FAA Offers “No-Go On the Radio” Comm Tips

When talking with ATC, it’s best to know what to do, and what not to do to keep communications brief and clear. Courtesy FAA

FAA Safety Briefing Editor, general aviation pilot, and flight instructor Susan K. Parson recently published a list called Rules for the Radio that spells out some proper and incorrect radio etiquette when communicating with air traffic controllers. These tips are suitable for seasoned pilots as a refresher, but are incredibly valuable for student pilots or those with low time who struggle with ATC communications when flying in or near busy Class Alpha, Bravo or Charlie airspace.

“Whenever I fly in a GA airplane, I find myself wishing I could adapt the formula of some reality TV shows to create an aviation-themed educational program called ‘What Not to Say,’” Parson said. “In this fantasy, I would secretly tape radio disasters and pounce on the perpetrators with an offer to set them on the path to proper and professional-sounding pilot patter. I would help each audio offender to ditch inappropriate radio habits and equip them with ‘the rules” for proper aviation radio transmissions.”

Here’s a list of what not to say, with some helpful tips for radio righteousness, according to Parson. You may find these useful to review especially if you’ve taken some time off from flying and are getting back into the swing of things.

Don’t make up your own terms. Instead, learn the language! “Plane English” has its own grammar, syntax, diction, pace, and vocabulary. The FAA Pilot/Controller Glossary precisely defines the meaning and proper use of aviation terms. To sound like a pro on the air, listen, learn, and practice with a website like LiveATC.net or a mobile app like PlaneEnglish, or use an aviation-band radio.

Don’t be long-winded. “Think Twitter, not your blog,” Parson says. “The Prime Directive for aviation communications is brevity. As you work to learn Plane English, practice writing what you might say and make it a personal challenge to cut words to the absolute minimum.”

Don’t copy the audio mistakes of other pilots by using incorrect phraseology. Examples include saying “taking the ‘active” or asking “any traffic in the area (to) please advise.” However commonly used, neither of these phrases are correct. “A pilot approaching a non-towered airport for landing should be listening to the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) to build a mental picture of traffic and the traffic pattern,” said Parson. “Hearing pilots talk about 'the active’ tells the incoming pilot nothing about which runway is in use. While it is best to completely delete 'the active’ from your aeronautical vocabulary, at the very least you should include the runway number.”

Don’t transmit before you know what you need to say, instead, think before you speak. “The standard formula is short and simple: (a) who you are calling; (b) who you are; (c) where you are in terms of distance, direction, and altitude; and (d) what you want to do. The goal is to make your message understandable, ideally with just one transmission,” Parson said.

Don’t speak before you listen. Parson said we all can remember flights we’ve made in which we heard someone get “stepped on” or “blocked” because of too many pilots trying to talk at the same time. “One of the tricks I learned in Toastmasters International is counting to five before starting to speak. That allows you to gather your thoughts so you can start speaking in a calm and measured way. When you change to a new frequency, make it a habit to count to five while you listen to avoid stepping on someone else.”

Don’t talk too fast—instead use a measured pace. “While some controllers at congested airports like Chicago’s O’Hare seem to be using the pace of an auctioneer,” Parson explains, “it’s not expected, required, or desirable for you to compete as if it were a speed-speaking contest.”

Don’t say “roger” or otherwise pretend you understand if something is unclear. Ask the controller to “say again” or ask a clarifying question if there’s something you don’t understand.

Don’t fail to use the word “unable” if you can’t comply with an ATC instruction. “Stock your aviation vocabulary with this very useful word,” Parson advises. “There is no shame in being unable to fly into bad weather or take a slam-dunk descent. You don’t need to lead with a detailed explanation as ATC will query as needed. Just say ‘unable’ to communicate that essential point right away.”

Don’t hesitate to declare an emergency or ask for help when you need it. “Speak up!” Parson said of this important point. “You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: If you have an emergency, say so. If there is a request for post-emergency paperwork, it is far better to be alive and well to comply. Also, if you need help to avoid an emergency, ask for what you need.”

For a full look at all the safety information that FAA’s Safety Briefing team produces, visit the FAA’s site here.

Dan Pimentel is an instrument-rated private pilot and former airplane owner who has been flying since 1996. As an aviation journalist and photographer, he has covered all aspects of the general and business aviation communities for a long list of major aviation magazines, newspapers and websites. He has never met a flying machine that he didn’t like, and has written about his love of aviation for years on his Airplanista blog. For 10 years until 2019, he hosted the popular ‘Oshbash’ social media meetup events at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

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