Unfair Advantage with ATC

I have an unfair advantage. That’s right, I do. It’s good to have at least one unfair advantage. Mine is talking on the radio with air traffic control. This advantage exists due to my previous career in broadcasting and advertising. I spent over twenty years in that field, converting ideas into text, and that text into verbalization. Additionally, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on how well those words worked and how to make them work better. So there. . . that’s my unfair advantage. I’m going to help you capitalize on this by sharing what I know about how to listen, talk and communicate with invisible audio words. Next-level your radio work with ATC.

Class D Radio Fun

I flew with a fellow recently who needed a checkout at the local FBO. He was a new pilot, from another state. He had a great attitude. Quickly I sensed he was a rather conscientious fellow. Everything went relatively well on the ground and in the air. However, he had his hands pretty full dealing with ATC at our class D airport. That brings us to this point in time. Let’s see if we can discover how to get good at understanding what ATC wants, telling them what you need and want, and having confidence therein.


First off, let’s get clear about what we want and what they want and need. You want to safely and expeditiously get from the airport to en route, and from in-bound to your parking spot. Congratulations, because AIM 4-1-2 states, “towers have been established to provide for a safe, orderly and expeditious flow of traffic on and in the vicinity of an airport.” Well, that sounds like we and they are a match made in heaven. The end.

Looking out for Number One

Ok, not “the end”. Perhaps the problems occur when people show up to fly or in-bound to land, with the mindset that they are priority, first among men whose journey is of utmost importance. When this is the case, these folks have failed to realize, or remember that others are intending to use the airspace too. I am not going to go deeply into this issue because I think these people are in the minority. I’ll simply say, show up with a spirit of cooperation. Be intent on cooperating with ATC and other pilots. You can always utter, “negative,” or “unable” when instructions are outside your comfort or capability. Otherwise, don’t be a jackass. With that let’s move on to something for us reasonable people. Fear.

Was it her, was it him? Either way — YIKES!

Reasonable Pilots who Fear

Alright, let us deal with fear. I have seen a fair amount of fear and trembling where interacting with ATC is involved. With my unfair advantage, I have had a long and fruitful relationship with air traffic control and very seldom had them get frustrated with me. When they did, I was completely in a situation where I boogered something up. Even then, they were rather resilient, and we got over it, I learned something and did better next time. Generally speaking, I have found controllers all over the country to be pretty friendly and very helpful. There are exceptions in wildly busy areas, you know where those are. If ATC is so helpful, and easy to deal with, where does this fear come from? Perhaps it is the possibility of violating a regulation during a time of misunderstanding with ATC. We are obligated to abide by clearance limits, crossing restriction and a sundry of things like this. However, all things considered, we have a pretty long leash and a lot of flexibility. Another area of fear probably stems from simple lack of practice, which leads to waning confidence on the radio. I have also seen an absence of orderliness in the cockpit which can contribute to decreasing situational awareness.

Have a System

I prefer to have a kneeboard armed with pens and paper ready to jot down ATC instructions in shorthand. I’ve developed this shorthand over time. I know that’s how I do it and I always do the process that way. The shorthand bit alone takes practice as does verbalizing the instructions back to ATC from said shorthand. Then, there is processing what the instructions mean and verifying that your understanding makes sense relative to the airport layout, taxi diagram, and where you are in relation to where you want to end up. Summarily, I think most of the fear can be eliminated by incorporating a few different things. Let’s see what those are.

Knowing What is Needed

The AIM has a chapter dedicated to this communication business. It’s chapter 4. While it gives a great deal of information, let’s see if we can humanize it a bit.

For the initial call, AIM 4-2-3 gives what is required and the format for the ‘initial contact’ with ATC.

  • Name of the facility being called.” This seems easy enough. However, some airports have been named for people of significance and between that person’s name and the town’s name it can be a hand full. This is something you should consider in your flight planning.
  • Full Aircraft Identification. Unless you fly a Piper Cherokee line of something, this isn’t too difficult. However, AIM 4-2-4 addresses aircraft callsign usage specifically. You’re NOT supposed to abbreviate your call sign on the initial call. So, “Bonanza 123AB,” is super. After, ATC abbreviates your callsign, you can too. Like, “Bonanza 3AB.” They will do this fairly often, unless other aircraft have a similar callsign, then it’s the whole thing the entire time. Oh, and this is just my flavor, but when flying Cessna 172s, I do not identify the plane as ‘Cessna’, because there are so many flavors, from 150s, 210s, to Citations. So, I usually say, “Skyhawk 123AB. . . .”
  • State where you are. In the air, it’s miles away and direction relative to the airport or commonly used prominent point on the ground. On ground control, it’s wherever you are on the field —FBO, intersection, holding short of a runway and taxiway, etc.  
  • Also, you’ll also want to include the ATIS information letter version too.
  • Then, if your message or request is short, state it. If you need some quality time, say, “request.”

It’s Actually Rather Simple

That may seem like a scramble of things. However, the idea is to simply and concisely state, who you’re calling, who you are, where you are, and what you need. In communication, it is helpful to imagine for a moment what the person receiving the information needs, legally, and to expeditiously fulfill your request. . . ideally, with the least amount of follow-up questioning. With the above call, ATC knows, who you’re calling (sometimes you dial in the wrong frequency), who you are, what kind of rig you’re in, if you have ATIS information, and what you want. Great! So, what about all the other calls.

Beyond the Initial Call

On subsequent calls you may have things like, runway hold short instructions. I like to think of these interactions as little mini legal contracts. The gotchas are, crossing versus hold short instructions, as well as runway clearance to land and takeoff or LAHSO ops. Your auditory radar should be scanning for these hot button items and make a note of them especially. ATC needs to hear you acknowledge those things with your call sign. That is, you repeated the instructions correctly and identified yourself as you. However, the stakes are greater than that. You must process the information and if it makes sense, great. If it doesn’t, don’t do anything that puts you in an irrevocable pickle until sense is made. There have been horrifying accidents by pilots thinking they were in one place and were somewhere else. Or, thinking they heard something that wasn’t said. Being smooth on the radio calls with ATC is more about panache, it is critical to safety. I’ve noticed when a pilot is rusty on the radio it ads stress and distraction. That is less safe and deserves attention. So, let’s look at how to be better with practice.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Back to my unfair advantage. I enjoy the benefit of having used my voice to communicate for over two decades. If you aren’t accustomed to robust, brisk, and concise speaking, you’re going to have to study, and practice. Study what the FAA has to say in AIM chapter 4. Then, print out your airport diagram, walk through some taxi, takeoff, and landing clearances. Plot out initial calls, and ATCs possible responses. You can actually type them out. Have someone read them to you, and practice responding. This is essentially ‘chair flying’ the radio. The most important point is to practice thinking what should be said and do it verbally. The verbal point is vital. That’s a different part of your brain, if you don’t exercise it, you’ll always feel like a fish out of water. That’s it. You’ll improve by leaps and bounds. What follows are some other tips and tools to up your radio game. You don’t have to make it burdensome. Simply work with it once or twice a week. What follows are some additional tips from a former broadcaster to take your radio work next-level.

Let’s Go Pro

  • Record yourself with your smartphone and critique your performance. You’ll improve in a massive way by doing this.
  • If you sound a little flat or unfriendly, SMILE when you speak. It comes through. You will immediately sound better — friendlier. See if you aren’t better received by ATC. If you’ll notice, when someone hops on the frequency who’s barely holding it together, you can immediately hear the tension in the controller’s voice. That’s because they know this person is going to be a handful and their job of safely organizing and separating traffic is about to be more difficult.
  • Have a kneeboard securely affixed somewhere, jot down instructions — every time. If you do that scratchpad on the iPad thing, that’s cool. I hate it, but you do you.
  • Have the taxi diagram out, before you call ground. Understand what your instructions are likely to be given the winds.
  • On days you aren’t flying, listen to tower and ground frequencies on Live ATC. Observe how the pros do it.
  • If Live ATC records the frequencies at your home or neighboring airports where you fly, go on, download, and debrief your radio work from the real-life action. Few things will match the large improvements you’ll have by doing this.
  • Also, if you aren’t sure what ATC wants, or it just isn’t making sense. Ask! They get mixed up too. Once while flying a Piper Arrow, I was given a helicopter landing clearance. A few years ago while heading north approaching the west side of a Class C airport, I was instructed to make left traffic for a landing to the south. Generally, they don’t have you cross the departure end of the runways if they can avoid it. I queried. Sure enough, the controller just mixed it up and revised the instructions to right traffic. They’re human too, it happens. When it does, be courteous when you ask about it.

Final Call

At the bottom of this page I’ve included scripting of taxi instructions, a takeoff clearance, initial call in-bound, and landing clearance for my home airport. This was from a flight just a couple of days ago. I also included optional possible calls ATC could throw at you after you begin to taxi or before you land. You can use the “STUDENT” set which omits what ATC is going to say. Simply state your call and have someone else do the ATC lines (on the “INSTRUCTOR” set). This forces you to process the spoken words from ATC and respond verbally. There is also an airport diagram marked up to coincide with the audio. You can visualize where you are and where you might be going relative to the different instructions.

You can do the same for your home airport and others. It doesn’t take that much time. Pretty soon, you will have an unfair advantage behind the mic, less distraction, and greater situational awareness.

Next-level your Radio work with ATC. Cheers and happy flying!

Show Notes – Downloadable Content:

Calling Ground

Taxi to Rwy 22 (Image Credit: Foreflight)
  1. Pilot: “Tyler Pounds ground, Bonanza 123JV, at Johnson with, _________(ATIS weather version). Ready to taxi.”
ATC: Ground Control Response

Pilot: “22 via A and F. . . Bonanza 123JV.

2. Pilot: “Pounds Tower, Bonanza 123JV, foxtrot at 22, ready for takeoff.”

ATC: Tower Controller Response

Pilot: “clear for takeoff, 22. . . Bonanza 123JV.” 

Optional Instructions from ATC:

  1. “Bonanza, 123JV. . . 22 cleared for takeoff, right turn-out.”
  2. “Bonanza, 123JV. . .hold short of 22 for landing traffic. . .”
  3. “Bonanza, 123JV. . .runway 22 cleared for takeoff, no delay. . .”

Calling Tower

In-bound (Image Credit: Cloud Ahoy)
  1. Pilot: “Tyler Pounds Tower, Bonanza 123JV, 11 miles north with information _________(ATIS weather version) to land.”
ATC: Tower Controller Response

Pilot: “Report 2 mile right base runway 22, Bonanza 3JV.”

2. Pilot: “Bonanza 3JV, 2-mile right base, 22.”  

ATC: Tower Controller Response

Pilot: “Cleared to land 22, Bonanza 3JV.”

Taxi Instruction – after landing

Landing Segment (Image Credit Foreflight)

(on rollout) Pilot: “Bonanza 3JV going back to Johnson.”

ATC: Tower Controller Response

2. Pilot: “Right on 36, cross 13 at the end and A to park.”

Optional Instructions from ATC

  1. “Bonanza 3JV. . . make a 180. . . left on E, right on F, cross 31 then A to park.”
  2. “Bonanza 3JV. . . right on 31, right on F, left on A to park.”
  3. “Bonanza 3JV. . . right on E, right on F, hold short of 31.”

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