iOS 15 update: We are currently testing ARSim compatibility in iOS and iPadOS 15.02. We'll send an "All Clear" when all is good to go.

5 Things to Know About Flight Radio Before Your First Flight

5 Things to Know About Flight Radio Before Your First Flight

May 24, 2020

There is an art to choosing the right words when you contact air traffic control (ATC), and radio communication is a skill that develops over time.  For someone who is new to making radio calls, the thought of your first communication attempt can be overwhelming, especially with everything else going on inside the cockpit.

That initial radio call may be nerve-racking, but just relax – we were all new pilots once. After you have accrued some flight time, you too will sound like a professional on the horn.

Radio calls are an official form of communication, so it is best to come across like a professional aviator.  The perfect radio call provides a clear, concise, and effective form of communication between the pilot and air traffic control. Radio calls are critical to your safety as well as that of other pilots.

So, before you embark on your first flight, here are five things every novice pilot should know about flight radio.

1. The Language

The foundation of proper radio calls starts with learning the pilot’s language. Student pilots should memorize essential aviation phases and understand the necessary radiotelephony call procedures. Using the right language when communicating with ATC increases safety and clarity, making it the mark of a professional pilot.

A pilot’s communication style uses various techniques to clarify, simplify, and standardize communications over two-way radio. When getting started with this language, the most important thing a student pilot can do is to listen and understand what other pilots are saying when they make their radio calls. Once you understand other pilots, it is time to try speaking the language yourself. Honing your pilot language skills will significantly improve your radio calls.

There are a lot of great resources like Aviation Radio Simulator ARSim by PlaneEnglish to help you practice making flight calls and memorizing aviation phraseology. Chapter four of the  Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) contains a glossary of radio call phrases that are used by air traffic control. These resources can significantly enhance your understanding of flight radio.

2. Radio Etiquette

When it comes to talking on the radio, there is a certain etiquette which is understood and respected amongst pilots. Airtime is valuable, so babble, chatter, slang and redundant phraseology should be eliminated from ATC communications.

Keep your initial contact short and sweet containing only the essentials. Often times the controller will be working with several aircraft at once and may need to issue timely instructions to other aircraft in the pattern, however the controller cannot tend to other aircraft until you finish your transmission. A long-winded transmission on your end could potentially delay essential instructions and may affect the safety of the other airplanes.

3. Contact Procedures

When an aviator attempts to reach air traffic control over the radio for the first time, it is referred to as initial contact. Before you make that first radio call, it would be beneficial to have an understanding of the initial contact radio procedures. Learning the correct way to contact the controller will make for smoother communication. The contact procedures can be found in chapter four of the AIM, but the basic structure of any exchange with ATC contains the four Ws:

  • Who you are talking to (Tower, Ground, Center, etc.)
  • Who you are (your callsign)
  • Where you are (your location on the airport or relative to the airport when in the air)
  • What you want (your intentions: landing, switch frequencies, etc.)

Perhaps the most critical concept in aviation communication is understanding the commands given to you by ground control. Pilots must understand and acknowledge each radio transmission from ATC by using the appropriate aircraft call sign and reading back the appropriate information.

It is your responsibility to acknowledge all requests and frequency change instructions given to you by the air traffic controller. If you select a new frequency and change over without giving an acknowledgment, the controller has no way of knowing whether you received the instruction or suffered a radio malfunction.

Sometimes the tower monitors multiple frequency assignments at once and will request that all non-essential aircraft switch frequencies. This frees up much needed airspace and temporarily reduces the controller’s workload.

If instructed by the control tower to change frequencies, you must switch channels as soon as possible unless you are notified to make the change at a designated altitude or heading. In that case, you should monitor the channel until reaching the specified altitude and coordinates. If the pilot fails to promptly follow directions, it could cause a delay in the timely receipt of valuable information.

Bonus: Download our free, customizable VFR Request Helper to add to your kneeboard.

Download for iPad
Download .pdf

4. Emergency Frequencies

As a new pilot, the last thing that we want to think about is an in-flight emergency, but they are a reality of flying and it is best to as prepared as possible. All pilots should be familiar with The International Air Distress (IAD) channel.  

This frequency is reserved primarily for emergency communications from aircraft in distress. The emergencyfrequency is located on channel 121.5 MHz, and it is monitored by most ATC towers and emergency services.

The Military Air Distress (MAD) channel is utilized and maintained by the United States Armed Forces. They use frequency 243.0 MHz for air defense communications. The channel, also known as UHF Guard, is a closed frequency that is forbidden for civilian use.  

If a civilian aircraft is intercepted by military air defense forces, the plane will be contacted via the civilian International Air Distress (IAD) channel to ask for identification and intentions or to pass on instructions.

It is always advisable to check the functionality of your radio equipment before you depart. Although rare, radio failure does occur and pilots should know the proper emergency communication procedures to use in this circumstance.

If flight radio contact with ATC is unsuccessful, pilots should “squawk 7600.” This is an emergency transmission that shows up on all radars, alerting ATC that a radio malfunction has occurred in your aircraft.  A signal will broadcast the aircraft identification and flight level to the ATC to keep them informed of your location.

5. Knowing your Position

A pilot should know his or her position, heading, and altitude prior to contacting the control tower. This is especially important if you are operating on an active runway or when conducting a final approach to landing.

It is the pilot’s responsibility to monitor all relevant air traffic control radio communication frequencies for potential traffic conflicts with other aircraft. All aircraft must follow the separation guidelines, so you need to be aware of your position relative to other aircraft at all times.


Those polished radio communication skills will come in time, and it all starts with a solid foundation. Learning the language and listening to other pilots dramatically improves your communication ability. So, learn to use the right terminology and do not be afraid to try. Your first priority is to communicate effectively with ATC, regardless of your level of polish and finesse.