Mastering Non-Towered Airport Communications
If you’ve ever been flying as a student pilot, you must obviously know how challenging it is to maintain situational awareness, fly the airplane, and prove to your instructor that you know what you’re doing. But then, in addition to all that, you have to make radio calls and sometimes comply with air traffic control instructions! It can definitely get a bit overwhelming, but you have to remember, that plenty of people do it, and you can too.
One aspect of pilot training that most students find challenging and overwhelming is communicating with other traffic over frequency. But, what you have to remember, is that those pilots in their airplanes on frequency are humans just like you are, and that they will understand your mistakes and nervousness. So, now that we know that, let’s just take a breather.
We all know that the universal language for Air Traffic Control is English, but to most individuals, it definitely doesn’t sound like English at all! Here are a few things to remember.
- Rather than saying letters the way we do in English, each letter and number has its own name. For a full list of translations click here. We identify letters with names mainly to ensure that there are no confusions during communications. The letters “N” and “M” sound very similar, but in aviation language, “November” and “Mike” sound very different.
- Rather than saying numbers like we do in English, aviation says each number individually below 18,000 feet. For example: Thirteen thousand five hundred feet in English would be said as “one three thousand five hundred” or to be more exact “one tree thousand fife hundred.” All you have to remember when saying numbers is to say each number individually.
- The aviation language is different yes, but what’s primarily different about it is how we speak very concisely and only share the most important information. Because airspace can be so busy at any given moment, it is imperative that every pilot is able to get their word in when needed. Taking up frequency time for no reason is a big no-no. Knowing those three tips above means you already have the knowledge to begin speaking in the aviation language.
Now, let’s put ourselves in the airplane for a moment so we can discuss the proper times for making radio calls at non-towered airports. Every radio call made at a non-towered airport should follow this structure: “[Name of airport] traffic [callsign] [clear and concise request/intention] [name of airport].” It’s very simple. Now, let’s look into when pilots should make their radio calls.
The first radio call a pilot should make is during the first few seconds of taxi, if not before beginning their taxi. It is only to indicate to the pilots in the area that you are starting your taxi and that there is another active pilot using the airport now. This radio call is very simple, and it should sound very similar to this if you are operating your aircraft at Lincoln Park Airport: “Lincoln Park Traffic, Skyhawk Niner One Juliet taxiing to runway one, Lincoln Park.” Now, notice how we stated only the important information which made it short and clear. This is key! Keep it short and clear.
The next radio call one should make depends if they will be crossing a runway. Throughout the entire taxi, the pilot should be listening to the frequency and keeping a mental picture of where other airplanes are near or on the airport. Doing this will will mean that you are aware of aircraft in the pattern and will recognize if there is an airplane on final approach. If there is an airplane on final approach, and you want to cross a runway, you know that you have to hold short. You are seeing/listening and avoiding. A very important Pilot in Command practice. If you are not listening to the radio frequency and need to cross a runway, you’ll have to ask over frequency which means you’ll be “eating up radio time” which we, as pilots, want to avoid. If you must make a radio call to find out, simply ask by following the format above. Ex: “Lincoln Park Traffic, anyone base or final for runway one, Lincoln Park.” If no one is on final, go ahead and cross, but be sure to let everyone on frequency know that you’ve crossed the runway and the runway is now clear. Just follow the format above!
The next radio calls are going to be a bit more complicated, but once you get the hang of them, they become second nature. Let’s assume you’re ready for takeoff, and you’ve been listening to the frequency and there is no one on final or base, now you have to make a radio call to indicate your presence and your intended takeoff. Let’s break down what we’re going to say. First you’ll say the airport, in this case Lincoln Park. Next, you’ll have to say your intentions, so in this case, we are departing runway one, and at Lincoln Park, standard traffic patterns are left turns off runway one, but you won’t have to specify because it’s already known. Now is there any more important information that we need to say? Well, think about it like this: If you were a pilot sitting in another airplane, is there anything else you would want to know? I don’t think so, so you’re set! All you have to do now is push that Push-To-Talk key and make your call. Click “Lincoln Park Traffic, Skyhawk Niner One Juliet, departing runway one to remain in the pattern, Lincoln Park.” Now, before you roll onto the runway, LOOK AND LISTEN! Some pilots do not always pay attention. It’s just like driving, not only do you have to be watching out for yourself, but you must always be looking out for others. Always double check your work. Look both ways, wait for anyone to say anything over frequency in response to your departing radio call, then move if it still looks clear.
