Pilot talking on radio

The seven deadly sins of aviation communications

5 min read

Talking on the radio is always near the top of the list of concerns for student pilots. Nobody wants to sound bad in front of the “audience” of your fellow pilots, but the jargon used by pilots and controllers alike can make it hard to know what to say and when to say it. Sometimes if feels like you’re learning a foreign language.

Pilot talking on radio

Communicating effectively is mostly a matter of knowing what to expect.

There are plenty of great resources to improve your communications skills, whether you’re brand new or have some time in your logbook. Read the FAA textbooks and the Aeronautical Information Manual, take an online course, and listen to other pilots with a portable radio. The skill you want to develop is the ability to anticipate what you’re going to hear from ATC, then think before you key the mic. If you know what you’re likely to hear, it is much easier to understand ATC’s instructions. Likewise, if you know what you want to say before you start talking, you’ll sound more professional on the radio.

Learning how the ATC system works can take time, but fortunately it’s fairly easy to avoid some common mistakes. There are a few things that can instantly make you sound less professional—let’s call them the seven deadly sins of radio communication. These phrases should not be in your aviation vocabulary:

  1. “With you.” If you’re flying cross country, you’ll get switched to a new controller every so often. Sometimes it’s a new approach control or center, sometimes it’s just a new sector in the same facility. Regardless, a check in should be short and sweet: “Cincinnati Approach, Cessna 12345, 4000.” There’s no need to say “with you at 4000.” It seems like a small thing, but it’s wasted airtime and most controllers don’t like it.
  2. Roger is not a read back. If ATC clears you for something, they usually expect a readback of that clearance, just to make sure both sides understand what’s about to happen. Simply saying “roger” may sound cool, but it’s not a readback. If ATC says “Cessna 12345, Kennedy Tower, taxi to runway 22R via Papa, Alpha, hold short of runway 31R,” they want to know that you heard each part of that—in fact, it’s required. “Roger” is going to get you chewed out.
  3. Starting every transmission with “ah…” or “and…” We’re all human, and sometimes the brain freezes when we key the mic. But some pilots regularly start every communication with “ah” or “and,” as if it adds some airline captain quality to the remarks to follow. Don’t do it. Again, airtime is valuable, and there’s no benefit to be gained from these little pauses. Think before you start talking and you’ll be more confident.
  4. TMI (too much information). If you’re at Middle-of-Nowhere Municpal on a Sunday night and there is no tower, nobody needs to know that you’re taxiing from the ramp to taxiway Alpha. Certainly if you’re crossing an active runway or starting your takeoff, a radio call is a good move, but focus on communicating important information. A good question to ask is, “how will this next radio call affect other pilots?” If it won’t, keep quiet. You might tie up the radio for a neighboring airport that uses the same frequency.
  5. Using local landmarks for position reports. Flight instructors are sometimes as guilty as anybody on this one. Imagine you’re inbound to an unfamiliar airport without a control tower. You dutifully call up and say, “Jones Country traffic, Cessna 12345, 3 miles east, entering the 45 for left downwind runway 24.” Anybody who’s a pilot will know exactly where you are and what your intentions are. Now another airplane says, “Jones County traffic, Piper 54321 is over the red barn for downwind.” While locals may know where the red barn is, as a transient pilot you are completely confused by this report. So avoid local landmarks and keep position reports based on distance to the airport.
  6. Using IFR fixes at a non-towered airport. This is the IFR equivalent of number 5, and it’s just as bad (if not worse). You’re a 15-hour student pilot on your first solo when you hear, “Stevens County traffic, Learjet 12345 is at KWIPS on the RNAV approach.” You have no idea what an RNAV approach is, much less KWIPS. Again, it’s a meaningless position report for a VFR pilot. Much better to say, “Stevens County traffic, Learjet 12345 is 5 miles northeast, straight in on the RNAV approach for runway 26.”
  7. “Any traffic in the area please advise.” Certainly the worst of the seven, this one is arrogant, wasteful, and should be punishable by prison time. OK, maybe not the last part, but there’s simply no place for this phrase on the radio. You often hear it when an airplane first switches over to CTAF at a non-towered airport. But if want to get an idea of the traffic flow, listen to CTAF on your #2 com radio before switching over. Or, just listen for a minute before announcing your intentions. This takes up far less airtime and is much more considerate. It is not the responsibility of others in the pattern to announce their position every time a new airplane gets close.

Here’s a bonus communication sin, one that’s not really deadly but that might be surprising. For air-to-air communications, say between two airplanes flying in loose formation to the same fly-in, many pilots use “fingers” (123.45) to talk to each other en route. This is easy to remember, but it’s actually the wrong frequency and is reserved for flight testing by commercial aircraft. The FAA is emphasizing that airplanes should use 122.75, while helicopters should use 123.02.

In the end, being a pro on the radio means being clear and concise. Say everything you need to say, but no more. As Shakespeare famously wrote, “brevity is the soul of wit.” It’s good advice for pilots too.

John Zimmerman