Radio calls are perhaps one of the hardest parts of aviation.
I still butcher radio calls and sometimes so spectacularly I have to laugh out loud to cover my embarrassment.
My rate of failure has gone down substantially over the past few months because I have implemented a few tricks. I hope these hacks will help you sound like a professional on the radio. At the very least these will help you keep your nose above water as you get comfortable flying.
These tricks will also help VFR pilots. The biggest mistake VFR pilots make when talking to ATC is the length of their calls and not knowing what to expect or say.
1. Anticipate the next call.
To help you stop freaking out understand that flying is highly predictable. By the time you get your rating, you have heard every call you will ever encounter. Now it is just a matter of putting the puzzle pieces together and understanding when and where you will see those predictable calls.
I know it doesn’t seem like it at first, but trust me. The controllers are going to use the same terminology in the same way every time. Airline pilots sound so chill on the radio because they make the SAME exact calls the SAME exact way every flight. They know exactly what the controller is going to say next.
You can and must get to that point. But how?
First, chair fly. I know chair flying is often hard to do because it requires work, but spend 5 minutes before your flight and mentally go through the calls you can expect.
Second, fly at least once a week, and if you are an instrument pilot, more than three approaches every six months.
Third, listen to radio communications. You can listen to live ATC controllers at LiveATC.
2. Stop writing down frequencies.
Yup, I said it. Stop it.
Streamlined communications only happen when your brain is capable of processing numbers quickly. The best way to build your brain muscles is to stop writing down frequencies when ATC issues you a freq change.
Just like weight training, it is painful at first and you won’t see much gain. Then all of the sudden you will get it. You won’t need that pen and paper anymore.
Luckily there are a few tricks to help you.
1. Stop repeating the “1” that goes before the frequencies. When I say the ”1”, by the time I get to the 5th number I have forgotten it. Four is a magic number for some reason. So when ATC gives you: “contact Seattle center on 125.8” your response is: “twenty-five point eight, Delta 250” You can even leave out the “point” eight and just say “eight” if you like.
2. Batch numbers. For example, if they give you “contact salt lake center on 123.25,” then you say:”twenty-three, twenty-five, Delta 250“
Do you see how simple that radio call becomes and how unnecessary the pencil becomes? Try it.
3. Use abbreviations when writing down extended clearances.
I know I am going to contradict myself here for a minutes as I just told you to not write things down, but bear with me.
There is a particularly difficult call that has tripped me up for ages, but using abbreviations have helped me tackle it. Writing the abbreviations will help you know what to say when you repeat it back. Keep in mind, though, this only works when you are familiar with the call. It wouldn’t do any good to write: 5 S OLM a/m 10 if you didn’t know the general structure of the call.
The call I had problems with was:
“Cross Raddy at, maintain 12,000, the Seattle altimeter is 3005.“
This is a handful of a call! ATC just issued a bunch of numbers you are obligated to repeat with an incredibly awkward “at, maintain” wording. Add in your call sign and suddenly you can’t remember how to count to three.
I have no idea why they don’t add “and” in between the “at, maintain.” The wording makes no sense to me and it has taken me a while to wrap my head around it. Really? “Cross Raddy, at maintain 10,000?” What is wrong with “cross Raddy at and maintain 10,000?”
Anyway, there is no reason to rail against it. It is here to stay so here is the trick I use:
I write (quickly) either: AA or AA or AB followed by the altitude. I use an abbreviated altitude number. It is a waste to write 10,000 when you can just write 10. Eventually you can just write “1.” I am at the point now I have heard it enough I don’t need to write it down at all.
Can you guess what the A, M and B represent? I have noticed, and perhaps you have too, there are three variations to this call.
To make it worse there is a twist to this call and if you aren’t anticipating it or know the airspace well enough to know it’s coming, it is painful. It goes like this:
” 5 miles south of the Olympia VOR cross at, maintain 10,000, the Portland altimeter is 3004.“
Good luck repeating that one. Good luck too trying to figure out how to enter it into the FMS. By the time you get it entered in you are looking at a 2500 fpm rate of descent. Fun.
My trick is to write down the abbreviated clearance:
5 S O AM 10
That should key you in enough to repeat it with some semblance of coherence…..hopefully.
Try these abbreviations and come up with some of your own. Abbreviating will increase your ability to accurately repeat clearances. If you can abbreviate AND anticipate calls you will do quite well.
Are there any you like to use? I would love to hear what you have come up with.
4. Only repeat key numbers. Omit filler words.
My radio calls got a lot better when my instructor suggested only repeating key numbers in the call.
Let me give you an example of another difficult, but extremely predictable ATC call.
“Horizon 250, turn left heading 330 to intercept the localizer, maintain 3000 until established, cleared for the ILS 28L.”
Whew! If you weren’t anticipating this call, good luck repeating it accurately. I used to repeat the whole damn thing. By the time I got to the end I had forgotten the runway number. On top of that I was trying to write it down at the same time. Do you believe me when I tell you this is the LAST call you should be writing down?
I know its a scary call. But it has become my favorite ATC instrument calls because it’s predictable. If you want to make it in the instrument world, embrace this call.
I have gotten so good I can guess the heading and usually the altitude. You will hear it a million times just with different numbers as you get established on the ILS or whatever approach you were given. So start anticipating it. Then practice omitting the filler words.
This is how I used to respond to the call:
“Turn left 360, intercept the localizer, maintain 3000 until established, cleared for the ILS 28L.”
What a lengthy and unnecessary call. Amateur. Just repeat the required repeatable numbers: the heading, altitude, approach and runway.
So I now sound like this:
“Three-six-zero, three-thousand until established, cleared ILS 28L.”
BOOM! Done, and I don’t write a damn thing down during a critical phase of flight. I already (kind of ) know which heading they will give me and I knew the runway. Since I shortened it, my brain remembered the numbers.
Embrace this call and others like it. Play a game and see if you can guess which heading they are going give you.
5. Tighten up your altitude calls
Altitude and frequency changes are the most frequent ATC instructions. So pick a way you want to answer the calls and do it that way. Because I am not an instructor, I am not going to harp on you for doing them the “right” way.
I only know what I hear other airline pilots use and I know what works for me.
1. Omit the “descend to,” “maintain,” and “climb to” parts of the call.
Just say the number and be on your way. I know some instructors may disagree with me, but if you are already descending and ATC gives you a new altitude, is it really necessary to say “descend to 5,000, Delta 250?” How about you just say “5,000, Delta 250.” Done and done.
2. Don’t say the entire altitude when you are in between altitudes. Saying “one, seven thousand, five hundred” is a mouth full. Try “one-seven point five.” I know…..again this is not technically correct, but if it keeps you from fumbling the call and not getting your message across it is worth it.
The same can be used for the flight levels. Try “eighteen-five” or “two-three-five.”
So those are just five ways you can tighten up your radio calls so you sound like a pro.
But I want to hear from you!
- Do you have any helpful instrument radio tips? Leave a comment below.
Do you want weekly tips and resources?
Subscribe to keep learning.