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Aviation Radio Communication: Magic Words – Part Three

in Aviation Communication

As in our previous two posts, we’ll once again examine commonly used aviation terminology you’re bound to come across over the course of your flying. Some terms might initially seem confusing whereas others are fairly obvious and easy to grasp. Certain terms will become a regular component of your routine ATC (Air Traffic Control) interactions, while others you’ll hopefully never have to use (more on these later). Regardless of their prevalence in your individual flying operations, all components mentioned below form part of the pilot-controller lexicon and require your full understanding during flight within the national airspace system.

“Line Up and Wait”: At towered fields, you’re guaranteed to hear this ATC instruction from time to time. “Line Up and Wait” (LUAW) is a directive to taxi onto the departure runway, line up on the centerline, and (as the name implies) wait for further instruction. It is NOT a clearance to take off, so avoid the urge to firewall the throttle(s).

What’s the purpose? ATC needs to operate as efficiently as possible, so getting an aircraft into departure position ASAP helps speed the flow of air traffic at the aerodrome. You’re most likely to receive the LUAW instruction when:

  •    Traffic has just landed and not yet cleared the runway
  •    Traffic has just departed and is not yet at a sufficient distance to maintain separation requirements
  •    Traffic will be taxiing across the runway further down the field

An important note: Occasionally, ATC will get busy and might forget that you’re in position and waiting on the runway. Generally, if you’ve been waiting for over a minute with no follow-up communication, be sure to query ATC. The last thing you want is to be holding on the runway when another aircraft is approaching on short final. With a little exposure, you’ll learn to anticipate when you can expect LUAW instructions and the subsequent clearance for takeoff.

Squawk/Ident: If you’re new to the aviation world, these two terms might initially confuse you. For starters, squawk has multiple aviation meanings that vary based on context. Where maintenance is concerned, the word squawk is commonly used as a synonym for discrepancy; any aircraft component that is broken, functions improperly, or needs some other form of TLC in order to be airworthy.

On the radio, an ATC instruction to “Squawk [four-digit number]” has absolutely nothing to do with the plane’s mechanical operation. Instead, this directive applies to the aircraft’s transponder – the electronic box that makes the plane show up on radar. While VFR (visually piloted) aircraft most commonly operate with a code of 1200 in the box, certain conditions will require ATC to issue you a discreet, 4-digit number. When this happens, they don’t want you to screech like a parrot over the frequency, simply to put the specified 4-digit numerical sequence into your transponder.

In terms of ident, it should come as no surprise that a controller who issues this instruction wants you to identify yourself. However, he’s not interested in your name, DOB, or the last four of your social. Instead, the requesting controller wants you to push the button on your transponder labeled “ident.”

Doesn’t the aforementioned, discreet 4-digit code identify your from all the other aircraft on ATC’s screens? Well, yes – but sometimes it’s necessary to really stand out. Under normal circumstances, ATC radar screens can be cluttered by a lot of air traffic. By depressing the ident key, your individual signal will blink or “bloom” on the radar scope; allowing the controller to easily separate you from the masses. However, avoid pushing this button unless requested to do so by an air traffic controller.

Expedite/Immediately: As you can probably guess, both of these terms require a pilot to comply with the corresponding ATC instruction promptly in order to avoid the development of an imminent situation. Examples include “Expedite left turn heading three four zero,” “Expedite takeoff, traffic one mile final,” “Climb immediately to three thousand, five hundred,” etc. Any time you hear either of these key words, comply first and ask questions later.

In case you’re wondering, such timely directions usually arise due to close proximity to other air traffic, terrain, or nearby obstacles that could lead to bent metal. While these calls aren’t very common at low-traffic fields or in flat, sparsely populated areas, they have been known to pop up when least expected. With this in mind, do your best to avoid complacency in the cockpit at all times.

Mayday: You’ve probably heard of the “Mayday” keyword, which is the international signal of distress. In aviation, this magic word is repeated three times (“Mayday, mayday, mayday”) to convey imminent or grave danger requiring immediate aid (i.e. an emergency). Your flight instructor will teach you how to prepare for and use this phraseology, but hopefully it will remain a form of training you’ll never have to put into action.

When should you make this call? Anytime you find yourself in a situation that could lead to possible drastic consequences in short order. Just when to pull the trigger on the Mayday call is a bit subjective, but examples of when I’d use it might include an in-flight fire, engine failure over hostile terrain (possibly any engine failure), medical emergency, etc. Discuss relevant factors with your instructor (type of aircraft flown, its capabilities, surrounding airspace, terrain, weather, etc) for additional insight that might apply to your unique situation.

What will happen if you should ever need to make this call? As an aircraft in distress, you would be given priority over all other aircraft in the area and/or under the given ATC facility’s control. Expect radio chatter to abruptly dry up, other planes to move out of your way, and ATC to bend over backwards to make sure you and your plane’s other occupants are attended to as much as possible. In essence, ATC will stop what they were doing to focus on your situation.

Pan-Pan: Perhaps the most mysterious of ATC’s magic terms, Pan-Pan, when uttered in triplicate (“Pan-Pan, pan-pan, pan-pan”), denotes an urgency situation. While strikingly similar to an emergency (Mayday) situation, an urgency call is used when uncertainty or alert is communicated to ATC. While I’ve never heard of this term having been used in the real world (apart from old Little Caesar’s pizza commercials), it’s meant to convey situations that don’t quite require emergency handling (yet, anyway), but that still necessitate attention from air traffic personnel.

Despite the plethora of aviation training material available, there is shockingly little info that gives guidance on Pan-Pan situations. Based on my best understanding, I might consider certain structural icing encounters and minimum fuel (which is a unique radio call in and of itself; to be covered in a subsequent post) circumstances worthy of a Pan-Pan transmission. In my mind, such a call would let ATC know “I’m in a bit of a pickle at the moment, but not to the point that I deserve equal attention as a Mayday aircraft.” Be sure to ask your CFI for additional tips on his/her understanding of Pan-Pan-worthy circumstances.

Coming Up

Next time, we’ll focus on terminology specific to traffic pattern operations. Prior to solo, it’s a safe bet you’ll be spending some quality time flying circuits around the runway, so we’ll explore ways to make the most of your time aloft and have you sounding like a pro in short order. As always, speak with your instructor about any nuances that might be unique to your airport(s) of operation.

Back to the Aviation Communication Series.


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