Experience means jack if you aren’t open to learning something new from your experiences. Fair warning, learning by experience without distinguishing good from bad can lead you to very dark and dangerous places. Nowhere is this more true than in an aircraft cockpit.


Let me explain.

I’ve been flying fixed wing airplanes since I was a teenager. I am no longer a teenager. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Point is, I’ve got a lot of flying experience under my belt. I’ve learned a lot. For example, I learned you don’t point an A-10 at the ground to video the aftermath of war with your gun camera, 300 feet off the ground, while carrying 8,000 pounds of fuel in external tanks. I also learned you don’t fly through the precip represented by that teeny tiny micro dot of green on your radar screen, at 36,000 feet, near the equator. There are hundreds of other lessons that I’ve learned the easy way and the hard way.

I’m sure you have your own list.

Getting Worse with Experience

Here’s where it gets strange. Though time and experience may increase a pilot’s confidence on the radio, his radio phrasing does not improve with age. Often, with experience, a pilot’s radio phraseology deteriorates.

An Example

When checking in with an air traffic control center during a climb or descent, the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) says there is a specific and precise way to check in the controller:

1. (Name) CENTER, (aircraft identification), LEVEL (altitude or flight level).

2. (Name) CENTER, (aircraft identification), LEAVING (exact altitude or flight level), CLIMBING TO OR DESCENDING TO (altitude or flight level).

(AIM 5-3-1 ARTCC Communications, b. 2. a. Example–)

Plugging in some example altitudes, the transmission should sound like this. “New York Center, Skyhawk 9130 Delta, leaving three thousand, climbing to seven thousand.”

Listen to real world examples on the radio and here is one variation you might hear. “New York Center, Skyhawk 9130 Delta, outta three for seven.”

Then the controller says, “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, New York Center. Climb and maintain eight thousand.” The pilot responds, “On up to eight, Three Zero Delta.”

How did the pilot in this example find his way from the standard phrase, “Leaving three thousand, climbing to seven thousand” to the slang, “Outta three for seven”?

What prompted him to say, “On up to eight” when the AIM clearly says the phrasing is “Climbing to eight thousand”?

Why did he abbreviate his call sign when the AIM is adamant a pilot should not abbreviate his call sign unless the controller does so first?

When the pilot abbreviated his call sign, why didn’t he include his make, model, or type in the abbreviation in accordance with guidance in the AIM?

I Absorb What I Hear

If you are a certified psychologist, you can probably answer these questions with more authority than I can muster. All I can do is theorize.

My theory is, a pilot who uses incorrect phrasing on the radio is a pilot who either learned it incorrectly from the beginning, or a pilot who learned it correctly and then had it overwritten by listening to other pilots mangle radio phrasing.

If you learn from experience, and your experience is hearing most other pilots say, “Outta three for eight”, you might be tempted to adopt “Outta three for eight” as your own.

Trash Does Not Equal Crash

At this point you might be thinking, “What’s the big deal, Jeff? This is the way of the world, and it works.” Everyday, pilots bungle their way through radio transmissions, ignoring the guidance in the AIM, and they still get from Point A to Point B without crashing or running into other aircraft.

Even ATC copes with the situation. When was the last time you heard this exchange on the radio? ATC: “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, climb and maintain eight thousand.” Pilot: “Three Zero Delta, on up to eight.” ATC: “Skyhawk 9130 Delta, I need you to use your full call sign and repeat, ‘Climb and maintain eight thousand.’” Here’s a hint. Never.

Again, “What’s the big deal, Jeff”? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Actually it is broke. Wander on over to the Aviation Safety and Reporting System (http://asrs.arc.nasa.gov/search/database.html). Do a search for “radio phraseology” or ‘miscommunication”. You’ll be amazed at the number of reported incidents and accidents caused by misunderstandings on the radio. The common thread in all those reports is the use of non-standard phrasing on the radio—what the AIM calls “jargon, chatter and ‘CB’ slang”.

If I Had a Nickel for Every Pilot Who Says the AIM is Just Guidance

If you are a pilot who hangs his hat on, “The AIM is just guidance. It isn’t regulatory”, consider this. Standard phrasing, as it is described in the Pilot/Controller Glossary of the AIM is the universal language that supports clear understanding on the radio.

