Experience on the Radio Can Be the Worst Teacher

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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5 thoughts on “Experience on the Radio Can Be the Worst Teacher”

  1. Hi, Jeff
    I’m an student pilot, and love your information because it is preparing me to be a prepared, knowledgeable and efficient pilot on the radio now from this early stage in my aviation career.

    Thank you, very much!

    Randy Cabrera

  2. Jeff,

    Thanks for this article! As a student pilot coping with the usual teething anxieties of live radio at a Class C airport, it frankly annoys me to hear more experienced pilots using slang. Confusing! And confusion=danger.

    As for those anxieties, they’re fading (is that entirely a good thing…?) so I now have no trouble asking ATC to “say again” or letting them know about the flock of birds I just scared up off the runway. The things I’ve found most helpful: listening to the RT online in my kitchen to let the patterns of communication seep in; hearing ATPs at KTUS, and the controllers themselves, occasionally fumble and slip up. (Hey! Guess what? They’re human after all!) Recognizing that ATC is there as a service (not having them there – now *that* would be scary). I find the folks in the tower are blessedly patient and professional with newbies like me.

    I came here looking for what a controller meant this morning when he told me “closed traffic approved” as I buzzed around the pattern practicing not bending the plane on touch & goes. Now I know, and I found myself wandering all over your great site.


    1. Michael,

      Wow! Really good observations about ATC and how other pilots communicate. It’s great when other pilots get this kind of feedback from someone other than myself. Thank you!

      I just put up a brand new podcast about how to be more effective when copying taxi clearances at an airport with a complex layout. Hope you enjoy it.



  3. Very Informative Article. So very true. I can only but think that one can also gain a basic grounding in ATC – Aircraft Radio Comms by listening to live ATC Feeds.

    Well as my late Father said to me a long time ago… ” Technically, an Aircraft is Flying until such time as the Aircraft engines are fully shut down.

    A bit about me. I have always been a ” Desk Bound Eagle ” since I was a child.

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