Timing is Everything in ATC Communication


Two people speaking to each other at the same time does not communication make. It’s true in a face-to-face encounter and it’s true when trying to communicate with ATC. When 2 pilots try to transmit at the same time, the result is just a bunch of noise on the radio. In this show, we are going to discuss techniques for getting your timing right when communicating with ATC.

The times they are a-changing. The FAA published changes to the Air Traffic Controller’s Manual on April 3. What’s in there that is relevant to you? We’ll discuss it in our show.

Mayday, versus Pan. Those codewords have been getting a lot of attention lately at ATCcommunication.com, probably due to the intense scrutiny of Malaysia Flight 370. We’ll review the use of Mayday and Pan; why those words are rarely used in U.S aviation; and what most pilots say instead.

Timing is everything, which means it’s time to talk about timing. This time, it’s 22 minutes and 3 seconds of audio enlightenment, also known as Radio Contact.

Show Notes:

  1. Communication is an exchange of information. An exchange of verbal communication requires a talker and a listener.
  2. Who talks and who listens depends on timing. If 2 people try to talk at the same time, a consequence of bad timing, that ain’t communication.
  3. Aircraft radio communication is very intolerant of bad timing. When 2 pilots try to talk at the same time, their transmissions will cancel each other out.
  4. When switching to a new radio frequency, listen for 3 seconds to make sure there is no ongoing conversation.
  5. If the radio is silent during those first 3 seconds, you may transmit your own radio call with the reasonable expectation you will not block or interrupt another conversation.
  6. If there is a gap between a pilot’s request and ATC’s response, some impatient pilots will transmit into the gap.
  7. Sometimes, competition for available air time on the radio becomes so intense, several pilots trying to get in a word on the radio sounds like a food fight.
  8. Don’t be drawn into a food fight on the radio. It is a battle no one wins. Find a way to wait for the fight to end before making your own radio call to ATC.
  9. You are never required to read back assigned radio frequencies to ATC.
  10. If you do read back a frequency, give ATC 2 to 3 seconds to respond before switching to the new fequency in case you misheard the assignment.
  11. The latest version of the Air Traffic Controller’s Manual became effective on April 3, 2014. Here is a link to J.O. 7110.65V. There are no specific changes to ATC procedures in this edition that affect VFR flight.
  12. Version 2.0 of the Aircraft Radio Simulator went online a little more than 1 week ago.
  13. The latest version has real-time simulated air traffic control. A tower controller gives you instructions based on your current position in an airport traffic pattern.
  14. Please send me feedback on the Aircraft Radio Simulator Ver. 2.0 by writing to me at jeff@ATCcommunication.com
  15. Mayday and Panoth are codewords used to grab attention on the radio.
  16. Mayday is reserved for life-threatening situations. Pan is used for urgent but non-life-threatening situations.
  17. If you are already talking to ATC, there is no need to use Mayday or Pan. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) says you may simply state your situation, intentions, and request for assistance.
  18. While you are never wrong to use Mayday in a distress situation, in the U.S. most air traffic controllers and pilots use the phrase, “Declaring an emergency” to request priority handling.

Your Question of the Week:

You are flying VFR cross-country while using ATC for flight following. The enroute controller says to you, “Cessna 9130 Delta, for further flight following, contact Kansas City Center on 128.75.” You read back 128.75 and pause 3 seconds before making the frequency change. The controller does not correct your read back during those 3 seconds so you feel your read back was correct. Once you have the new frequency tuned in you hear ATC talking to another pilot. So you wait.

When it seems the current conversation is over, you start to press the push-to-talk button for your microphone so you can check in with the new controller. Before you can press the button, you hear another pilot start a conversation with the controller. This pilot is asking about flight conditions ahead. The controller tells the pilot he’ll check and to stand by.

Several seconds pass in radio silence and you assume the controller is offline to get the information the pilot asked for. While you patiently honor the radio silence, another pilot checks in on the frequency. ATC answers the new pilot.

More silence. You start to press the push-to-talk switch when ATC comes back online and gives a report of flight conditions to the pilot who asked for it. As soon as ATC finishes the report, the pilot makes a request for a change of altitudes. A back and forth conversation goes on between the pilot and ATC about the altitude change. By now you figure you have probably flown at least 15 or 20 miles into the next controller’s sector.

