Aircraft Color in Place of Call Sign is a Bad Idea

“Town and Country Traffic, red and white Skyhawk, 4-mile final, Runway One Seven, Town and Country.”

“Town and Country Traffic, blue and white Warrior, turning base, Runway One Seven, Town and Country.”

“Town and Country Traffic, red and white Skyhawk, final, Runway One Seven, Town and Country.”


Do you think saying your aircraft’s color scheme in place of your aircraft’s registration when making position reports is a great idea? The truth is, this tactic has the potential to get you into deep serious trouble. I’ll explain why in this week’s show.

How to Get in Touch with ATC for VFR Flight Following

I’ve covered this topic before, but several pilots have asked me about it in the last month. A refresher, with all the radio work, coming right up.

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14 thoughts on “Aircraft Color in Place of Call Sign is a Bad Idea”

  1. Awesome podcast Jeff! I really enjoyed it and solidified some items of Flight Following for me. In particular, that once you knocked on the controller’s door and he says “what do you want”, you shouldn’t just blur out the whole flight following request. Chunks of 3 work both for pilots and controllers. I’ll have to remind myself of this when flying.

    Safe journey on your 6 day stint!

  2. Hi Jeff.

    Like Eric I found this podcast very interesting. This past summer I was working on my BFR at an uncontrolled field with a CFI who suggested I drop using the full call sign at that field and instead use the aircraft color (e.g., blue skyhawk). The rationale he explained was that pilots are not air traffic controllers and cannot mentally track alphanumeric call signs. But as you pointed out, there’s insufficient differentiation using aircraft colors. (For that matter, it seems most aircraft are white and unless you have 20/10 vision the trim colors of moving aircraft are hard to discern even within the pattern).

    On a related matter do you have an opinion about using last three digit call signs in uncontrolled fields versus the normal full five values? I suspect the AIM says to use the full sign to avoid confusion, but in practice I wonder if it is overkill at an uncontrolled field. The last three digits may be sufficient to differentiate aircraft.

    Please note I acknowledge there’s a risk here that similar call signs may get confused and/or different aircraft can have the same last three digits. In fact, I once experienced that circumstance years ago at Hanscom where the controller recognized this and broadly announced to all aircraft in the pattern that two aircraft had the same last three digits. She then used the full call signs of the aircraft, which back then (last century) may not have been required. However, I wonder how commonly this occurs.

    Thanks again for great podcasts.


    1. Hey Drew,

      Here are example transmissions, drawn directly from AIM 4−1−9. Traffic Advisory Practices at Airports Without Operating Control Towers. Item h 2. Recommended UNICOM phraseologies:


      That’s a copy/paste straight from the manual. Sounds to me like the FAA wants you to use your full call sign when operating in an uncontrolled airport pattern. Some flight instructors will tell you this practice is pointless because other pilots in the pattern aren’t going to memorize or distinguish the full call signs they hear on the radio. My thought is, go with the FAA’s guidance, because 1. saying a full call sign doesn’t really take much more brain/tongue power than saying an abbreviated call sign, and 2. as you pointed out, there is less chance of confusion between similar sounding call signs, and 3. if you ever have to defend your actions in front of the FAA, following their guidance is more defensible than not following their guidance.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcasts. Thank you for writing.


  3. Greg Rickershauser

    Hi Jeff,

    If taking off from a controlled airport for a cross country flight, where you know before takeoff you’ll be requesting Flight Following, should you request flight following from Ground or wait until you’re in the air?

    Thanks again for the help.

    1. Hi Greg:

      I request FF using Ground whenever possible to reduce airborne workload. However, this does make the call to Ground a bit longer than usual such as “Bedford Ground, Cessna 77788, at West Ramp with Hotel, Request Flight Following to Laconia at 3,500 feet VFR”.

      Sometimes the controller will first issue the taxi clearance and then give you the squawk code during run-up. Or, they will pause and give you the entire set of instructions at once. This seems to depend on the controller workload and if they have to request the code from another facility. Usually I get the squawk during run-up but this weekend the controller gave it to me immediately. Jeff may know the process in which local controllers obtain the squawk code for you as I certainly do not.

      Just have your pen ready to copy the instructions on your kneeboard for the taxi instructions, squawk code and Approach frequency (which you should problem already know from preflight planning).

      Jeff did a really good podcast this past week about requesting FF after departing an uncontrolled field. Instead of spewing the full request he recommends calling Approach first and establishing contact. You then follow with the FF request. Worked well for me this weekend.

      I’ve invested in a couple of tools I find really helpful.