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. If you use the standard phrases in the AIM to communicate on the aircraft radio, anybody from anywhere in the world is going to understand exactly what you mean.

You Don’t Mess with Physics

Think of the difference between standard phrasing in the AIM and the slang and other BS most pilots use on the radio like this. For a given airspeed, air density, power setting and angle of attack, your aircraft responds precisely the same way, every time to a control input. To recover from a stall at low altitude, for example, your aircraft requires that you complete Step A, Step B, then Step C because it obeys physics. You don’t mess with those steps because doing so could cost you your life.

When you experiment with non-standard phrasing on the radio, just because you hear other pilots doing it, you are messing with the proven steps that put you and ATC in sync. You are experimenting with the physics of communication in circumstances where experimentation may fail you.

This isn’t one pilot’s opinion. It’s proven in the records of the Aviation Safety and Reporting System.*

Sometimes experience is not the best teacher.

*Making a report to NASA’s ASRS is entirely voluntary. While you marvel at the ASRS incident and accident reports attributed to miscommunication, consider there are probably hundreds of similar events that don’t get reported to NASA each year.

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In this episode, we’ll talk about why you make mistakes on the radio and what it says about your performance as a pilot. I think my analysis will surprise you (in a good way).


Also, some pilots have asked interesting questions about the details of reporting your position in an uncontrolled airport pattern. Just when I think we’ve covered it all, someone brings up a question we haven’t covered before.

Show Notes:

Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) A text-message based system for communicating with enroute air traffic controller centers. During ocean crossings, CPDLC messages are handled by specialized communication agencies. These agencies coordinate communication between pilots and ATC.

High-Frequency Radio (HF) A long-range radio, generally used for communication during ocean crossings.

Selective Calling (SELCAL) A system that allows a ground-based operator to remotely ring a chime in a cockpit. The chime signals the operator’s need to communicate via radio with the pilot. The process is similar to dialing a phone number, causing the phone to ring. Each SELCAL unit has a unique four-letter code that the operator dials to ring that aircraft’s chime.

Standard Position Report Format (when out of radar contact):

1. Current reporting point. (Expressed as a named navaid, intersection, GPS waypoint, or latitude/longitude, as applicable.)

2. Time over reporting point.

3. Altitude over reporting point.

4. Next mandatory reporting point and ETA at that point.

5. Succeeding reporting point.

6. Remarks. These generally include current fuel state, outside air temperature, wind direction and speed, turbulence and/or icing, as applicable.

AIM 4−2−4. Aircraft Call Signs
a. Precautions in the Use of Call Signs.

1. Improper use of call signs can result in pilots executing a clearance intended for another aircraft. Call signs should never be abbreviated on an initial contact or at any time when other aircraft call signs have similar numbers/sounds or identical letters/ number; e.g., Cessna 6132F, Cessna 1622F, Baron 123F, Cherokee 7732F, etc.

Your Question of the Week:

You are receiving VFR traffic advisories from Oakland Center. You are proceeding towards your destination of Stockton Metro Airport in California’s Central Valley. Stockton Metro is a tower-controlled airport inside Class D airspace. Here’s your first question: When would you expect your controller in Oakland Center to direct you to contact Stockton Tower? Here’s your second question. What should you do if you are nearing the boundary of Class D, the controller hasn’t switched you to Stockton Tower, and a continuous stream of radio traffic prevents you from querying the controller?

When you think you know the answers to those questions, go to ATCcommunication.com/answers. There you’ll find complete answers along with full explanations of how those answers were derived.

Note: Mahalo for your patience during the long break between Radar Contact Shows. I was in the middle of a move to the Big Island of Hawaii. I’m settled in now. That means I can resume bringing you a new show about once per month. Aloha, Jeff


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Confession: Selling a house this month + flying a full schedule = not enough time to produce a Radar Contact Show. Over the next couple of days, I’m going to release a series of articles that will eventually be combined into a single Radar Contact Show. Today’s article will change how you view and work with ATC. […]

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