How To Talk To ATC: A Pilot's Guide to Effective Communication

How To Talk To ATC: A Pilot's Guide to Effective Communication

By Leslie Caubble, CFI/IGI

I remember standing on the ramp of our local non-towered airport with a flight instructor, watching my husband’s first solo flight. I couldn’t believe that he was flying an airplane all by himself! His instructor held a hand-held radio that looked like a large walkie-talkie. When I heard my husband not only flying an airplane, but also making one radio call after another announcing his position in the pattern, I was blown away. 

His radio communication sounded like another language to me. I was amazed that he was doing all these tasks at the same time. I looked at his instructor and asked, “How does he know how to do all of that?!” He just smiled and said, “That’s what training is for. You learn and practice a little more at every lesson.”

Radio communication is a very intimidating skill for many new pilots. It was for me, especially when I had to fly to a towered field and talk to Air Traffic Control (ATC). With time and practice, it became something that I love to do and one of my favorite parts about flying. After my husband and I both became Private Pilots, we moved across the country, and our home airport became a very busy Class C airport, which included a control tower, commercial and business jets, and heavy helicopter tour traffic. We had to quickly learn the cadence of communicating with Clearance Delivery, Ground, Tower, Approach and Departure controllers. 

The whole goal of radio communication with ATC is mutual understanding, using correct phraseology to transfer correct and concise information between pilot and ATC. There are some principles and strategies that we utilized on the ground and in the air to learn to communicate with ATC effectively and confidently. Try some of these tips to help you master radio communications, too.

 

PREPARE ON THE GROUND

Listen to LiveATC.net: Listening to LiveATC.net is one of the most effective tools out there for learning the cadence and phraseology of ATC communications. Choose your airport and frequency, then listen to real-time audio between pilots and ATC. After learning the lingo, you can “chair fly” and visualize your readbacks, comparing them to the pilots’ responses. 

Utilize the Aeronautical Information Manual: Study the AIM Chapter 4, Section 2 – “Radio Communication Phraseology and Techniques.” This is where the FAA outlines the foundation of radio communication with basic procedures and safe operating concepts for pilots. In the back of the AIM is the Pilot Controller Glossary with a long list of ATC phraseology to promote a common understanding of terms used in the Air Traffic Control system. 

Role-play with your CFI or other pilots. Whether it’s with your CFI, a pilot friend or a study group, role-playing pilot and ATC is an effective way to practice your radio calls on the ground. Break down typical calls by frequency (Clearance Delivery, Ground, Tower, Approach/Departure, Center) and practice standard requests and dialogue for your airport. After you feel more comfortable, combine them together into a mock cross-country flight, practicing every call and hand-off you would expect to encounter. Take your role-playing to the next level and perform these exercises while flying a simulator. 

Invest in the communications manuals available at Pilot Workshops. Pilot Workshops offers great manuals for both VFR and IFR Communications, both in digital and printed formats. It’s a great tool for pilots of all experience levels. You can view samples and purchase the manuals at PilotWorshops.com.

Take AOPA’s Say it Right: Mastering Radio Communication free course online: AOPA’s Air Safety Institute has a wonderful free course which covers best practices, proper etiquette, techniques, and tips for radio communications. If you participate in the WINGS program, this course also is eligible for WINGS credit.

 

IN YOUR AIRCRAFT

Now that you’ve practiced on the ground, let’s take a look at some ways you can enhance your ATC communication skills in your aircraft.

Verify your frequency and use a script or cheat sheet. Before keying up your mic, double-check that you are calling on the correct frequency. Before a flight, I like to write down the frequencies I expect to be using on my knee board. Ask your CFI or local flight school if there’s an ATC “cheat sheet” available for your airport. Many schools will develop one for student and rental pilots with common frequencies and typical scripts of requests, instructions and readbacks. 

Remember the 4 W’s of communicating with ATC. Use this memory aid to formulate your calls:

  1. Whom you’re talking to: Clearly address the name of the facility you’re calling. 
  2. Who you are: State your aircraft type and call sign.
  3. Where you are: Give your position, including altitude.
  4. What you want: Present your request.

Anticipate what ATC will say. You’ll quickly learn that a pattern develops in communications with ATC. It typically follows a sequence or script, depending on the situation. Standard phraseology is used so everyone is on the same page. This helps you have an idea of what to expect ATC to say before they even say it. However, be cautious for expectation bias. Anything can happen, so always be alert and listening for a non-standard instruction.

Actively listen and think before you speak. One of the biggest rules when calling up a new frequency is to listen first. You don’t want to interrupt an exchange between ATC and another pilot. This is referred to as getting “stepped on.” While on frequency, actively listen for situational awareness. You may hear some important information given to another pilot that pertains to you such as a change in winds or weather, traffic in your area, or PIREPs. Before cueing up the mic, think about what the controller is saying before you answer. If you’re unsure, ask for clarification or use the phrase “say again,”

Write it down. ATC will need to hear you read back important elements of an instruction such as runway numbers, altitudes, and headings. Always fly the airplane first, but when you’re able, it helps to jot down important numbers. ATC may say, “Skyhawk N123AB, turn left, fly heading 235.” If the frequency is busy and there’s a lot of traffic in the area, you might be task saturated and forget what heading you’re supposed to be flying. It helps to write down “235” as a reminder on your kneeboard or scratchpad.

Readback like a pro. Brevity is key and the sign of a true professional. It’s a balance knowing what information ATC needs you to read back vs. saying too much and clogging up the frequency. The more you listen to LiveATC.net, practice, and fly, the more you’ll begin to recognize the information that needs to be left out of your readbacks. Effective communication is efficient communication. 

Communicating with air traffic controllers doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. Knowing what to say, when to say it and how to say it concisely are the keys to effective radio communication. Air traffic controllers are generally very patient with student pilots. Mistakes will still happen… even the airline pilots make mistakes on the radio. With some studying, active listening, and practice, you can master effective ATC communications, which will reduce your workload, help you fly safer and ease your stress.

By Leslie Caubble, CFI/IGI

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