      I have the airport diagram loaded in ForeFlight on my iPad before calling Ground in case they give me some different in terms of routing to the active runway. ForeFlight is amazing of preflight planning, and I use it enroute as a navigation backup.

      I also use the iPad check list tool called CheckMate, which I find much better than paper lists as you can check off (and cross-out) the items you have completed. Thus, if I get interrupted in any stage of the checklist I can easily continue the process where I left off and without wondering if I forgot something.

      best wishes.
      Perhaps Jeff has some additional thoughts.


  4. Nice job demonstrating the ‘color confusion’ scenario I experienced. I still continue to encounter pilots dropping their call signs in favor of color like this– what is worse is that I am hearing instructors teach it and then try to DEFEND the practice as better for some reason. I then suggest to the student to ask their CFI to show them in the CFR’s or AIM or other FAA publication what we should be doing (and thus teaching). I don’t know what is worse– an instructor teaching bad doctrine or the idea that we are at liberty to deviate from clearly defined regs and procedures when we think we have a better idea. Have you dealt with ‘ANY TRAFFIC IN THE AREA PLEASE ADVISE’ yet?— I almost saw an accident from that little gem not too long ago too.

    1. Jeff,

      Glad you liked the treatment.

      I did discuss “Traffic in the area, please advise,” in this article:

      Here’s the excerpt.

      As I proceed inbound, I’d listen carefully for any reports from other aircraft. If I don’t hear anything, I would not, I repeat would not make this radio transmission. “Traffic in the area, please advise.” Why wouldn’t I make this call? Because the AIM is very specific when it says, “‘Traffic in the area, please advise’ is not a recognized Self−Announce Position and/or Intention phrase and should not be used under any condition.” In a manual that is supposed to be a collection of best practices, it’s rare for the FAA to say something with such as strong foot stomp.

      Thank you for following up.


  5. I can see why the FAA recommends the specific guideline however where I fly the reason we don’t use callsigns is mainly because of the possibility of people on the ground listening with radios and willing to report any aircraft as low flying so it’s all the more important in your calls to be very precise

    1. Moe,

      So you deviate from the FAA rules/protocol so someone can’t report you to the FAA for deviating from the rules/protocols?

    2. Moe,

      You wrote the same comment under another article and I replied. I also asked you a question that you did not respond to. This was my reply and question in the other place in which you commented:


      I believe there’s some merit in most techniques. However, and I rarely say this, that is a bad justification for a lousy technique. Here’s why.

      When operating in an uncontrolled airport pattern at the airport’s published traffic pattern altitude, you are 100% legal and within your rights. People who complain don’t have a leg to stand on.

      Sticking to the AIM is not only a good thing to do, it will keep you safe, and in line with the FAA’s expectations of how you should operate your aircraft.

      If you’d care to put me in touch with the person who taught you to use aircraft and color in lieu of your call sign, I’d be happy to discuss the issue further with that individual.”

      I’m going to add to this by saying, the risk you introduce into flying by deviating from the FAA standards far outweighs the risk of having to respond to someone’s baseless complaint.

      If you are talking about intentionally flying lower than authorized, that’s a whole different issue. If a pilot violates the federal regs by intentionally flying lower than authorized for a given area, then that pilot should be reported to the FAA.


      1. Eric A. Gravel

        Hey Jeff,

        I had an experience last Thursday while flying some friends on a sightseeing tour or Miami Beach and all I could think of was your post!

        While flying around Miami Beach / Key Biscayne, it’s advise to use the dedicated frequency of 123.025 as listed on the section/TAC chart. I’m flying Northbound along the Western side of Key Biscayne, heading towards the Port of Miami, and make my call:

        “Watson Traffic, Skyhawk 5171H, At Stiltville, going Northbound at 800 feet, following Westernside of Key Biscayne. Watson.”

        Right away, some other pilot gets on the radio and tells me that I need to give my type and color to avoid confusion. I rolled my eyes, thought about your article, and just kept on going. It got real crazy… I was following a MDFR helicopter along the beach shoreline, I had another one behind me and a Cessna right behind it. And later one I actually had to dodge 1 or 2 of them who weren’t communicated, saw them on ADS-B and visually only at last minute.

        1. Eric,

          Hmm. “Skyhawk 5171H”? Seems to me you transmitted your aircraft type. Flying in that type of environment takes a certain measure of bravery. I’m glad you persevered by doing the right things–proper radio procedures, head on a swivel, good use of ADS-B. Nice work!


        2. That is the other thing I do emphasize, you did say your type (very specifically a Skyhawk). I was taught very early on to never identify yourself as “Cessna xxxxx” because you could be a Skyhawk, a Centurion, a twin Cessna or a citation ALL very different

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