio.

Your local Class D might not have a booklet ready to go, but some of the controllers might be familiar with a pattern drill and would provide it if requested.

More Steps

Reading a script can only do so much for you, regardless of the kind of learner you are. Procedures are great, but in the real world, a few words create a more organic connection between a pilot and the controller. Thanks to technology, you can even experience this after the fact using sites like, where you can listen to ATC frequencies over the Internet.

Put yourself in that pilots’ seat and imagine how you would respond to the controller’s instructions. It doesn’t have to be the correct response, but a response is a good place to start. If you read this and say to yourself, “yeah I feel I’m pretty much good to go,” then great.

You shouldn’t forget that we’re always learning. If you’ve got the “communicate” part down pretty well, why not help someone who doesn’t? You needn’t be a CFI to mentor others on radio communications. Once one starts to get the hang of things, they will be able to anticipate ATC. But be sure this habit doesn’t turn into expectation bias, like expecting “taxi to parking,” but getting, “turn left contact Ground,” to which you respond, “Taxi to parking, thanks.” I hear this one pretty often believe it or not, and one of the only things I combat it with is a stern, “Negative, contact ground.” Keep ATC communication in your priorities while you try to stay ahead of the airplane.

Frequency Change Approved

From an operational standpoint, I’m a “Phraseologist.” My existence at 100 feet AGL is based on the words and phrases I can say to move Plane A from HEERE to THERE without hitting Plane B and while following Plane C. Before radios, Archie League used a checkered flag (GO), and a red flag (STOP). Now we have “Climb via the SID,” and “RNAV to (waypoint), cleared for takeoff.” ATC is constantly changing to meet the needs of today, and will do the same tomorrow. There is a reason that the ATC system in the U.S. is one of the safest in the world, and it all boils down to communications and established procedures.

If the radio confidence of a pilot needs improvement, after recognizing it and seeking to get better, there are plenty of routes the pilot can take. I always encourage a tour of your local ATC facility, talking to the controllers in person (helps ease the apprehension that we are mean), and asking questions. And always keep in mind that you can and should ask, in plain language if needed, if you’re confused or need some help.

Split-Second Confusion

I work a few flight schools on the field, and some of them thought it would be great to have multiple airplanes with very similar callsigns, such as N11234 and N11235. As much as I love working airplanes, having these two in the pattern at the same time has led to more than one “Traffic Alert.”

Some time back, I had one of ’em enter the pattern for touch and goes. A few knocks on wood later, the other also comes in for touch and goes. I decided to put one on the east runway and one on the west to help keep them separate, figuring that if they each had their own runway, the chances of them getting close or confusing their instructions is lower. After being established in their respective downwinds, I advised each, “N11234, use caution, similar sounding callsign, N11235 is also on frequency,” and vice versa to the other. They both respond with “Roger.” Basically, the phrase above means, “pay extra attention for your callsign.”

Wisdom prevailed for a bit until the west-side airplane requested a short approach to a full stop. “Roger, N11234. Short approach approved. Cleared to land [west runway]” I watched both aircraft on their downwinds turn in a short approach as I knew I’d given the short approach only to the west airplane. I let it slide for the moment. I then observed my east-side airplane overshoot his final, heading to the west runway, with the west-side plane just in front. I immediately sent the east plane around and had him make a climbing turn back to his runway. In the mist of all this, the original west-side plane did a full stop and exited the runway.

After the east airplane was established in his downwind, I asked them, “Why did you do that? That clearance was for the other airplane.” They responded with, “We thought it was for us. Sorry.” I kindly replied, “Sir, I emphasized the full callsign of the other airplane to avoid this kind of thing. Please be safe.” I’d not had even enough time to spit out a traffic call and they were that close. Be safe out there. —EH

This article originally appeared in IFR magazine. For more great content like this, subscribe to IFR!

Elim Hawkins
Elim Hawkins is an Air Traffic Controller, Pilot and writer for IFR Magazine. Elim conducts quarterly FAAST events on ATC/Pilot procedures at his local field and nearby areas on request, combining and improving the ATC/Pilot relationship and understanding. Elim has been certified in four facilities including in UAE, and has been flying for over 10 years. Nowadays, he likes to take his family flying any chance he gets!

