A Safe Pilot Is Always Learning

A Safe Pilot Is Always Learning

Training tips for students and pilots

Who, Where, What…

Speaking on the radio is often cited as a beginner pilot’s biggest fear. This is not surprising, considering most people fear public speaking more than death!

Getting over this ‘mic fright’ early in training is essential to fully utilizing your pilot certificate in the future. Those who are nervous about going to busier airports or speaking with Air Traffic Control (ATC) will, unfortunately, avoid those areas to avoid those communications. This greatly limits the wonderful freedom our pilot certificates provide us.

The best way to break the ice with radios is to start with non-towered airport communications, and then transition to towered airports. Believe it or not, while initially more intimidating, towered-airport communications are often easier than non-towered. After both non-towered and towered communications are mastered, transition to speaking with ATC.

This communication training should all be done on the ground first, so you fully understand the basics. Then, PilotEdge Live Air Traffic Control should be used to hone your communication skills in the simulator.

Three prerequisites to all radio calls are:

1. Tune the appropriate frequency and check volume.

2. Listen before you transmit.

3. Think before keying the mic.

A big comfort in learning radio calls is that most calls follow the same format. This is helpful for practice, as you can focus on a ‘standard radio call’ and then practice exceptions using scenario-based training.

A standard radio call contains five elements:

1. Who you are calling.

2. Who you are.

3. Where you are.

4. What you are going to do.

5. Who you are calling (repeated only at non-towered airports).

Keep it simple and to the point. For example, a call from a Skyhawk ten miles north of Lincoln Park should sound like this:

“Lincoln Park traffic, Skyhawk niner one juliet, ten miles north, three thousand five hundred feet, inbound for landing runway one niner, Lincoln Park traffic.”

Of course, you should first follow the three prerequisites:

1. Tune Lincoln Park’s Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) of 122.8 and check the volume.

2. Listen for other relevant traffic on the frequency to attain or maintain situational awareness, including the location of other traffic and runway information.

3. Think of what you are going to say prior to keying the mic. Early on, pilots should rehearse, speaking their radio call aloud to themselves once or twice prior to saying it over the air.

After the prerequisites are followed, simply walk through the five elements of a standard radio call:

1. Who you are calling: “Lincoln Park traffic”

2. Who you are: “Skyhawk niner one juliet”

  • Use the model name and the last three letters/numbers of the call sign for non-towered operations.
  • Use the model name and the full call sign (excluding the ‘N’) when speaking with Air Traffic Control, including towered airports. Abbreviate only when abbreviated by ATC.

3. Where you are: “ten miles north, three thousand five hundred feet”

  • Omit altitude once on a leg of the traffic pattern: downwind, base, final, crosswind. At these locations, it is assumed that you are at the appropriate Traffic Pattern Altitude (TPA). Are you?

4. What you are going to do: “inbound for landing runway one niner”

  • If the runway is not yet known, simply state “inbound for landing” until the runway is determined.

5. Who you are calling (repeated only at non-towered airports): “Lincoln Park traffic”

  • Although many students dutifully include this at first, “Who you are calling” should be omitted at the end of calls to ATC. Since ATC frequencies are discreet (not shared by other airports or controllers within reasonable range), it is not necessary to include the name of the facility at the end of these radio calls. Most non-towered airport frequencies are shared by nearby airports, so the facility name should be repeated at the end of these radio calls in case the listeners missed it at the beginning for any reason.

For more information on communication phraseology and techniques, please see:

  • Current Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM): Section 4-2
  • Current AIM: Pilot/Controller Glossary
  • PilotEdge – Excellent communications training resources

And remember the cardinal rule of flying:




ALWAYS in that order! Although communicating will take extra focus while you’re learning the basics, never drop the airplane to fly the mic!

Be safe, have fun & keep learning!


Matt D’Angelo


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