Speaking of effective radio communciations...

When I began the process of studying for my CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) certificate, I worked with a few highly experienced pilots who were wonderful teachers. One will always hold a special place in my heart. First, and foremost, he taught me an amazing amount about teaching people to fly. Secondly, after I earned my CFI, hired me!

Anyway, this particular instructor often observed that "if you poll people, one of their most common fears is the ‘fear of flying'; after that, it's the ‘fear of public speaking'. So, what do we do? We put them in airplanes and make them talk on the radio!"

Okay yeah, it's probably not very clever of us "instructor" types, is it?

"Can we talk?"

Many students attribute their apprehension toward radio communications to a desire to "sound professional."

That is an admirable sentiment, but the desire to sound good should be a low level concern. Instead, all pilots should desire to communicate effectively. In fact the greatest enhancement to professionalism on the radio will be found by each pilot who learns to speak concisely and accurately! It is certain that there are proper phraseologies that should be used, but since we cannot learn or invent a specific phraseology for every situation, I tell my students, when all else fails, just use English! Take a look at a quote from the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM):

"Brevity is important, and contacts should be kept as brief as possible, but controllers must know what you want to do before they can properly carry out their control duties. And you, the pilot, must know exactly what the controller wants you to do. Since concise phraseology may not always be adequate, use whatever words are necessary to get your message across."4-2-1(b) AIM 2012

The need: Effective, Efficient communications

Effective communications are certainly something we all strive for in our lives. Academics would describe "effective" communications as a situation where the person listening gets the exact message that the speaker (or writer) intended. Pilots and controllers would describe communications as "effective" when they accurately get the point across concisely!

Proper communications techniques produce efficient communications and do more than make your communications effective. It enhances safety!

The AIM notes:

"Radio communications are a critical link in the ATC [Air Traffic Control] system. The link can be a strong bond between pilot and controller or it can be broken with surprising speed and disastrous results."
4-2-1(a) AIM 2012

I am sure that many readers remember the tragic incident in over the Hudson River in August 2009 when a helicopter and an airplane collided. While there is no final accident report regarding that event at the time this is written, it appears that the pilot misunderstood the frequency that he was assigned and never contacted the departure controller who may have had time to alert the airplane pilot to the helicopter. We will never know if the accident would have been avoided if the pilot had been able to contact the departure controller. However, all of us have wished for and imagined an outcome where the controller had been able to communicate the helicopter's presence to the airplane's pilot allowing him to avoid a catastrophe.

How to say what you want to say

Almost every pilot-initiated communication to an air traffic controller can be thought of as trying to communicate:

  • "Who you are"
  • "Where you are"
  • "What you want"
Controllers listen in that order when pilots call them. So, if you make your radio calls in that order, and include each of those pieces of information, the effectiveness of your communications is greatly enhanced!

Telling the controller "who you are", "where you are", and - huh? What was that last part???

Yes, most pilots can remember the first two pieces of communicating. Yet, many do rather poorly at remembering to include the third piece. This creates a need for extra communications. Here's a common example:

N12345: "Brainard Tower, N12345 is at runway 20 ready for departure."
Brainard Tower: "N12345, runway 20 cleared for take off. Say direction of flight."
N12345: "Westbound, N12345"
Brainard Tower: "N12345 right turn on course approved."

Contrast that with…

N54321: "Brainard Tower, N54321 is at runway 20 ready for departure, southbound."
Brainard Tower: "N54321, runway 20 cleared for take off right turn on course approved."

See that? Concise! The pilot of the second aircraft has, in one transmission, identified who they are (N54321), Where they are (runway 20 ready for departure) and equally importantly, what they want (a southbound departure)! It saves the unnecessary back and forth between the controller and pilot.

This technique works for virtually all situations. Yet, it is often neglected! Many times aircraft will return from the practice area and request pattern work. Typically, they will be instructed to report base or downwind. For some reason, the pilots expect the controller to remember the fact that they wanted pattern work and they resort back to leaving off the "what you want" portion of the report when they call the tower from the pattern, resulting in an exchange along the lines of:

N12345: "Brainard Tower, N12345 is on a 2 mile right base."
Brainard Tower: "N12345, runway 2, cleared to land."
N12345: "Um, ah, um, oh Brainard Tower, N12345 we were wanting to remain in the pattern."
Brainard Tower: "N12345, Roger. In that case, cleared for touch and go then make right closed traffic."

Clearly, the "Um's", "ah's" and "oh's" could be dispensed with!

