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Aviation Radio Communication: Magic Words – Part One

in Aviation Communication

Within the aeronautical lexicon, there are many keywords at your disposal to make aviation radio communication a bit safer and more efficient than you might imagine. Even if you’re a complete aviation rookie, you’ve probably heard a few such terms thrown about in popular culture. Throughout this post, we’ll examine some of the most prevalent (and useful) terms in the aviation lingo. We’ll also dispel commonly held misconceptions and address frequent problem areas for new pilots.

Straight from the Source

If you’re ever unsure of a term you hear pilots/controllers use, the official reference to consult is the FAA’s Pilot/Controller Glossary. I urge you to begin there; as many general aviation (GA) pilots misuse a few of the most common terms. Flight instructors are generally good resources since they’ve had extensive training and several checkrides to break them of any bad radio habits.

At the top of the human resource list (in my humble opinion) are air traffic controllers. Whereas pilots (even airline captains) are known to adopt slang and unapproved terms, controllers go by the book 100% of the time. Proper phraseology is also part of their specialty, so they can usually offer insights above and beyond what your flight instructor can provide. However, if different sources give you conflicting information, remember that the Pilot/Controller Glossary is the official word.

The Magic Words

Roger: While it’s one of the most common aviation radio terms, “roger” is also perhaps the most widely misused word in aeronautical communications. An inordinate number of pilots seem to believe this word is the Swiss Army knife of ATC (Air Traffic Control) speak; capable of being used for a variety of purposes. It isn’t. Per the Pilot/Controller Glossary, “roger” means “I have received all of your last transmission.” Nothing more, nothing less.

Pay attention to the radio calls of others, and you’ll hear a significant number of pilots attempting to substitute “roger” for other uses. Among the most common erroneous uses is employing “roger” to mean “yes” or “Okay, I’ll do that.” Despite such intentions, as far as ATC is concerned, the only thing you’re telling them is that you’ve received their last transmission in its entirety. “Roger” communicates absolutely nothing about your intent to comply with any directions, so make every effort to avoid falling into the roger-for-anything-and-everything trap.

Wilco: A less common (though equally useful) word in the aviation vocabulary is “wilco.” The term is a fusion of the words “will comply,” and communicates exactly that. Whereas “roger” merely acknowledges receipt of a transmission, “wilco” signifies “I have received your message, understand it, and will comply with it.” Let’s look at a few instances where you might use “roger” or “wilco”:

Tower Says:  Tower Says:
Skyhawk 123AB Skyhawk 123AB
Wind zero seven zero at one two Make right traffic
Altimeter two niner niner eight Runway one one
Your Reply:  Your Reply:
Roger, Skyhawk 123AB Wilco, Skyhawk 123AB

In the first example, “roger” is appropriate because you’re merely acknowledging receipt of tower’s transmission. In the second instance, you need to communicate that you will act as requested, so “wilco” is the appropriate choice.

* In your use of the above terms, avoid ever saying “Roger wilco.” Since the definition for “roger” is built in to “wilco”, combining the two is unnecessarily redundant and sure to brand you as a rookie. Instead, remember that each term is capable of standing on its own.

Affirmative/Negative: Another urge you’ll want to nip in the bud is the tendency to say “yes” or “no” in your radio transmissions. Remember, as a pilot you’re now part of an elite fraternity, so you’re way too cool to speak like Joe Average. Instead, you’ll want to phrase your words in the more appropriate Top Gun fashion.

The Pilot/Controller Glossary gives a single-word definition for “affirmative”: “yes.” The term “negative” is a bit more expansive; signifying “No,” “permission not granted,” or “that is not correct.” These terms are easy enough to employ, provided you remember to view yourself as military chic.

Student Pilot/First Solo: The first time you take to the air sans instructor, it’s a good idea to let ATC know you’re about to undertake your first solo. You’ll already have a fair amount of excitement, anxiety, and perhaps apprehension; so cluing ATC in on the situation can enable them to treat you with kid gloves (to an extent). On all subsequent solo flights (prior to earning your certificate), it’s usually wise to get in the habit of appending your transmissions with “student pilot.”

Are these calls required? Absolutely not. However, I am a firm believer that it’s usually best to avoid unwanted aeronautical surprises, and including the aforementioned phrases can help you do just that. As with your weather calls (with ATIS/ASOS/AWOS), you’ll only need to mention your student pilot/first solo status the first time you contact each ATC entity (ex. Ground, tower). Take a look at the examples below:

First Solo    Student Pilot
Oshkosh Ground Oshkosh Tower
Skyhawk 123AB Skyhawk 123AB, Student Pilot
At the Terminal   One Zero Miles West
Request Taxi for Closed Pattern Inbound for Landing
With Romeo With Romeo
This will be my first solo

In most cases, such a simple addendum is usually all it takes to ensure you won’t be given a set of convoluted instructions that you’re not equipped to handle.

Stand By, Say Again, Unable: Throughout your flying endeavors, you’ll occasionally be given instructions you’re not able to comply with – at least not right away. In these instances, don’t hesitate to use one of the key phrases discussed below.

Stand By: As a pilot, your priorities are to aviate, navigate, and communicate – in that order. If you’re too busy flying the airplane to talk to ATC, let them know. By stating “stand by,” you’re telling the controller(s) that you currently have your hands full with more pressing duties. You’re also communicating that you’ll follow up with them as soon as conditions permit. Most controllers are pretty good about giving you the time you need. If they ever rush you, remember that your top priority is flying the plane. Don’t let anyone distract you from that primary duty.

Say Again: At times, you’ll encounter radio static, blocked/stepped on transmissions, and controllers who speak with machine gun rapidity. When this happens, all you need to do is request the speaker to “say again.” This two-word phrase is the aviation term for “please repeat your last transmission.” If the reason for the repeat is due to fast-talking controllers, using the “student pilot” phrase described above often works well to get them to slow their speaking pace.

Unable: Occasionally, particularly if you frequent congested airspace or busy airports, you’ll receive instructions that are overly optimistic for your aircraft’s abilities and/or your personal piloting skills. When this happens, don’t hesitate to respond with “unable.” Per the Pilot/Controller Glossary, this word “indicates inability to comply with a specific instruction, request, or clearance.” ATC might not like it, but they can’t expect you to perform in a manner that compromises safety or exceeds your (or the aircraft’s) abilities. It’s up to them to offer an acceptable alternative, so don’t be bashful if you feel you can’t meet their instructions. Again, supplementing your transmissions with “student pilot” can reduce the chances you’ll be given such daunting directions.

More to Come

The above-listed keywords and phrases are just a handful of the useful terms in the aviation communications arsenal. In a future post, we’ll discuss additional magic words, the meanings of each, and times when such phrases are useful. Until then, pay attention to the radio transmissions of others and note how your fellow fliers use the above-listed terminology. Additionally, remember that many pilots misuse “roger,” so make note of any instances when you hear the term used incorrectly.

Back to the Aviation Communication Series.


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