Pilot and student pilot community. Share your pilot lessons or aviation stories.

Aviation Radio Communication: A Very Good Place to Start

in Aviation Communication


Whether you’ve yet to begin flight training or you’re a seasoned aviator, you might have heard (or can remember) that learning aviation radio procedures is one of the most challenging aspects of learning to fly. Ask a few pilots who’ve been through the motions and you’re likely to hear adjectives like intimidating, uncomfortable, and possibly even frightening. For some reason, keying the microphone seems to strike fear into many a general aviation (GA) pilot.

Such discomfort, or mic fright, isn’t limited to shy guys or newbie fliers either. I once gave instrument instruction to a prominent, big-city attorney. Said individual had no problem arguing complex legal cases in court, but was absolutely terrified of talking to air traffic control (ATC). While aviation communication can be discomforting, the secret is it doesn’t have to be. Like nearly everything in aviation, radio communications follow a logical, standardized pattern. Once you know the format, plugging in the necessary information is all it takes to sound like a pro.

The Very Beginning

In The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews teaches the von Trapp children to sing by starting at the very beginning: learning the notes of the musical scale. To master pilot communications, it’s best to begin by learning the alphabet; specifically the aviation phonetic alphabet (available here). Once you’ve mastered this foundation, you’ll instantly be able to decipher much of what you hear transmitted over aviation radio frequencies.

A New Alphabet?

On a positive note, you’re already familiar with much of the aviation phonetic alphabet. As a child, you learned your ABCs. To be a pilot, you need to learn your alpha, bravo charlies. Essentially, the only difference between your childhood alphabet and the pilot’s alphabet is that aviators use a type of “code word” for each letter. Rather than pronouncing “Ay, Bee, Cee” etc; we say “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie” to signify the letters in question.

What’s the Point?

I want to start by pointing out that pilots don’t do this just to sound cool (though it sometimes helps). There really is a method to our madness. Think about it this way: airplane engines are generally pretty noisy, radios can sometimes sound staticcy, and the newness of piloting can make it difficult for you to process everything you hear over the radio. In no time, pilots would be asking, “Did you say bee, dee, or vee? Was than an ‘A’ or an ‘H’?” etc. To cut down on the confusion, the phonetic alphabet was born.

Additionally, English is the global standard for aviation radio communication. While that’s super convenient for some of us, bear in mind that much of the flying world speaks English as a second language. The phonetic alphabet helps cut down on miscommunications caused by regional accents, less-than-perfect pronunciation, etc. So the next time you hear some aeronautical radio chatter, Romeo & Juliet aren’t about Shakespeare; Foxtrot & Tango aren’t recaps of Dancing with the Stars; Mike, Victor, Oscar, & Papa aren’t planning a family reunion; and Hotel, Quebec, Golf, & Whiskey aren’t part of somebody’s vacation plans (in most cases, anyway). Instead, these terms are just substitutes for the first letter of each word.

A Numbers Game

Now that you’ve got a handle on the basics of letters, learning to use numbers in radio communications is comparatively simple. The gist here is that pilots don’t pronounce double-digit (or higher) numbers as standalone values. Each numerical value is instead broken down and pronounced digit-by-digit. For aviators, “twenty-six” becomes “two six,” “four hundred seventy” is “four seven zero,” etc. The only notable exception to this rule deals with altitudes. When talking about height; 3,500 feet is pronounced “three thousand, five hundred” rather than “three five zero zero.” Other than altitudes, you can plan on pronouncing each digit as an individual unit.

How ‘Bout Them Niners

If you’ve visited one of the phonetic alphabet links above, you might notice something special about the number 9. Rather than pronouncing it “nine,” pilots are instead trained to say, “niner.” This isn’t some homage to the great Joe Montana, but rather a move in consideration of our German-speaking brethren. In the German language, “nein” means “no,” so the forward-thinking authorities in aviation thought it best to eliminate a potential source of confusion. For this reason, you’ll continually hear pilots giving shout-outs to the niners.

Tree Fifes and Fife Wuns 

Going back to the phonetic chart, you might think the pronunciations listed for 3, 4, and 5 are a bit strange. This again is mainly for the benefit of non-native English speakers. In some languages & cultures, pronouncing the “th” sound is extremely difficult, so the aviation world thought it best to give such speakers a break. Other languages and regional dialects don’t pronounce the letter “r” with the hard, pirate-like bite that we Americans do. Adding the extra syllable reduces the chance of a “foh” coming across the radio. Instead, “fow-ah” is a little easier to comprehend. When it comes to five, the “fife” results from the lack of a definite “v” in some languages. In such cases, “v” and “b” are virtually indistinguishable, so ATC doesn’t want any bad “fibes” coming over the frequencies.

From my years of flying, I can attest that very few U.S. pilots pronounce 3, 4, and 5 as the phonetic alphabet directs. The vast majority of American fliers instead pronounce these numbers as they’re spelled. I’ve yet to hear of anyone getting chastised for using the normal pronunciation, provided it’s intelligible. However, you’ll still be expected to use “niner” rather than “nein,” so at least get in the habit of pronouncing your niners.

Oh? No.

As a head’s up, resist the urge to offer up an “oh” over the radio. You’ll never be using this term, unless it’s part of an exclamation. Instead, Oscar is for letters and “zee-ro” is for numbers. Saying “oh” to mean either is simply a recipe for confusion.

While we’re on the subject, let’s take a quick look at aircraft registration (also commonly referred to as “N” or “Tail”) numbers. All O-looking digits are zeros, while all I-looking characters are ones. Due to the similarities between ‘O’s & ‘0’s and ‘I’s & ‘1’s; the FAA doesn’t allow Oscar or India as part of an aircraft’s tail number. Keep track of the aircraft call signs you hear over the radios. The first time you hear the phonetic word for a given letter as part of a call sign, cross it off your list. I’m willing to bet you’ll eventually mark out 24 letters, with the India and Oscar still on your page.

A Solid Foundation

Aviation radio communication can be difficult, frustrating, and frightening from time to time. That’s just part of the learning curve. Despite these occasional challenges, you’ll be better prepared to tackle any setbacks if you have a solid grasp of the basic skills. Spend some time reciting you’re A[lpha], B[ravo], C[harlie]s. With these fundamentals in place, you’ll be better equipped to master all subsequent aspects of aeronautical communication.

Back to the Aviation Communication Series.


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: