Aircraft Radio Discipline Before You (Think You) Need It

We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Hey, we’re already there!

If you are just starting your career or avocation as a pilot, you are probably thinking about the basics of radio communication. Specifically, you would be happy to fire off a radio transmission without getting tongue-tied: Town and Country Tower, Cessna 9130 Delta, seven west of the airport inbound for touch-and-goes with Kilo.

How nice it would be to hear and digest everything ATC says to you too: Cessna 9130 Delta, Town and Country Tower, report entering a left downwind for Runway One Eight.

Having a grip on the basics would be great, right? Let’s not bother with advanced topics in radio work until we have the basics nailed. I suppose that’s correct if you and I could agree on the dividing line between advanced radio work and basic radio work.

Fuzzy Thinking

From where I sit, the dividing line between basic and advanced radio work is so fuzzy that I would argue it doesn’t exist. Everything you are learning right now, as a new pilot contributes to what you will say and do in the future as an experienced pilot.

For example, if today I were to say to you, let’s talk about radio discipline, you might groan, “C’mon Jeff. Radio discipline is about sticking to the script for radio transmissions. How can I stick to the script if I can’t even remember what I need to say? Can we please just stick to the radio transmissions I need to make to ATC in an airport traffic pattern?”

Actually, a seemingly advanced topic such as radio discipline, is tied into your basic radio work whether you are aware of it or not. I suppose this might make more sense if we defined radio discipline. Would it be okay with you if we backed into the topic with a couple of illustrations of radio indiscipline? (Yes indiscipline is a word. I looked it up.)

Go Around

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, June 11, 2014. Delta 630, a Boeing 777 was on final approach. When the aircraft was approximately 1,000 feet above airport elevation, this happened:

Atlanta Tower “Delta 630 go around.”

Delta 630 begins a go-around/rejected landing.

Atlanta Tower: “I’m kidding Delta 630. Delta 630, you’re clear to land.”

Delta 630: “You sent us around. Delta 630 on the go.”

Here’s a link to the recording of this incident presented by a local news TV station. Please try to ignore the reporters’ histrionics and misunderstanding of this radio exchange.

Settle Down Captain Happy

Here’s another example, also in Atlanta. This time, a pilot seizes the moment to put his foot in it. (Note: this radio rebroadcast was posted by someone else on YouTube. There are are few errors in the captioned transcript, but the radio exchange is recorded accurately.)

These are extreme examples of radio indiscipline. I wouldn’t expect you, as a new pilot, to go so far off the map as the pilot and the air traffic controller did in the preceding examples. Extreme as they are, you get the idea what we mean by radio indiscipline, or lack of radio discipline if you’re still worried about my choice of words.

Choice of words is really what radio discipline is all about. It’s a decision to stick to the accepted standards of radio transmissions no matter the circumstances.

The Script

Where’s the script? Most of it is in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). The AIM’s Pilot/Controller Glossary has the words. Chapter 4 Section 2. Radio Communications Phraseology and Techniques has most of the phrases and syntax. I also have laid it out in a digestible format in my book “Radio Mastery for VFR Pilots” and in the “Radio Mastery for VFR Pilots Workbook.”

In the very first paragraph of AIM Chapter 4, Section 2, there’s this: “Since concise phraseology may not always be adequate, use whatever words are necessary to get your message across.” My friend, this sentence is not a license to:

1. Crack jokes on the radio.
2. Lose your temper on the radio.
3. Make an extended speech on the radio.
4. Express yourself sarcastically on the radio.
5. Lapse into casual conversation on the radio.
6. Omit, abbreviate, or substitute slang for essential and required elements during a radio transmission.

Looking at the list above, which of those items do you think pilots are most vulnerable to doing? (Hint: In a multiple choice quiz, the longest answer is always the correct answer.)

Numba 6

As you are learning the basics of radio phraseology, you are going to hear other seemingly more experienced pilots commit error #6 on the radio.

ATC: Cessna 9130 Delta, report entering a right base, Runway Two Seven.

Pilot: We’ll report entering a right base, Runway Two Seven, 30 Delta.

What’s the error here? Actually, there are 2. The pilot abbreviated his call sign without ATC doing so first; and the pilot dropped “Cessna” from his call sign. Is this a serious example of lack of radio discipline? I can’t tell, can you?

How about this?

ATC: Cessna 30 Delta, descend and maintain three thousand.”

Pilot: On down to three, Cessna 30 Delta.

How did this pilot slip? He got his call sign right. According to the AIM, his readback should’ve been, “Descending to three thousand, Cessna 30 Delta.”


What do you think, serious error or not? Who knows, right? As long as the pilot descends to 3000 feet MSL as directed and does not cross flight paths with another aircraft, he’s good to go.

Maybe the question regarding lack of radio discipline shouldn’t be, is it a serious breach? Maybe the question should be, is it or is it not radio discipline?

Here’s why that question is critical. Whenever you hear a pilot go off-script, whether in a subtle or a patently obvious way, there is no way to tell with 100% certainty what the pilot intends to do. You won’t know the outcome until the flight maneuver connected to the radio transmission is complete. The airplane either makes it safely to its next point in space as directed by ATC or it doesn’t.

Air traffic controllers face this same uncertainty when they hear pilots make read backs that are non-standard. Is the pilot going to do as directed? Probably, but pilots have and will continue to bust through assigned altitudes, turn to the wrong heading, line up for the wrong runway, etc.

ATC is supposed to hear errors in a readback and make corrections before a misunderstanding results in a deviation from a clearance. Guessing what the pilot meant in his transmission produces lousy results. The large number of incidents in the Aviation Safety Reporting System that were caused by pilot readback/ATC hearback errors proves this point.

Into the Unknown

A lack of radio discipline is an adventure into the unknown. Is that how you want to conduct your flight? I sure as heck want my flight to remain well within my control and as predictable as possible. Why mess that up with even a subtle, seemingly harmless trip outside the bounds of standard radio phraseology?

As you struggle through the early phases of learning radio work you are also setting your own standard for radio discipline. What you learn now is likely what you’ll hang onto for the rest of your flying career. The degree to which you stick to the standards and choose to ignore poor examples created by other pilots will determine who you are as a pilot 5, 10, or, even 40 years from now.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below or write to me at


Note to loyal readers: It has been a while since I posted a new edition of the Radar Contact Show. I’m spending most of my non-flying hours working on the Aircraft Radio Simulator. Believe it or not this long-form article took 1/8 the time to produce than 1 episode of Radar Contact. I’ll have a new show in the works as soon as I can wedge it into the production schedule for the Aircraft Radio Simulator. Jeff


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