No, wait, that wasn't my point at all. Rather my point was, if the pilot had instead reminded the controller of his desire to do a touch and go, the entire exchange would have gone a lot smoother. Perhaps more like this:

N54321: "Brainard Tower, N54321 is on a 2 mile right base touch and go, remaining in the pattern."
Brainard Tower: "N54321, runway 2, cleared for touch and go then make right closed traffic."

The worst offenders seem to be pilots on practice instrument approaches! These pilots announce that they're inbound on the approach, and the controller has to coax the "what do you want" out of them!

N12345: "Brainard Tower, N12345 is inbound on the GPS-2"
Brainard Tower: "N12345, and how will this approach terminate?"
N12345: "Brainard Tower, N12345 will terminate with a miss and would like vectors to the ILS-33 at Bradley."
Brainard Tower: "Roger, report a 2 mile final on the approach."

Instead try:

N54321: "Brainard Tower, N54321 is inbound on the GPS-2. We will terminate with a miss and would like vectors to the ILS-33 at Bradley."
Brainard Tower: "Roger, report a 2 mile final on the approach."

Now that we have you talking, and communicating by stating who you are, where you are, and what you want, now think let's talk about responding well.

Acknowledging an ATC instruction doesn't imply that you have to repeat it back!

According to the AIM,

"The single, most important thought in pilot-controller communications is understanding. It is essential, therefore, that pilots acknowledge each radio communication with ATC by using the appropriate aircraft call sign. Brevity is important, and contacts should be kept as brief as possible…"4-2-1(b) AIM 2012

But shouldn't I repeat everything back to make sure I heard it right?

In short, NO!

Many pilots are under the mistaken belief that they can't be violated and in fact will be absolved of any wrongdoing that could result if they are told to do something by ATC, say for example, "enter right downwind", and they misunderstand and think the controller said "enter right base" instead. They figure even if they end up entering the pattern "wrong" and ATC gets grumpy about it, no big deal. After all, they readback the instruction the way they heard it and did what they readback.

That isn't the case! Seriously, that line of thinking is simply WRONG!

If you readback what you thought you were told, and it's wrong; yet, the controller doesn't catch your improper readback and correct you, it's still your fault that you didn't do what you were told! Again, it will be determined that it's "YOUR", the pilot's, fault!

Of course, the controller may catch the error and correct you, but it's not, not, not, the controller's responsibility to listen to your read back of instructions and make sure you got it right. Instead, it's the pilot's responsibility to listen carefully and do what they were told. In fact, law judges are very unforgiving towards pilots who try to use the "but I read it back the way I thought it was told to me, then did what I repeated back, and thought it was right because the controller didn't correct me" defense.

Okay, that "defense" probably has a shorter name… But the point remains. At the very least, the pilot trying to employ that "defense" will be found to have violated 14 CFR §91.123, which requires pilots to comply with ATC clearances and instructions, and probably also be found in violation of 14 CFR 91.13, which prohibits careless or reckless operations. If you don't believe me, see Garvey v. NTSB 190 F3d 571 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

Now granted, the majority of you probably aren't as into reading case law as I am, so the long and short of it is that it's the case of a couple airline pilots who tried to use the "I read it back and did what I read back" defense. The NTSB law judge sided with the pilots and dismissed the violation. However, the FAA got a bit irked and took the matter to federal court on the grounds that their (the FAA's) rule about pilots adhering to clearances (14 CFR 91.123) should be interpreted to mean that the pilots need to listen to ATC instructions and do what they're told, not just repeat instructions back, do what they repeated, and figure they got it right if they're not corrected by ATC. Unfortunately for pilots, the federal court agreed with the FAA, though seemingly with sympathy for the pilots. Now, based on the precedent of this case, all similar pilot deviations are decided this way.

Okay wise guy, what should be read back then?

Effective June 30, 2010, the FAA revised the phraseology for taxi instructions. As a result of the change

"ATC will specify the point to taxi to, issue taxi instructions and state any hold short instructions or runway crossing clearances if the taxi route will cross a runway." 4-3-18(7) AIM 2012
Accordingly, pilots are expected to read back:

  • The runway assignment.
  • Any clearance to enter a specific runway.
  • Any instruction to hold short of a specific runway or line up and wait.

Pilots are advised that "controllers are required to request a readback of runway hold short assignments when it is not received from the pilot…" AIM 4-3-18(9)

Also, in Chapter 4 of the AIM, there is a section titled: "Pilot Responsibility upon Clearance Issuance", in which pilots are encouraged to remember that:

"Pilots of airborne aircraft should read back those parts of ATC clearances and instructions containing altitude assignments, vectors, or runway assignments as a means of mutual verification." 4-4-7(b) AIM 2012
"Initial read back of a taxi, departure or landing clearance should include the runway assignment…"
4-4-7(b)(4) AIM 2012

This is why many facilities require readback of heading and altitude assignments – a NOTAM you may have heard on ATIS.

