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Aviation Radio Communication: An Echo from the Cockpit

in Aviation Communication

Following up on our previous two posts on the 5 Ws, as well as our initial look at the phonetic alphabet, we’ll use this post to put everything into practice. Besides being able to formulate your transmissions, you’ll also learn the basics of responding to air traffic control (ATC) calls. As you’ll soon discover, answering ATC often involves a fair amount of repetition (which makes it easy!).

For quick reference, here are the 5 Ws again:

Who you’re talking to.
Who you are.
Where you are.
What you want.
With weather info (ATIS, AWOS, ASOS) .

Let’s begin by assuming we’re flying a Cessna 172, a model that’s nicknamed the “Skyhawk,” from Oshkosh, Wisconsin’s Wittman Regional Airport. We’ll begin on the ground, at the terminal, having just started up and checked the weather. We’ll also compare towered vs. non-towered operations. For your convenience, an airport diagram (complete with radio frequencies) is available here.

Tower Open  Tower Closed
Wittman (or Oshkosh, your choice) Ground  Oshkosh Traffic
Skyhawk 123AB Skyhawk 123AB
At the terminal   At the terminal
Request taxi for south departure Taxiing to Runway Niner
With Uniform Oshkosh Traffic

Why the differences? When the tower (and ground control) is open, you need permission to enter the surface movement areas; which is obtained from the ground controller. Additionally, unless you request a specific runway, ATC will assign you a runway from which to depart. The assigned (known as the “active”) runway, is chosen based on a number of factors; including the  direction/strength of the wind, your direction of flight, other traffic operating at the airport, and the surface layout of the field.

When the tower is closed, it’s up to the pilot to select the runway from which to depart. In this example, we’ll assume the wind is predominately from the east; making Runway 9 the logical choice. As there’s no ground controller on duty, our radio call is directed to other aircraft (“traffic”) that might be operating on the surface or in the air near the airport. Our call informs them of our current and intended locations, which gives them an idea of where to look for us for the next few minutes.

The Path We Follow

Based on the airport diagram, it’s logical that we’d select Taxiway B[ravo] as our route to Runway 9. To further enhance safety, it’s a good idea to include this route in our radio transmission (i.e. “taxiing to runway niner via taxiway bravo”). At some airports, the route of taxi isn’t quite so obvious, so it’s definitely wise to broadcast your route of travel.  

Weather/No Weather?

You might wonder why we refer to the airport weather in one broadcast, but not the other. It’s part of ATC’s job to make sure we’re aware of the current airport conditions, so referring to the weather broadcast lets them know we’re in the loop. When the tower is closed, none of the other aircraft have any authority/responsibility over our operation; so it’s irrelevant to let them know we have the weather info (they all assume that, as a competent pilot, you will have checked it). Besides, several non-towered airports don’t even report/broadcast the field’s weather, so in such cases there would be nothing to report anyway.

Traffic So Nice We Call it Twice

You’re probably curious as to why we would address Oshkosh Traffic twice in the same transmission. This standard arose primarily for airfields that are permanently non-towered. Many uncontrolled airports utilize the same CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency). Due to the reception range aircraft enjoy while airborne, it’s quite common you’ll be able to receive transmissions from airports all over the region. Stating the specific airport’s name at both the beginning and end of each transmission helps eliminate confusion as to which airport the pilot is using.

At towered airports, each radio frequency is dedicated to a specific purpose, so you don’t need to worry about ending your transmissions with the facilities’ names (while the tower is open). When the tower closes, we’ll still use the same (dedicated) radio frequency, but we make it a habit to add the second “[-airport name-] traffic” as a safety enhancing measure. Remember, we don’t have ATC looking over our shoulders at this point, so it’s up to us pilots to look out for ourselves/each other.

ATC Responds

Referring back to the Tower Open example, ground control’s response would look something like this.

Ground’s Response

Skyhawk 123AB
Wittman Ground
Join Taxiway Bravo
Taxi to Runway Niner

I like to think of this as the three Ws: Who ATC is addressing, Which ATC entity is speaking, and What they want the aircraft in question to do. It’s that simple.

How do you Respond?

If you understand ATC’s instructions and are willing/able to comply, your radio response is extremely simple. In essence, all you need to do is repeat the meat & potatoes of ATC’s transmission and follow it with your call sign. Check it out:

Your Acknowledgement

Join Taxiway Bravo
Taxi to Runway Niner
Skyhawk 123AB

In most cases, that’s all it takes to communicate with ATC. Your instructor will help you learn additional nuances, so don’t stress if this all still seems like a foreign language. You’ll get it with practice.

A Step Further 

Want to develop your ear for ATC communications? Check out sites like LiveATC.net, which enable you to listen to actual aviation transmissions in real time. Additionally, you might want to consider investing in an aviation radio scanner or transceiver, which will allow you to listen in on aeronautical communications in your area. The more you expose yourself to the lingo, the less intimidating it will seem.

Coming Up

In subsequent posts, we’ll continue covering interactions with ATC. We’ll also get back to non-towered airport communications with other aircraft. Until then, feel free to practice making up transmissions for your home airport. By doing so, you’ll feel a bit more comfortable when you next key the mic for an actual transmission.

Back to the Aviation Communication Series.


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