Radio Discipline

Yesterday, someone placed a comment at my other website that I immediately deleted because it included some incendiary language. Life is too short to put up with rudeness.

The commenter probably would have started a good conversation with me had he used good communication discipline and not taken a cheap shot. I bring this up because it is a good jumping off point to talk about discipline on the radio.

The commenter’s point, bracketed by angry filler, was that he had been speaking to ATC in a certain way for decades that was contrary to what I teach–the FAA’s standards. He said it never caused him a problem and he never received negative feedback from air traffic control. His conclusion was, his way of doing things on the radio was okay because it had always worked for him.

You may have seen something I’ve written and had the same thought as the commenter. Let’s you and I talk about that for a moment. As a leaping off place, let’s use numbers.

When transmitting on the aircraft radio, the FAA wants you to speak numbers as individual digits. For example, the FAA wants you to transmit the number 12,000 as “One two thousand”. Maybe you don’t. Or maybe you do, but you hear other pilots on the radio say “Twelve thousand”.

Let’s face it. You and I fly in the real world. Many if not most pilots don’t stick to the FAA’s script on the radio. What happens as a result? Most of the time, absolutely nothing. Airplanes aren’t running into each other on a daily basis. The FAA isn’t hauling pilots onto the carpet for saying “Twelve thousand” when they should have said “One two thousand”. There doesn’t seem to be any negative consequence for using the language of your choosing on the radio. So why not, right?

Washing the Apple

Pick any activity which has some element of risk of personal injury. What would you choose? Skiing? Football? Skydiving? Driving a car? Let’s pick something really mundane. Let’s choose eating an apple.

There’s no risk in eating an apple! I’ve been eating apples since I was old enough to chew solid food and I’ve never suffered an injury as a result. What can be safer than eating an apple?

If you’re like me, you wash an apple before eating it. You can’t see the germs on the surface of the apple but you can intuit they may be there. Though an apple has likely never sickened you, and you’ve never heard of anyone being sickened by an apple, you still wash that sucker before eating it. That’s just something you’ve disciplined yourself to do because you have the imagination to conjure up what might happen if you don’t wash it first.

Here’s another thing about that apple. If someone sees you grab an apple and begin eating it without washing it first, likely they aren’t going to say anything unless they are your mother or your nosey neighbor. You want to eat an unwashed apple, fine, eat an unwashed apple. No skin off my back.


Before this goes too far afield, let’s bring it back to flying and talking on the radio. If, when talking on the radio, you choose to use your own words rather than the standard phraseology every air traffic controller in the U.S. uses, it’s probably going to be okay. The sky is big and airplanes are small. There’s plenty of room out there for a little sloppiness. The controller is interested in what you have to say but he has the data for your flight on the radar screen to back up what you are saying. You say “Twelve thousand” and your airplane levels at 12,000 on his screen, good enough!

Then again, then again. Look at the Aviation Safety and Reporting System (ASRS) online and see for yourself the consequences of coloring outside the lines on the radio. The sky is big, airplanes are small, but there are a lot of airplanes. Multiply all those flights times all those non-standard radio transmissions and you’ll find plenty of bad news in the data.

For example, a pilot says “Fourteen thousand” and the controller hears what he expected to hear, which was “four thousand”. A pilot checks in on the radio with “Two forty” and the controller assumes the pilot was informing him of his heading, not the flight level he was climbing to. A pilot checks in with “One eighty” and nothing else. The controller assumes it’s the pilot’s airspeed, not the heading he is actually turning to.

The Big Why

If everything I’ve said has not moved the needle on your gage, consider this. When thinking about why pilots do their own thing on the radio, it’s easy to say, “Why not?” The answer to that question is, “Because it’s no big deal.” Pilots use slang, lingo, and shortcuts all the time on the radio and the aviation community seems to keep ticking right along. Exceptions are so few and far between that the likelihood of getting into trouble seems immeasurable.

Further, air traffic controllers don’t have the time or motivation to teach pilots how to speak. Your next utterance on the radio is not a teachable moment for your busy controller. Those guys get paid to keep airplanes separated, leaving zero time to play ground school instructor.

That leaves it up to you to choose how you’ll conduct yourself on the radio. I believe asking yourself “Why not?” is going to give you a weak result. I’d suggest a better way of evaluating your choice. Ask why? Why is it better, safer, easier, wiser to use slang, lingo, and shortcuts on the radio? Why is it better to not wash the apple every time before eating?

I’d like to hear your answer. Write to me using the comment section below or write to me directly at


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5 thoughts on “Radio Discipline”

  1. I stick to the FAA standard phraseology in pretty much all my radio communication because I think it just enhances safety and eliminates ambiguity. That is much more important to me than marginal opportunity to be more efficient and “sound cool” that using a slang might provide.

    That said, there is one case where I (and probably majority of pilots) routinely use non-standard phraseology, and it is the shortened call sign. Officially you are supposed to use the type of your airplane plus the last three letters of your call sign, that is, it should be “Skyhawk 5JA” and not just “5JA”. In practice, the official phraseology makes the thing twice as long for minuscule and contrived increase in specificity. After all, if a Skyhawk 705JA and a Baron 325JA happen to share the same airspace, does anybody think that a controller will shorten they call signs and rely on the airplane type name to disambiguate between the two? I would not–I would just use the full call sign and add the aircraft type name for extra clarity.

    So there you have it, Jeff, that is one case when I think FAA should reconsider the rules and I am fine deviating from them. Other than that, I follow the book.


    1. Karol,

      I can’t argue with your logic. There are many subjects in AIM that need a rewrite. This is probably one of them.

      Until the FAA changes how we are supposed to use our call sign, I feel obligated to teach call signs as aircraft make, model or type, plus alphanumerics. If not, as a subject matter expert, I’d be teetering on top of the proverbial slippery slope.


  2. Jeff,
    I think correct phraseology is the best way to “sound cool” on the frequency. But I’m only human and slip up sometimes.
    Did I misunderstand Karol’s comment above…”Officially you are supposed to use the type of your airplane plus the last three letters of your call sign, that is, it should be “Skyhawk 5JA” and not just “5JA”.”
    This is only official after ATC initiates the use of the last three letters of the call sign.
    Seems pretty clear to me. No need for rewrite.
    But then I may be misunderstanding something said, I’m trying to be as polite/diplomatic and nonconfrontational as possible.
    Just wanted to clarify something I found might be a bit fuzzy.

    1. Hey Sam,

      I think Karol is only referring to those times when the use of an abbreviated call sign has been initiated by ATC. He can chime in again if that needs clarification.

      The argument covered here is whether the aircraft make, model, or type needs to be included in one’s abbreviated call sign, when the abbreviation is sanctioned by ATC. The AIM says yes. Further, listen to air traffic controllers. When using an abbreviated call sign, they almost always include the make, model or type. Apparently they don’t think that extra detail is unnecessary or time consuming. The format for abbreviated call signs is also spelled out in their operating manual, J.O. 7110.65.

      When there’s any doubt, I refer to the AIM and go with the FAA’s guidance.



      1. Yup, the rule I wish to be changed is not when to use the abbreviated call sign, but what constitutes the abbreviated call sign.

        Interesting that you brought up the controller manual, Jeff. Now that I think about it, I have to admit that I find it useful when the controller uses the aircraft model together with the call sign. I just don’t want to use it myself! ☺️ It could be that I am simply lazy, but there is also an argument to make that most pilot-controller interactions are initiated by ATC. Giving the pilots a bit more “to work with” when a new interaction is starting makes sense, whereas a reply to ATC inquiry could be finished with just the letters/numbers part. At least that is how it is very often playing out in practice.

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