You know you need to pick up the radio and contact ATC, but you are worried about saying something wrong or forgetting to include important information. You are not alone. We all know how to physically shake hands, but for new pilots, the ATC radio handshake is a skill that takes some practice. Today we will discuss the basics of ATC communications including how to make an initial contact plus an exciting interactive way to practice communications skills without paying for flight time.
Why do Pilots Need to Talk to ATC?
Air Traffic Control (ATC) is an important service for organizing and promoting the safety of air traffic. To do this, ATC must be in contact with pilots. ATC controllers relay information and direction to pilots by means of radio communications.
When do Pilots Talk to ATC?
Depending on the airspace and airport, pilots may need to talk with ATC during all phases of flight including taxiing out, taking off, crossing airspaces, approaching the destination airport, landing, and taxiing in. How you talk to ATC and the content of that ATC handshake varies somewhat depending on what phase of flight you are in.
How do Pilots Talk to ATC?
The FAA has radio contact procedures that pilots and controllers follow to ensure accurate communication. For common situations like initial contact, handoffs, and radar service termination, it is important to know what to expect and how to shake hands with ATC. Requests and readbacks are also important elements of ATC communications.
One of the most important tips to remember when talking to ATC is to start each initial contact with the “Four W’s.” This gives the controller the information they need to respond to your communication.
The Four W’s of aviation communication are:
- Who you are talking to: State the identifier of the station or facility you are calling
- Who you are: State who you are (your aircraft make and full tail number
- Where you are: State where you are currently located
- What you want: State the reason for your radio contact
The controller will respond by identifying themselves, repeating your callsign, and providing any necessary information or instructions as necessary. Because ATC may be busy managing other aircraft, it is good form to contact ATC and let them know that you want to make a request before detailing your request. ATC may respond right away or a little later letting you know that they are ready for your request.
While talking to ATC, you will often be making requests and reading back the controller’s instructions and clearance information. When you make a request, you are letting the controller know what you would like to do or where you would like to go. It is then up to their discretion to advise you if, when, and how to do it. Requests are made for actions like taxiing, takeoff, flight paths through restricted airspace, flight following, landing, and more.
Readbacks are a very important part of aviation communications safety. The most important aspect of pilot – controller communications is understanding, and readbacks are used to confirm that understanding. Unless instructed otherwise, make it a habit to read back any information that should be quality checked. This includes altitude, heading, runway, rate of climb/descent, and speed assignments as well as altimeter settings, taxi/takeoff/hold short instructions, and approach/landing/takeoff/departure clearances.
A handoff takes places mid-flight when your flight path takes you into a new airspace under the purview of a different controller. To make sure the transition is seamless, there are 3 transfers which must take place during the handoff – transfer of radar identification, transfer of communication, and transfer of control.
As you approach the airspace boundary, the controllers will take care of transferring radar identification behind the scenes. As a pilot, you will not be involved in that part of the handoff. Once radar transfer is complete the controller who is handing you off to the new controller will contact you and advise you of who to contact and what frequency to contact them on. Simply acknowledge and readback the frequency. Then contact the new controller on the specified frequency and provide your full tail number and altitude. Once the contact is made and you are in the new airspace, transfer of control will officially have taken place.
Radar Service Termination
Radar service or flight following is usually terminated by the controller as you approach your destination. The most common radar service termination will involve the controller contacting you to advise that radar service has been terminated, to squawk VFR, and to approve change of frequency to advisory. All you need to do is acknowledge by reading back the frequency change approval and/or the squawk.
How Can Pilots Ensure Proper Communication with ATC?
The best way to learn the proper communication structure is to start by reading and studying the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). AIM Chapter 4, Section 2 – Radio Communications Phraseology and Techniques walks pilots through the details of how to contact ATC, when to contact ATC, what information to relay to ATC, and how to phrase that information. The pilot/controller glossary further clarifies the meaning of various communications terms you may hear and need to use. Once you have reviewed the AIM, the next step is to practice the skills in a hands-on setting to build ATC comms muscle memory. The good news is that you do not have to wait until you are in the cockpit to get that practice. Simply download the PlaneEnglish Aviation Radio Simulator on the AppStore for iOS or the Google Play Store for Android. You will have immediate access to real-world interactive training scenarios right from your digital device without paying for flight time. The next time you do get up in the air, your newfound skills will make shaking hands with ATC second nature.