Now that you’re airborne and climbing through 300 feet or so, your main priority is flying the airplane. Remember: Aviate, Navigate, then Communicate. Do not worry about communicating if you cannot do it. When you have a moment to think, think about what you are going to say next. Now, once you’re in the air, and in the traffic pattern, I like to think of all of my radio calls simply position reports. I merely state my position, and that’s it. So, when you’re on upwind, using the format above, you would simply say “Lincoln Park Traffic, Skyhawk Niner One Juliet, Upwind runway one, Lincoln Park.” That simple! Now, you do that for every turn you make in the pattern: Crosswind, Downwind, Base Leg and Final Approach. If you decide to go around, then you would make a radio call then, too. But remember, during a go-around, fly the airplane first, then make the call. Once you’ve landed and you are clear of the runway, make sure you let everyone know by making a clear and concise radio call. Remember, you are only clear of the runway once your entire airplane is behind the Hold Short Marking.
Now, here are some of the more complicated radio calls you’ll have to make, and they happen when you are entering a non-towered airports vicinity, or when you are leaving a non-towered airports vicinity. Let’s talk about leaving first. When you are leaving the airports vicinity on departure, meaning you are exiting the traffic pattern the radio call is different, but still simple, concise and clear. Using the format above, it would sound something like this: “Lincoln Park Traffic, Skyhawk Niner One Juliet, departing the pattern to the North climbing up to two thousand fife hundred, Lincoln Park.” Now, let’s talk about this. What did we just say and why is it important? Well, obviously we are identifying our location and who we are, so that’s always important. Secondly, we are telling everyone the direction we are departing to and the altitude we are going to be climbing up to. This is important because there may be other traffic in the area that will need to know of your altitude. Always broadcasting your planned altitude and direction is important. Then, finishing off with the airport identifies your location, again, and terminates the radio call. Very simple.
Lastly, entering an airports vicinity is another radio call that needs to be made. Normally, I make my radio calls 10 miles out from the airport, and following the same format as above, it sounds something like this: “Lincoln Park Traffic, Skyhawk niner one juliet, ten miles northwest inbound to land runway one, Lincoln Park.” Let’s break that down now. So, we said what airport we are near, who we are and what our intentions are. Our intentions are to land, but what we cannot just say that. We have to tell everyone where we are currently are flying and the direction and distance in relation from the airport. Also, we have to explain that we are landing! Well, why do we have to specify? Because some airplanes just overfly the airport; they merely transition the airspace. Here, we are planning to land. If you were going to overfly, you would substitute “…inbound to land…” to “…overflying to the [direction of flight]…” Not too difficult.
As you get closer to the airport, start prepping what you are going to say. Standard entry into any traffic pattern is entering on the left 45˚ so, if you are planning to this you would say, once established on the left 45˚ leg inbound, “Lincoln Park Traffic, Skyhawk niner one juliet, left forty-fife for runway one, Lincoln Park.” If you were planning to enter on a different leg of the traffic pattern, just be sure to mention it in your radio call.
Well, now that you’re a pro on radio communications at non-towered fields, go rent an airplane and try it out yourself. There is no better learning tool than actually doing it yourself. Just remember: Think. Think about what you are going to say before you say it. Doing this will reduce the number of “Umm’s” and “Uhh’s” on the frequency that make you sound like you don’t know what you’re doing. Break that habit, and start sounding like you know what you’re doing! Follow these steps, and you’ll be doing correctly in no time!
Happy Flying! Alden Lebov AeroMentor Aero Safety Training