I’m fortunate to have more experience in communications than most student pilots. Dad often let me handle the radio communication when we flew years back. I’ll provide a brief overview of VFR communications and what you are expected to say as a pilot and how to decode what the controller says back to you.This page deals with communications at a controlled airport. By far most airports in the US ar uncontrolled, meaning there is no ATC controller to talk back to you the pilot. Procedures for uncontrolled airports are slightly different, and I’ll write about them separately.
Let’s start with a quick opening call to ask permission to taxi to the active runway.
Pilot: “Marion Ground, Warrior two eight seven five x-ray ready to taxi, east departure.”
ATC: “Warrior two eight seven five x-ray, Marion ground, wind is two one zero at one zero, altimeter three zero one four, taxi to runway two zero.”
Ok, lets break that down. First, I, the pilot, make a call to ground control to ask permission to taxi to the active runway. At most small airports, you won’t know what runway is active before you make this call. Our airport does have an AWOS (Automated Weather Observation System) which provides an automatic wind condition report, but you may not have this at your airport.
The first part of the call “Marion Ground” is the pilot announcing who he’s calling. Any radio communication should always start with who you are trying to talk to. Second, “two eight seven five x-ray,” is the registration number of our aircraft — this is different for every plane, and is written on the side of the aircraft. In our case “2875X” is said as “two eight seven five x-ray.” Numbers are always read seperately, for example, it would be incorrect to read “twenty-eight seventy-five.” In addition, letters, wich may or may not be part of the registration, are converted to the phonic alphabet — in our case “x-ray” for X. Other examples are alpha, bravo, charlie, and so on. The second part of the radio communication should always be who you are.
Next it’s time to ask for what we want. In this case, we only need to say “ready to taxi, east departure.” This is shorthand for “I would like to taxi to the active runway and take off then turn east.” Think of it like this, the controller needs to know what direction you want to go to get you to the proper runway, but if you tell him you’re going to depart, he’s going to guess that you mean in the air, and therefore will be taking-off, so you don’t need to say it. Radio communication should always be kept as short as possible to maintain professionalism.
That’s it, we’ve now successfully told the controller everything he needs to know to give us a taxi clearance. Now all we have to do is understand what he says back: ““Warrior two eight seven five x-ray, Marion ground, wind is two one zero at one zero, altimeter three zero one four, taxi to runway two zero.”
Breaking it down, we start with “Warrior two eight seven five x-ray” — who he’s calling, the same as the pilot’s transmission to him. “Marion ground,” who he is follows next.
Now we get to a slightly more technical part, “wind is two one zero at one zero.” This means the wind is coming from 210 degrees, basically southwest, and is blowing at 10 knots. Notice the speed is given after the word “at.” Were the wind gusting, the controller might make the call “wind is two one zero at one zero gusting to two zero.” Again, this is just letting us know it’s a 210 wind at 10 knots, with a possible gust to 20 knots.
The controller now moves on to “altimeter three zero one four.” This is the altimeter setting, which should be set in the aircraft’s altimeter. This simply means the barometric pressur is 30.14 inches of mercury.
When the controller has provided the pilot with the wind and altimeter setting, he moves on to the instructions, “taxi to runway two zero.” Now the pilot knows to taxi the aircraft to runway 20. Incidentally, it should be noted here that runway numbers represent the approximate magnetic heading of the runway, so in this case 200 degrees, and this is to be expected with a wind at 210 — aircraft always takeoff into the wind if possible.
Once the pilot has recieved and understood the controller’s transmission, he or she needs to acknowledge the instructions. This can be accomplished by a quick read-back and then using the abbreviated aircraft identifier. In this case:
Pilot: “Taxi to two zero, seven five x-ray.”
Again, the runway and aircraft identifier is said number-by-number. In this case, the pilot is using the abbreviated aircraft id, using only the last three digits or letters.
Different Aircraft Identifiers
“N Numbers,” the registration numbers on aircraft in the U.S. come in a few different forms. The most typical form is N1234A, using four digits and one letter, however, any combination can be used, such as N9KS or N50475. The abbreviated form of an identifier always uses the last three characters, so in the example N9KS, both the full and abbreviated registration would be read “nine kilo sierra.” The letter “N” or “November” is never read as long as you are flying within the U.S.
Talking to the Tower
After taxiing to the runway, the pilot will switch to the tower frequency. To ask for permission for take-off, the pilot would say:
Pilot: “Marion Tower, Warrior two eight seven five x-ray, at runway two zero, ready for takeoff, east departure.”
ATC: “Warrior two eight seven five x-ray, Marion Tower, left turn East approved, clear for take off runway two zero.”
Again, the calls follow the structure of: Who you want to talk to, who you are, what you want. These calls are self-explanitory, the Tower replies confirming the pilot wants to turn right and go east after take-off, and the pilot will simply respond to acknowledge.
Pilot: “Clear for take-off, seven five x-ray.”
From the Air
When approaching an airport, again using a controlled airport as an example, the pilot should call ten miles out and ask for pattern entry instructions, assuming he wants to land.
Pilot: “Marion Tower, Warrior two eight seven five x-ray, one zero East, inbound landing.”
ATC: “Two eight seven five x-ray, report left base for runway two zero, wind is two one zero at eight, altimeter three zero one four.”
Breaking it down, the pilot says “one zero East” — indicating he is 10 miles East of the airport. “Inbound landing” is the shortest way to tell the controller you would like to enter the pattern and land. If the pilot were wanting to do touch-and-gos rather than land, the end of the call would simply change to “imbound touch-and-go.”
The controller responds with instructions and a wind check. The wind is simply the same as it was before, so we’ll skip that here. The instructions, “report left base for runway two zero,” indicate exactly what the pilot is to do. In this case, report a position of left base for runway 20. I’ll write about the traffic patter seperately, but a base leg is 90 degrees to the runway, with the runway on the left. The pilot would also want to be at the proper pattern altitude when reporting.
As always, the pilot should acknowledge the instructions.
Pilot: “Report left base two zero, seven five x-ray.”
Once in position, the following conversation would take place.
Pilot: “Marion tower, seven-five x-ray, left base, two zero.”
ATC: “Seven five x-ray, clear to land runway two zero.
Pilot: “Clear to land, seven five x-ray.”
This conversation is also simple, the pilot simply indicates where he is, and the tower clears him for landing.
There are way too many specific calls to list here, and ever call is a bit different, but don’t get overworked about it. The guy on the other end is human too, and he’s made a mistake a few times, and won’t get upset if you screw something up.
The best way to learn ATC communications is to buy a scanner, tune it to your local airport’s tower frequency and listen to other pilots talk. Nothing has prepared me for communications more than my scanner.