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Aviation Radio Communication: Traffic Pattern Ops

in Aviation Blog, Aviation Communication

ATC CommunicationsAlthough a portion of the terminology covered in our previous three posts (see Magic Words – Parts 1-3) dealt with phraseology specific to the airport environment, today’s installment covers parlance exclusive to the aerodrome; namely the traffic pattern. Let’s face it, landings will be one of the most difficult challenges most student pilots will encounter during the course of their flight instruction. Unless you’re an extremely gifted aviator-in-training, expect to spend some quality time flying circuits around the runway.

We’ve all heard that practice makes perfect, and such exercise shouldn’t be limited to stick-and-rudder manipulation of the flight controls. While you’re at it, aim to refine your radio communications to a concise, efficient, professional level of delivery. Doing so will add credibility to your piloting skills (Yes, really!) and can even help you get more favorable ATC handling than is offered to your radio-challenged counterparts. Below, we’ll look at some of the common phrases tower controllers will likely throw at you during the course of your traffic pattern practice.


Cleared Touch and Go”: When tower uses the words “[-aircraft ID-], Runway [-runway number], cleared touch and go,” they’re authorizing you to perform a landing directly into a subsequent takeoff. The key here is that you’re not authorized to come to a complete stop or to taxi clear of the runway. Instead, upon touchdown, you’ll adjust flaps (if applicable) and trim, add full throttle, and proceed to launch for another trip around the pattern. Requesting touch and goes is a good idea when you plan to perform a series of landings.

Cleared Stop and Go”: If you’d like to come to a complete stop and reconfigure your airplane before once again taking off, you’ll want to request a stop and go landing. As the name implies, a stop and go permits you to completely cease movement following a landing before departing from the stopped point on the runway for another circuit. However, this clearance does not authorize you to taxi clear of the runway (or to back taxi on the strip), so make sure you obtain additional clearance if you judge it’s necessary to perform either of those actions.

Why request a stop and go? There are several instances in which this procedure makes sense. For starters, night currency requirements specify that the required landings be performed to a full stop [details in 14 CFR 61.57(b) 1]. If sufficient runway length is available, performing stop and goes rather than full stop, taxi backs allows you to cut down on taxi time while practicing night landings. Additionally, stop and goes can help a pilot to avoid feeling rushed (and making mistakes) by allowing him/her a little time to reconfigure the aircraft when not in motion. In addition, short field takeoffs are commenced from a stopped position, so touch and goes are not adequate for simulating such maneuvers.

Cleared to Land”: The most common form of runway clearance, being cleared to land authorizes you to touch down, come to a complete stop (or slow to a manageable taxi speed), and taxi clear of the runway without unnecessary delay. You cannot use this clearance to continue in the traffic pattern, so be sure to request an appropriate alternative clearance if you’d like to continue practicing takeoffs and landings.

Cleared Low Approach/Missed Approach”: This clearance permits an aircraft to fly over the approved runway at low altitude (i.e. “buzz the runway”) without making contact with the surface. Though not commonly requested in the VFR training environment, such maneuvers are staples of instrument flight training (in such cases, they’re usually referred to as missed approaches).

Go Around”: Very similar to the missed approach is a procedure known as the go around (i.e. an aborted landing). The chief difference is that, whereas ATC will always clear you for a low approach, a go around can be initiated by the pilot or the controller.

Why would you (or ATC) want (you) to abort a landing? There are several reasons. On your end (particularly early in your flight training), you’ll probably approach the runway too high, too low, too fast, too slow, not properly configured, or a combination of factors from time to time. A poor approach usually results in a poor landing, so it’s often in your best interest to scrap the attempt and start fresh. In such cases, just add power, begin a climb, gradually clean up the flaps and/or landing gear (your instructor will cover the specifics) and then inform the tower that, “[-airport name-] tower, [-aircraft id-] going around.” As always, your priorities are to aviate, navigate, and communicate (in that order), so wait to call ATC until you’re safely climbing away from the surface.

On ATC’s side of the mic, they might issue you a go around when: an aircraft, vehicle, person, or animal enters the runway without clearance; a lack of appropriate separation (perhaps an aircraft delays its takeoff roll) requires you to vacate the runway environment; an aircraft lands gear up or blows a tire upon touchdown, which prevents it from exiting the runway as anticipated; or a number of other surprise developments. Additionally, wind shear or a strong, gusty crosswind might require you to abandon your approach. As a rule of thumb, any time you’re not completely comfortable with a landing approach, it’s probably best to go around.

Cleared for the Option”: The Swiss Army knife of ATC traffic pattern clearances is the term cleared for the option. This authorization gives the pilot his/her choice to execute any of the above-referenced operations as (s)he sees fit. Requesting the option is particularly beneficial when a flight instructor wishes to “mix it up” without cluing his/her student in on what’s coming up next. Another feature of the option is that you don’t need to let ATC know exactly what you’ll be doing. This clearance implies ATC flexibility, so feel free to pick and choose as you (or your CFI) wish(es).

It’s usually easy to get an option clearance when the airport is not busy, but don’t expect to be granted this authorization when the field is abuzz with activity. When several planes are utilizing the facility, ATC needs to plan to accommodate all traffic, so they’ll need to know exactly what you’ll be performing. With this in mind, be aware that ATC might change your clearance from one circuit to the next, so guard against falling victim to the lull of complacency.

Coming Up

While the terminology mentioned above is crucial to your towered airport operations, it’s far from the only phraseology you’ll need in your ATC communications toolbox. Next time, we’ll delve into additional key phrases that will help you become a smooth operator in your pilot-controller interactions. In the meantime, be sure the query your flight instructor about additional ATC nuances that might apply to your unique operating environment.

Back to the Aviation Communication Series.

 

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