How Does a Pilot Communicate with Air Traffic Control?

If you have ever tuned into a conversation between pilots and air traffic controllers, their exchange may sound like a foreign language. As such, student pilots are taught to understand and speak in certain lingo that consists of required numbers, words, and phrases used in aviation during their training. Using communication training aids and simulators, pilots learn how to keep the conversation going.

In 1946, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) developed the Standard Aviation Terminology that all pilots and ATC use today, regardless of the airspace they are flying in. Learning the aviation vernacular can be a daunting task, but with time and practice, pilots eventually get the hang of it. However, even the most experienced pilots still get stumped by requests from air traffic control (ATC). To help prevent communication errors, we will cover the standard words, numbers and phrases used throughout aviation.

The Aviation Number System

1 – Pronounced “Won”     2 – Pronounced “Too”     3 – Pronounced “Tree”

4 – Pronounced “Fore”     5 – Pronounced “Fife”     6 – Pronounced “Six”

7 – Pronounced “Seven”  8 – Pronounced “Eight”   9 – Pronounced “Niner”

0 – Pronounced “Zero”

The Aviation Alphabet

A – Pronounced “Alpha”       B – Pronounced “Bravo”           C – Pronounced “Charlie”

D – Pronounced “Delta”        E – Pronounced “Echo”             F – Pronounced “Foxtrot”

G – Pronounced “Golf”          H – Pronounced “Hotel”            I – Pronounced “India”

J – Pronounced “Juliet”         K – Pronounced “Kilo”              L – Pronounced “Lima”

M – Pronounced “Mike”         N – Pronounced “November”   O – Pronounced “Oscar”

P – Pronounced “Papa”         Q – Pronounced “Quebec”        R – Pronounced “Romeo”

S – Pronounced “Sierra”        T – Pronounced “Tango”           U – Pronounce “Uniform“

V – Pronounced “Victor”        W – Pronounced “Wiskey”        X – Pronounced “X-Ray”

Y – Pronounced “Yankee”      Z – Pronounced “Zulu”

How This System Works

Once student pilots memorize the necessary terminology and phraseology, they then must learn when and where to make radio calls to ATC, and what they are expected to say and hear back from ATC. Generally, there are certain circumstances in which a pilot might need to make a radio call. For instance, they may want to receive clearance instructions for departure, clearance to start engines or push back from the terminal gate, taxiing instructions, clearance for takeoff, aircraft position reports, clearance to enter an airport’s airspace, and clearance to land.

For rookie pilots, purchasing a small handheld radio and sitting by the airport to listen to the airport radio frequency can help one familiarize themself with aviation lingo. Over time, radio calls will make more sense and you will have less trouble deciphering the terminology. Furthermore, new pilots can use acronyms to jot down notes when talking to ATC. For example, a popular acronym when departing on an IFR flight is “CRAFT.” This term outlines the order of information that the air traffic controller will pass onto the pilots when they call in to request IFR clearance for a planned departure.

C – Clearance Limit

R – Route

A – Altitude

F – Frequency

T – Transponder Code

Student pilots also learn the four W’s: who you are calling, who you are, where you are, and what you want. If there is miscommunication, the pilot is expected to call out “Say again” to their air traffic controller so that they may repeat the last instruction in a slower, more comprehensible manner. This is important as any misunderstood instruction can have catastrophic consequences.


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