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  1. Proper phraseology is important in radio communications, also in articles written about them. We no longer use the term BFR, it’s now simply flight review.

    • Great comment DD.
      I stopped reading the article at the mention of “BFR”.

      We still have “Flight Reviews” required as a bare minimum biannually, but use of the term or acronym BFR is counterproductive to making proficient pilots rather than just bare minimum current pilots. It is also counterproductive to the Wings program.

      I wonder if the video referenced by David G. was related to someone who still uses the term BFR! I know the video was not a Part 121, 135, or even a Part 91 operation. It was obviously a Part 121.5 over the top operation!

      Speaking of terminology, Let’s all (especially CFI’s) practice 3 phrases that include the term “Flight Review”. It might not be in the Pilot/Controller glossary, but should be in the CFI glossary.
      All together now CFI’s. Let’s repeat these three phases just for practice.

      1. Why did you let your “Flight Review” lapse by two weeks”?
      Response by those operating under Part 121.5
      To be honest, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t have to take a BFR as PIC.

      2. Since you have logged only 6 hours of flight in the last two years and none in the last 21 months, I want to advise you that you may need 5-10 hours or more of ground and flight time to complete your “Flight Review”.
      Response by those operating under Part 121.5
      Can we just try and complete it with an hour of ground and an hour of flight? I have a
      tattoo scheduled in 3 hours!

      3. Here’s a question as part of your ground phase of your “Flight Review”. Explain the steps you would take on short final at a Class B airport when the tower tells you to go around?
      Response by those operating under Part 121.5
      I would try to level off and make a 360 degree turn without climbing and land on
      another adjacent runway!

  2. As a long distance 4-holer CPT I was a line instructor for many Years. Helping experienced EU-short haul pilots into the wide wide world and it’s R/T. It proved almost always the most difficult part of the training, and that was not only HF radio usage. Some students, after their first leg to the tropics sighed tired and humble, “I never gonna master this”.
    US, UK, proved sometimes equally difficult, not only JFK or ORD ground control was extremely stressful, in general, “native” English speaking controllers use expressions, words that are nowhere to be found in R/T training documents.
    Those (Asian) controllers at least use the “standard” set of words/calls that one is supposed to master. As soon as You got the hang of the “dialect”, picked up in a day in Singapore’s zillion shopping malls, You could get along very well.
    But many international airport controllers in the US have enough empathy, that if one checks in with a less familiar tongue/call sign, they cut back in speed and talk more profoundly, use a limited vocabulary .
    I know there are lots of “humorous” R/T scoops of Asian crews getting completely “lost” in the R/T space, with an angry controller just adding fuel to the stress in the cockpit. Not funny at all, unprofessional and right-out dangerous.

  3. After my first three hours of flight training, during which time the CFI was mostly playing with the trim and the radio, she suggested to me to sit in the car and listen to the CTAF frequency to get familiar with the “language”. KMIV had three runways at that time. Multiple aircraft were landing on/using all three runways and nobody was talking. Ah, the good old days. I almost quit, but found a more academic CFI at a smaller airport with only one runway.

  4. I call’um BFRs and also say TCAs. Cause I want to. But, communications when new, many years ago when first learning out in the L.A. area, I would write down my first call to the Torrance tower on a 3 x 5 card and then read it to them. “Torrance tower, Aeronca 774, 5 north, request landing instructions”. The would then say some stuff which I really didn’t digest. I would then enter a downwind, hopefully the right direction. They were usually forgiving though. Then I went on to do airplane talk for 38 years as an ATC kinda person.

  5. My pet peeve with radio’s is pilots who switch frequencies and then immediately start talking without waiting a few seconds to see if there is already a transmission in progress.

    For new pilots, I think we make too big a deal about radio calls. Every radio call will almost always have only 3 components, who you are, where you are, and what you want or are doing. Get those three out reasonably smoothly and you are good.

  6. Never a bad sound. If someone sounds confused, that is something that is communicated. Not bad, just something people around you should know. Never use a frequency to chastise someone. That is worse than being confused on a frequency… and is an unlawful use of a frequency.
    Helping isn’t unlawful, but screwing with a confused pilot is an unlawful use of a frequency. Yes, if that person crashes, you could be charged. Everything is recorded now.