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Aviation Radio Communication: Dubya, Times Five

by Stephen Lewis

in Aviation Blog, Aviation Communication


If you read the previous post on aviation radio communications, you now have a general understanding of how pilots turn letters and numbers into aeronautical language. With this post, we’ll explore the basics of putting such phraseology into routine radio transmissions. The pattern we use is fairly straightforward, which is a blessing on so many levels. This 5-step format can be used for nearly all aviation radio communications you can expect to need. Once you’ve mastered the basic framework, it’s a simple matter of changing the details to match virtually any given situation.

The Five Ws

Before you ask, I just want to point out that the five Ws pilots use aren’t from the same set used by reporters (who, what, when, where, why); though they cover a lot of the same information. However, rather than seeking information, we use our Ws to provide details that are useful to others.

Who you’re talking to.

Who you are.

Where you are.

What you want.

With                            .

That’s it. Not too complicated, is it? If you find this simplicity confusing, don’t worry. We’ll elaborate as to just how each W is used for radio communication.

Who You’re Talking To

No, you don’t have to learn the names of every other aviator in the country. We’re a small, close-knit community, but not like Cheers. Rather than establishing a first-name basis with everybody, we instead address each transmission’s recipients by their facility names. At a towered airport, this will most commonly be to ground control or the tower controller, in which case you’ll use “[airport name] ground” or “[airport name tower].” At airports without a control tower or at controlled airports when the tower is closed (Hey, the sequester’s a bear.), you’ll address the facility as “[airport name] traffic.” Although there isn’t a specific person you’re addressing with this call, the term “traffic” serves as a head’s up to any other aircraft that might be operating in the vicinity.

Who You Are

Once again, you’re not expected to broadcast your actual name across the frequency. Instead, we enjoy a degree on anonymity by using our aircraft names. Not to rain on anybody’s parade, but we don’t get to use cool Top Gun names like Viper or Maverick, either. Instead, our aircraft names bear a stronger resemblance to prison IDs; just a series of numbers (and sometimes letters). When we’re aboard an aircraft, we assume the aircraft’s registration number as our identity.

You’ve probably heard how the professionals do it: United XXX, Delta XXXX, etc. Since we’re not working for an airline and we don’t have an assigned flight number, the aircraft’s registration number instead serves as our unique call sign. You might have heard this number referred to as the tail number or the “Nnumber, though they all mean the same thing.

Most airplanes brandish their IDs across their tails, so that’s where the term originated. The “N” number nickname is unique to the U.S. Since aviation is a globalized activity, each nation is assigned a letter or series of letters which its aircraft use to identify their nationality/nation of registration.  The U.S. was assigned the N, so all American-registered aircraft identifications begin with the N. If you haven’t already done so, pay attention to the tail numbers of the aircraft you see at the airports you visit. While most will have the N in the first position, you might occasionally spot a few that begin with a different letter; a clear indication that the bird in question is a foreigner.

Following Its Lead

Behind the N, your aircraft will have a series of digits. The vast majority of airplanes you see will have five additional digits, though four and even three follow-up figures are around as well. Of these, all must be numbers except for the final two characters, which may be letters or numbers. Common examples of U.S. registration numbers could be N12345, N1234A, N123AB, etc. The FAA does allow aircraft owners to choose/change their registration numbers, so you do have the option for a bit of personalization; provided your chosen call sign complies with FAA standards.

“Say Type Aircraft”

One of the most helpful details we can transmit is our type of aircraft, so pilots and controllers make a point of including this into each aircraft’s call sign. This info is important because it conveys information about the weight, speed, and general operating characteristics of the aircraft. For example, the pilot of N987ZY, a Piper Archer, would transmit his call sign as, “Archer niner eight seven zulu yankee.” We omit the “Piper,” because it’s commonly known that Piper manufactures the Archer.

Likewise, while operating in the U.S. we omit the “N” (November) from the call sign since it’s assumed you’re flying a domestically registered aircraft. If you do happen to be flying a foreign aircraft, you’ll include the letter(s) of the country of origin. If you one day fly a U.S.-registered aircraft abroad, then you’ll want to use the “November” as part of the call sign while you’re out of U.S. airspace.

Be Specific, Not Redundant

You’ll notice in the Piper Archer example above that we chose to omit the Piper in favor of using Archer to describe our airplane. Why? Piper manufactures several different airplane models, so saying “Piper ” doesn’t convey whether we’re a Tomahawk, Seminole, Lance, Chieftain, or any other Piper model. Archer refers to only one specific model, so it’s a much better choice. There’s no need to say “Piper Archer,” as doing so is unnecessarily redundant.

No Clones Allowed

If you fly Skyhawk (the nickname/call sign for a Cessna 172) N543HG, you don’t need to worry about getting confused with, say, Bonanza N543HG because there isn’t one. The FAA only issues each specific registration number once, so there’s not some other model out there with a matching call sign. However, there could be a N263HG or N453GH, so be on the lookout for easily confusable call signs.

So, Who Are You?

Feeling confused or overwhelmed at this point? Fret not. Though there are some specific procedures as to how we use the two Whos, they’re extremely easy with just a little bit of practice. Next time, we’ll explore the three remaining Ws and look into some tricks of the trade to have you sounding like a pro in no time. We’ll also throw in a variety of examples you’ll be able to adapt to your specific aircraft and airport. Until then, take comfort in knowing you’re already familiar with 40% of the standard used for aviation radio communications.

Back to the Aviation Communication Series.

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