Audio Lesson #5: Speaking the ATC Language

Re-learning English

Do you speak more than one language? If you don’t and you are in flight training, you are about to learn a second language. I explain why in this audio lesson.

Show Notes:

The language of air traffic control uses English, but the way it uses English is very different from everyday conversation.

The communication between pilot and controller is called standard phraseology.

Using standard phraseology avoids misunderstandings between pilots and controllers.

Misunderstandings can lead to violations of the Federal Aviation Regulations, or near misses, or even a disaster.

In my opinion, when a pilot or controller uses non-standard language, and there are no bad consequences, the pilot or controller is entering very dangerous territory.

Take a look at the examples from NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) below to see where this is heading:

Report 1 from a General Aviation Pilot

“We had just landed and were waiting to cross runway 13. The PNF [Pilot Not Flying] queried ground control if we could cross runway 13. The controller responded ‘not yet.’ I thought the controller responded ‘yeah’ and taxied forward, across the hold short line. Unsure, I stopped the aircraft prior to runway 13, but the aircraft was past the hold short line at this point. The PNF then radioed for verification of our crossing clearance. The ground controller then responded, ‘negative, hold short, well it looks like you’ve already past the hold short line — I did not receive clearance from the tower controller until now, you’re cleared to cross runway 13.’ lessons learned: standard communication phraseology is imperative. The ground controller used nonstandard phraseology (‘not yet’) and I accepted what I thought to be a clearance to cross an active runway with nonstandard phraseology. Both pilot and controller erred, in my opinion.”

Report 2 from an Air Traffic Controller

“While working a secondary departure sector; I failed to catch an altitude report by a pilot and subsequently the aircraft violated the airspace of another facility. During the investigation; it was revealed that the pilot had been assigned 170 but the last instruction the previous controller issued him was ‘fly heading 330 degrees.’ the pilot’s readback was ‘330.’ when the pilot checked in with me; he stated ‘aircraft X with you 13 for 33;’ I failed to catch the abbreviated altitudes he read me. The aircraft then climbed through my altitudes resulting in an operational deviation. 3 things about this deviation bother me. 1) the pilot’s sloppy readback to the first controller ‘330;’ 2) the pilot’s sloppy check-in with me ’13 for 33;’ and 3) why aren’t pilots held to a standard of phraseology that would help prevent hearback/readback incidents. Had the pilot checked in with some semblance of standard phraseology and stated the word ‘climb’ or ‘flight levels’ it would have caught my attention and clued me in to listen; ‘aircraft X with you 13 thousand climbing to flight level 330.'”

Your Turn:

Use the comment section below to write an example of some non-standard phraseology you’ve heard on the radio.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Lancelot May 16, 2011 at 7:42 pm

I’m amazed at how pilots & ATC speak to each other sometimes, especially here in Florida.
What I can’t understand is how some people are able to get their ppl when they speak such bad english that it’ almost impossible to understand even the simplest communications.
This really is something that needs to be addressed soon. Next you should address how both pilots & ATC speak way to fast & they could care less if their instructions / responses are clear & understandable.


JeffKanarish May 17, 2011 at 3:18 am

Hey Lance,

Thank you for commenting. I can feel your frustration in your comment.

Actually, I did address all these problems in these articles: The Need for Speed on Aviation Frequencies; Aviation Communication at the Speed of Stink; Your Radio Transmissions are Terrible; Four Not So Secret Ways to Get an ATC Route Clearance Readback Right; and 50 Ways to Screw Up a Radio Transmission. Use the search box in the left sidebar to find these articles. Also, the Aircraft Radio Simulator I am building will require clear, understandable pronunciation, delivered at a moderate pace.

Again, thank you for joining the conversation. Read on, keep commenting, and help us build a better way of speaking on the radio.




Gianna August 5, 2011 at 12:18 am

Hey Jeff. I am a student and I always wondered why sometimes you put your call sign before you speak and sometimes after. Can you clarify this for me?


JeffKanarish August 5, 2011 at 2:58 am

Hi Gianna:

Take a look at this article that talks about starting or ending a radio transmission with your callsign: Start or End. If you have other specific questions like these, feel free to write to me at, or use the search box at this website. Chances are, I’ve covered your question somewhere in the website.



Azzen James Loewe April 28, 2013 at 7:59 pm

hey I loved this keep up the good work. I Need some help on speaking with Atc I Just started my instrument training & i am still trying to learn the language any advise.


JeffKanarish April 29, 2013 at 1:21 pm


I don’t have any general advice. I suppose some people would suggest listening to ATC frequencies played on the internet, but I have found that really does not help you speak to ATC.

I can answer specific questions. Let me know what those are.



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