Here’s your question, and it is multiple choice. Should you:

  1. Press on course, hoping you will eventually get in touch with ATC; or

  3. Should you start orbiting your present location until you can talk to ATC; or

  5. Should you return to your last radio frequency and tell the previous controller you are unable to contact the next controller.

When you think you know the answer to this question, go to ATCcommunication.com/answers. There you will find the correct answer along with a complete explanation of how that answer was derived.


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12 thoughts on “Timing is Everything in ATC Communication”

  1. Pingback: When to Call Mayday Versus Pan-Pan

  2. Sir,

    Navy flight student here. Have a few months of waiting until I start Primary. Any tips on where to start as far as learning to talk on the radio? My only experience talking on the radios is 14 hours in a Cessna at a non-towered airport (i.e. limited). Any help would be great. Thanks!

    1. Chris,

      Military radio phraseology is quite a bit different from civilian radio phraseology. For example, the military distinguishes between an “inside downwind” leg and an “outside downwind” leg in the airport pattern–something civilian air traffic control does not recognize. Navy tower controllers also require you to state “Gear down,” as part of your last radio call before landing, as in “Base (leg), gear down, full stop.” This statement verifies to the controller that your landing gear is down and locked. This is a requirement unique to the military.

      The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) does a pretty good job describing the military overhead pattern. That is worth looking at in the AIM. You can open a free version of the AIM online. Be prepared to report your position in any part of the overhead pattern to Tower. For example, “Your callsign, initial,” or “Your callsign, in the break.”

      By the way, unlike civilian callsigns, military callsigns consist of a unique name plus 2 numbers. Examples: “Colt 22,” or “Outlaw 15.” In a formation flight, the leader always uses a 1 as the second digit of the numbered pair. For example, if the flight is numbered in the twenties, as in “Colt 20,” the flight leader will be Colt 21. Wingmen number 2, 3, and 4 are assigned Colt 22, Colt 23, and Colt 24 respectively.

      The words and phrases used in a Navy traffic pattern are extremely standardized. Many of those phrases will be unique to the layout of the traffic pattern at the base where you train. You will be getting printed handouts from your Navy ground school instructors that show the standardized phrases you will use in the pattern.

      For air work at civilian airports, which you will inevitably do, I would point you to my book, Radio Mastery for VFR Pilots. A link to the book, at Amazon.com, is available in the left-hand margin of the home page at ATCcommunication.com. Best of luck to you in Primary and beyond.


  3. Hi. Once I asked a pilot to tell me what happens if you interrupts someone’s transmission. At that moment another pilot was already communicating and he pressed the transmitter and at that moment their was a “silence” and nothing was heard. I wanted to ask that was the silence only heard by us and that the other pilot was still talking or that every pilot on that frequency heard the silence and the other pilot had to transmit it again? Any help will be appreciated

    1. Mutjaba,

      Thank you for the question. When 2 pilots try to transmit on the frequency at the same time, the 2 transmissions compete with each other and create nothing but noise on the radio. No one can hear or transmit anything on the frequency while 2 transmissions are occurring simultaneously. I think silence is the wrong word because this situation creates a lot of useless noise on the radio for as long as both pilots transmit. Again, just to be clear, when 2 pilots transmit at the same time, all other communication is blocked.

      Best wishes,


  4. I am very thankful for the answer but one question if you don’t mind. The frequency was on the speakers (as the pilots weren’t wearing the headset) so they can know if ATC calls them . Already a pilot was talking and my pilot keyed in upon my request and I myself heard the “silence” (but my pilot didn’t say anything he just keyed in) so did the communication of that other pilot got blocked and he had to repeat it or what?? By the way thank you for the reply.

  5. Mujtaba,

    Yes, absolutely that other pilot got blocked and he had to repeat his last transmission. It does not matter whether your pilot says anything, when he keys his microphone, his radio is transmitting.


    1. Well how can he know that his transmission got interrupted does ATC tells him to repeat as ATC might have heard his transmission getting stopped or he knows by some way?? That’s a last question and I am sorry if you are getting intermittent.

      1. Yes. ATC will transmit, “That transmission was blocked.” The air traffic controller would then repeat his last instruction and expect a reply.

  6. Alright thanks for clearing the runway!!!! So can I get your e-mail or something if I want to ask anything else (if you don’t bother) from you because I know that I might ask about any other scenario. I seriously adore pilots and you are going to be one of them. You always learn something new from another person and “THANKS” once again.

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