|By Russ Still
November 14, 2019
Communicating on the radio is intimidating for some student pilots. It is frequently mentioned as one of the more difficult skills to master. While there are some rules regarding what is said in different circumstances and in different airspaces, there really isn’t anything to be apprehensive of. A small communications mistake is nothing to sweat over. With study and practice you will develop the confidence that you need.
In the airplane, you are generally talking either to other pilots (at or near non-towered airports) or to ATC controllers. In some instances, you may be talking to briefers at an FSS (flight service station). In any of these cases, remember that you can always speak in plain English if you aren’t sure of the precise correct verbiage.
The AIM (Aeronautical Information Manual) does include a fairly good discussion of radio procedures, but even it cannot elaborate on every single situation that might occur. Nevertheless, study it and learn what it does offer. For a more detailed study of radio communications, consider getting Gold Seal’s Squawk VFR audio course. It is available on audio CD. You may order it at www.micfright.com.
Non-Towered Fields – Each non-towered airport will have a specific radio frequency assigned. This is the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency or CTAF. It is shown on Sectional Charts and in the A/FD portion of the Chart Supplement publication. You must know what this frequency is. On this frequency you state your intentions so that other pilots know what you are doing. It’s a simple issue of safety.
Before you taxi from your parking spot at the Centerville Airport, press the microphone button and say:
“Centerville traffic. Cessna 12345 is taxiing from the ramp to the runup area for Runway 7. Centerville.”
When you prepare for takeoff say:
“Centerville traffic. Cessna 12345 is taking Runway 7 for departure to the west. Centerville.”
It’s very painless. Tell them who you are, where you are, and what you are doing. It is important to add the name of the airport at the beginning and end of each transmission. Multiple airports will share the same frequency. Pilots listening must know from which airport you are operating.
Towered Fields – Towered airports will generally have a separate frequency for ground operations. This is usually for the ground controller.
Before contacting the ground controller, listen to the recorded weather broadcast. At many airports, this will be provided by ATIS (Automated Terminal Information Service). The weather information will be frequently updated and each new recording will have a letter assigned to it. When you call the ground controller to taxi, he must confirm that you have listened to the latest weather information. In this example, we will assume that the current ATIS is designated as Delta (for the letter D) and that you have listened to it.
Pilot: “Metropolis Ground. Cessna 12345 at the FBO with information Delta, ready to taxi for a northbound departure.”
Controller: “Cessna 12345, Metropolis Ground. Taxi to Runway 31 via taxiway Bravo.”
Pilot: “Taxi to Runway 31 via Bravo. Cessna 12345.”
That’s it. You are now cleared to taxi to the runup area for Runway 31. Go there and do your pre-takeoff checklist items. When you are finished:
Pilot: “Metropolis Ground, Cessna 12345 at the Runway 31 runup area is ready.”
Controller: “Cessna 12345. Taxi to Runway 31 and contact the Tower at 123.50. Hold short of Runway 31.”
Pilot: “Taxi to Runway 31 and hold short. Cessna 12345.”
Once you’re there:
Pilot: “Metropolis Tower, Cessna 12345 is ready for departure at Runway 31.”
Controller: “Cessna 12345, cleared for takeoff. Make right turnout.”
Pilot: “Cleared for takeoff, Cessna 12345.”
Non-Towered Fields – As you approach a non-towered field, you should be listening to the CTAF to determine which runway is in use and what other pilots in the area are doing. They should be communicating their intentions over this frequency. As you get closer to the airport, make your own calls on the CTAF alerting pilots to your presence and intentions.
“Centerville Traffic. Cessna 12345, ten miles north at 3,500, inbound landing. Centerville.”
As you close in on the airport, make another call.
“Centerville Traffic. Cessna 12345 four miles north at 2,500 feet. Will be entering on the left downwind for Runway 7. Centerville.”
As you enter the traffic pattern, plan on making a call announcing your location on each leg of the traffic pattern.
“Centerville Traffic. Cessna 12345 is left downwind for Runway 7. Landing. Centerville.”
After you have landed and cleared the runway:
“Centerville Traffic. Cessna 12345 is clear of Runway 7. Taxiing to parking. Centerville.”
Towered Fields – Towered airports normally exist within Class B, C, or D airspace. Before you may enter any of these airspaces you must have permission. This is accomplished in different ways.
To enter Class B airspace, the approach controller must give you an explicit clearance. He must say the words “Cleared into the Class Bravo.” It is extremely important that you not stray inside the Class B without a clearance. Student pilots will rarely, if ever, operate within Class B airspace.
The FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations) require that you establish radio communications with the appropriate controller before entering Class C or Class D airspace. Talking to him is not enough. Communications are not considered to be “established” until the controller has said either your tail number or your callsign.
You do not make position reports in the traffic pattern at towered airports unless the tower controller has instructed you to do so.
To enter Class C airspace, you must call the approach controller on the appropriate frequency. Once he has said your tail number you may enter the airspace. As you get closer to the airport he will ask you to contact the tower controller. The tower controller will tell you how he wants you to enter the traffic pattern. Once you are in the pattern and traffic spacing allows, the controller will tell you that you are “cleared to land.” You must call him back and repeat the instructions: “Cleared to land. Cessna 12345.”
To enter Class D airspace, you must call the tower controller on the appropriate frequency. Once he has said your tail number you may enter the airspace. The tower controller will tell you how he wants you to enter the traffic pattern. Once you are in the pattern and traffic spacing allows, the controller will tell you that you are “cleared to land.” You must call him back and repeat the instructions: “Cleared to land. Cessna 12345.”
After you have exited the runway at a Class B, C, or D airport, you must stop past the yellow hold-short line and call the ground controller. He or she will then provide you with taxi instructions to your requested parking location.