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

Aviation Radio Communication: Another Round of Whiskey

in Aviation Communication

Don’t get your hopes up – I’m not buying shots of Jack for everybody. Instead, the whiskey I refer to is of the phonetic variety; specifically, the five Ws. For review, let’s look at the list once again.

Who you’re talking to.
Who you are.
Where you are.
What you want.
With                            .

Last time, we covered the two Whos, so with this post we’ll visit the remaining three Ws of aviation radio communications. By the end of this post, you should have a basic grasp on how all aviation transmissions are structured, enabling you to apply this aeronautical format to your specific flight environment.

But Where am I?

Resist the urge to say, “In the airplane.” The controllers are fairly certain you’re calling from within some form of aircraft. Instead, think of this W as where the aircraft is. While on the ground, you’ll be giving your position in reference to the airport surface. Since no two airports are laid out exactly the same, this is where a taxi diagram can be an invaluable aid (ask your instructor for one).

At general aviation (GA) airports, common locations to call from include the general aviation ramp, the main ramp, the T-hangars, the fuel pump(s), and/or the name of the flight school where you train. Again, the specifics of your training environment could vary, so look to your instructor for insight as to your airport’s layout.

Wild Blue Yonder

From the air, the most common method to report your location is by referencing your direction and distance (in nautical miles [NMs]) from the airport. Several airports also use nearby visual landmarks as reporting references, so ask your instructor about any notable checkpoints used for your field. Common reporting examples include, “10 miles northwest, over the reservoir, 8 miles south,” etc.

How Far?

Many of you might question just how to know when you’re a specific distance from the airport. If you have GPS, that magic little box can take the guesswork out of the mix. Otherwise, particularly in the beginning, don’t be afraid to ask your instructor for help judging the distance. The true secret to judging distance by air is to gain flight experience, so rest assured it’ll get much easier with time.

One strategy I used was to get out a sectional chart and draw a pair of circles around my home field. The inner circle was a 5nm radius and the outer band was 10nm. I’d then note the proximity of ground-based references upon which to base my radio calls. If a noteworthy landmark wasn’t exactly 5 or 10 miles from the airport, I’d measure the exact distance, place an “X” on the spot in question, and write down its distance from the airport. Over time, this helped me learn how to better judge distances from the air.

Another trick I’d use was to note the runway length of a nearby airport. This airport’s primary runway was almost exactly 1 nautical mile in length. To help judge my distance from the field, I’d try to picture how many of those runways I could lay end to end between my location and the airport. Perhaps a primitive strategy, but it seemed to work pretty well.

Are We Going to Sea?

You might also wonder just what a nautical mile is, its measurements, and why we use it for aviation. Those are great questions, and the choice of the nautical mile was a very wise decision for the aviation world. If you’d like to know the specifics, you can check out Knots vs. MPH, an article I wrote that discusses all the details.

What do you Want?

As we move on to W #4, I’d like to again caution everyone not to get their hopes up. Air traffic control (ATC) is not a genie from a magic bottle, and your radio transmissions are not akin to a holiday wish list. Instead, with this W, you’re conveying to ATC where you’d like to put your aircraft for the next little bit. If you’re on the ground (but haven’t yet flown), you most likely want to get into the air. In your first transmission, you’ll likely be stating, “Request taxi for [-direction you’ll be heading-] departure.” If your destination is well known (or somewhere fairly close by that the controllers would be familiar with), you could even include the name of your destination airport (ex. “request taxi for departure to Chicago O’Hare”).

When you’re actually ready to take off, that’s the info you’ll convey to the tower (ex. “[-airport name-] tower, [-aircraft ID-] at runway [-departure runway #-] ready for takeoff”). Pretty straightforward. If you fly from a non-towered airfield, the call is essentially the same, though you’ll be addressing traffic instead of tower. Additionally, while a tower controller has to clear you for takeoff before you can depart, at a non-towered facility, you’ll decide (and announce) exactly when you depart.

When you’re approaching your destination and would like to land, that’s the info you’ll convey with the 4th W. In this case, “inbound for landing” is a good phrase to use. After touchdown, you’ll want to taxi the airplane to a ramp, hangar, fuel pump, or airport business. In this instance, “request taxi to [-destination on the airport-]” is usually all it takes. Again, your flight instructor can clue you in on the details of your specific airport.

With                            ????

I promise this last one is easy. For starters, you only use it on your first radio call to ATC before takeoff/before landing. At non-towered airports, you can eliminate this part altogether. For the 5th W, With refers to the weather information available for that airport.

All towered airports utilize a radio frequency to broadcast the current weather data for the field. Many times, this broadcast is an ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) transmission, which means the observation was taken by a human. In these cases, each broadcast (usually updated hourly) is appended with a letter of the phonetic alphabet.

Why the Phonetic Letter?

The reason for the phonetic addendum has to do with simplicity. Rather than stating, “[-aircraft ID-] knows the sky is clear, the winds are from the southwest, atmospheric pressure is 30.01 in Hg,” etc, you can simply state, “With (Bravo, Charlie, Delta,” etc). That single keyword lets the controller know you’re aware of the weather specifics, but saves you from having to recite a whole list of weather phenomena.

Automated Broadcasts

These days, many airports (both towered and non-towered) have automated weather reporting stations. These stations are abbreviated AWOS (Automated Weather Observing System) or ASOS (Automated Surface Observing System) depending on the exact equipment and reporting capabilities of each unit. Unlike with ATIS broadcasts, ASOS & AWOS transmissions are not appended with a phonetic letter. Instead, pilots simply state, “with the AWOS” or “with the ASOS” when calling ATC. As these broadcasts are updated every minute, it’s also common practice to say, “with the one-minute weather.”

That’s All She Wrote

That’s it! If you’ve read this entire post, along with the previous two posts, you now know the big secrets to aviation radio communications. From here on out, everything else is just details. Next time, we’ll explore real-world transmissions that put the 5 Ws and the phonetic alphabet into practice. If you understand everything we’ve covered so far, you can take heart in knowing that radio transmissions aren’t complicated ciphers. Instead, it’s just a simple matter of following the framework of the 5 Ws.

Back to the Aviation Communication Series.


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: