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Radio Telephony

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As a pilot, you must be able to operate your radio equipment, since you will need to use it to both gather information and inform others of your intentions. An important role of radio communication is in allowing you to work in co-operation with air traffic control and other pilots, so as to ensure that all aircraft are kept apart. This section looks at the many bodies with whom you can communicate, and the communication procedures and phrases involved. There is a separate section about radio equipement elsewhere on the website.

Simply knowing the rules of communications is not enough. You will also need to have a great deal of practice before feeling confident when using your radio. Fortunately, experience can be gained through courses over the Internet and / or via flight simulation software, which also incorporates Air Traffic Control (ATC).

Who can I communicate with?

You aren’t limited to only talking to ground control or the tower; indeed, there are many bodies with which you can communicate, each with its own designation and purpose. The ones you will need depend on the kind of journey you are making and the types of airports you will encounter. An overview of the most common organisations is set out in the table below. The column, 'Address as', gives the title that is used to contact the facility over the radio.

Facility Purpose Address as
MULTICOM Air to air communication at airports without air-ground communication facilities (Class G airspace). The communications are made over the FAA's Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) which is at multicom fields 122.9Mhz. Traffic
Airport UNICOM To provide airport information. Note that this is not a government communication facility (Class E airspace). The communications are made over the FAA's Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF). Unicom
(FAA) Flight Service Station (FSS) Provides information and services to pilots. Radio
Airport Traffic Control (Tower) Coordinates operations on the runways and in Class B, C and D airspace. Tower
Clearance Delivery Position Responsible for transmitting departure clearances to IFR flights. Clearance Delivery
Ground Control Position in Tower Responsible for controlling aircraft taxiing to and from the runways. Ground
Rader or Nonrader Approach Control Position Provides approach IFR control services Approach
Rader Departure Control Position Provides departure IFR control services Departure
FAA Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC)
Air Control Centers (ICAO terminology)
To maintain separation between IFR flights and known VFR flights. Center

You can find out more about Airspace Classes here. The division of airspace into classes (ranging from A to G) is an international standard (ICAO).

Communication phrases utilised

Communicating over the radio is subject to certain rules. To contact a facility, you must begin with its call sign, followed by your own, and then your intentions. When contact is established, you must continue to refer to your own call sign frequently (call signs are often abbreviated). As a rule, your message should always be brief and clear. Slang and jargon must be avoided. A few examples:

Pilot : Albany Tower, Robinson N8092U ready for takeoff
Tower : Robinson N8092U cleared for takeoff

Pilot : Tampa Approach,   Robinson N8092U 20 miles west, Seven thousand five hundred feet with November, landing Tampa International.
Approach : Robinson N8092U, Tampa Approach, maintain present heading, descend and maintain six thousand feet, squawk 4657.
Pilot : Leaving 7500 for six thousand, 4657, 92U.

Pilot : Atlanta center, Robinson N8092U leaving seven thousand five hundred for niner thousand five hundred.
Center : Roger, Robinson N8092U. Advise when level at niner thousand five hundred.
Pilot : Will do. Robinson 92U.

Pilot : Harvey Traffic, Robinson N8092U, left downwind, landing one-three, Harvey

What words to use and how to pronounce them?

In aviation communication, there are clear rules relating to the Radio Telephony Spelling Alphabet, and the ways in which time, speeds, directions and so on have to be spelt and pronounced. This is important because the aviation world is international, and rules are required to ensure that everyone can understand each other. From March 2008, every international pilot must be able to speak English!

Important procedural words

Item Rule Examples
Aircraft Call Signs Use the Radio Telephony Spelling Alphabet 
Digits are read out one by one.
Cerokee One Two Three Four Alpha
Cessna Five Six Seven Eight Romeo
Time Use the 24 hour clock only Not 9:30 AM but 0930, spoken as : zero niner three zero
Numbers Orally spoken in thousands and hundreds
Elevation above 9900 : the first two digits are stated separately
Elevation above 18,000 : Flight Level 180 (FL180)
5500 : five thousand five hundred
13,500 feet: one three thousand five hundred feet
25,000 feet: Flight Level two five zero
Speeds Spoken in separate digits. Unit is knots, which is often omitted. 85 knots: eight five knots
Directions Directions are always magnetic readings unless otherwise stated in the transmission.
The direction is spoken in separate digits.
Bearing 090: bearing zero niner zero
Radio frequencies Digits read one by one. The digital point is stated as 'point'.
Radio frequencies are often abbreviated.
133.3: one three three point three
Example of abbreviated radio frequency: ground point niner (instead of ground one two one point niner)
Communicating an Emergency Use radio frequency 121.5 and transmit 'Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, ...' Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, piper 12345 calling any station.

Say Again, Please

This books covers all aspects of radio communication. It explains how to address the communication facilities and describes the services they provide and how they operate. The style is more narrative than formal, and the book provides many 'talk' examples. After reading this work, you will no longer be afraid to use the push-to-talk button, and will be able to firmly state your intentions.

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HeliStart is authored by Peter Goossens.


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