Beyond these requirements though, controllers expect pilots to acknowledge instructions and clearances. Much to pilots' surprise, acknowledging instructions and clearances doesn't necessarily imply that pilots must repeat them back verbatim. In fact, according to the AIM:

"You should acknowledge all calls or clearances unless the controller or FSS specialist advises otherwise. … If the situation demands your response, take appropriate action… Acknowledge with your aircraft identification and one of the words ‘wilco', ‘roger', ‘affirmative', ‘negative', or other appropriate remarks." (Emphasis in original) 4-2-3(c) AIM 2012

What? WILCO? Yes! WILCO - which brings us to...

Now introducing the most underused and the most misused words in flying!

The pilot/controller glossary defines ‘wilco' as meaning, "I have received your message, understand it, and will comply with it." It's a contraction of the words "will comply".

Brainard Tower: "Skyhawk 113PF, enter left base runway 2, report 2 miles."
Cessna 113PF: "Wilco, Skyhawk 113PF"

While we're at it, "Roger" doesn't mean "Yes"!

Since ‘Roger' does not mean ‘yes', you cannot use ‘Roger' when you answer a question! Okay, well you can, but it doesn't mean anything! Don't just take my word for it. The pilot/controller glossary, states that the word ‘Roger' means, "I have received all of your last transmission." The glossary goes on to emphasize that, "[Roger] should never be used to answer a question requiring a yes or no answer."

The right use of ‘Roger'

Okay, so ‘Roger' means that you've understood the controller's transmission. Something like this is an excellent use of ‘Roger'.

Brainard Tower: "Skyhawk 113PF, you have traffic 11 o'clock, 2 miles, a Citation jet."
Cessna 113PF: "Traffic in sight, Skyhawk 113PF"
Brainard Tower: "Skyhawk 113PF, that traffic will cross left to right and precede you to the runway."
Cessna 113PF: "Roger Skyhawk 113PF."

Here's another good use of ‘Roger'.

Bradley Approach: "Skyhawk 356ES, radar contact 3 miles east of Brainard Airport, Bradley altimeter 30.22."
Skyhawk 356ES: "Roger, Skyhawk 356ES."

And as a final example, consider:

Brainard Tower: "Skyhawk 9412L, I'll call your base, there is traffic holding to depart before your arrival."
Skyhawk 9412L: "Roger, Skyhawk 9412L."

Why is this so much more efficient?

We've all heard it: incredible abuses of the radio. Those pilots who repeat back every word! The problem is, especially when it's busy, controllers can get to the point where they're not listening as closely as they might want to, or as closely as they might think they are!

Controllers can actually become distracted by a lengthy readback of an instruction, especially if they're anxious to communicate to another aircraft while a verbose pilot is engaged in some sort of monologue. I've actually heard controllers step on pilots during a readback/response when there have been time-critical issues that needed to be communicated to other aircraft. Clearly those controllers weren't the least bit interested in what the pilot was chattering on about!

Now, none of this should be taken to imply that the radio shouldn't be used to clarify a situation. It should!

It also doesn't mean that controllers ignore pilots who readback instructions. They don't!

The point is that the radio is a great tool! However, all tools must be used properly.

The radio as an effective tool in communications

If you're unsure about an instruction do not be afraid to ask! I assure you that you'll have the entirety of the controller's attention if you begin your reply in a way that indicates to the controller that you are uncertain about what to do. One way is to ask the controller to repeat the instruction. Another is to reply in a way that indicates your uncertainty as to what you were told to do. Note the difference here:

"Tower, confirm you said ‘right base' for Skyhawk 9412L"
rather than simply repeating the instruction back as:
"Skyhawk9412L, enter right base and report 2 miles"
In the second case, the pilot is relying on the controller to error check the pilot's listening, and that is not a function of our ATC system.


  • Controllers will listen much more closely if you are uncertain about an instruction and your reply begins with the word "confirm" as opposed to simply repeating back all of what you thought you heard.
  • Pilots shouldn't be lulled into a complacent sense of wellbeing if their readback isn't met with a correction.
  • ATC expects pilots to listen and do as instructed.
  • Controllers will correct a pilot if they notice the error, but they can't always listen as closely as they'd like to, so if you're unsure, make it obvious that you want a clarification or confirmation that you got it right!
  • If you are confident that you understood the instruction, the most appropriate reply, according to the AIM, is "wilco"!

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Article by: Terry Keller Jr.