What is an Abbreviated Aircraft Call Sign?*

*And when is it okay to use it?

If you are flying a civilian aircraft, you can abbreviate your call sign, under certain conditions. Do you know what they are?

In my last article, I talked about commuter airline pilots who abbreviate their call signs. According to the Aeronautical Information Manual, this is a big no-no: “Air carriers and commuter air carriers having FAA authorized call signs should identify themselves by stating the complete call sign . . .” (AIM 4-2-4 para. 5.) For example, United Seven Twenty-Three, or American Forty-Two Thirty-One.

You, on the other hand, can abbreviate your call sign.

First, what is a call sign?

(If you already know this cold, skip to the next section. Go ahead. Skip it and save time.)

  • A call sign is usually your aircraft’s registration number.
  • It begins with a prefix, usually “N” in the U.S. and then the numbers and letters after your prefix.

For example, November Five Seven Eight Romeo Charlie. Outside of the U.S. you are more likely to have all letters in your call sign. For example, Charlie Echo Romeo India Sierra.

In place of the prefix, you may use your aircraft’s:

  • type,
  • or, manufacturer’s name,
  • or model.

For example, Cessna Five Seven Eight Romeo Charlie, or Skyhawk Five Seven Eight Romeo Charlie are both acceptable. I think it’s a good practice to use your make or model instead of the prefix, because it gives the air traffic controller more information about the capability of your airplane: Learjet 421TM flies faster than Piper Cub 8817U by a country mile, or a country!

Next, What is an Abbreviated Call Sign?

An abbreviated call sign, according to the AIM, is the prefix, plus the last three digits or letters of your aircraft’s registration. For example,

November Five Seven Eight Romeo Charlie,

can be abbreviated to

November Eight Romeo Charlie.

Here’s the Gotcha

Here’s the gotcha so many pilots violate when using an abbreviated call sign. The AIM says you can drop the prefix if you use the aircraft’s make or model in its place. So, instead of

November Eight Romeo Charlie,

you can say,

Cessna Eight Romeo Charlie, or Skyhawk Eight Romeo Charlie.

No where in the AIM does it say you can drop the prefix and your make, type, or model. You have got to use the prefix or the make/type/model, every time.

I’m Calling You Out

So, all you high-timers and weekend air warriors, who respond to ATC with only the digits and letters of your call sign, you are doing it wrong. It’s not Nine Two Seven. It’s Falcon Nine Two Seven**, every time, no matter how sick you are of having to say it over and over.

Hey, it’s written in black and white. Don’t shoot the messenger: “ATC specialists may initiate abbreviated call signs of other aircraft by using the prefix and the last three digits/letters of the aircraft identification. . . When the aircraft manufacturer’s name or model is stated, the prefix “N” is dropped; e.g., Aztec Two Four Six Four Alpha.” (AIM 4-2-4 a. 2 and 3.)

When Can You Use an Abbreviated Call Sign?

First, each and every time you make initial contact with an air traffic controller, you must use your full call sign. After initial contact, follow the controller’s lead: “ATC specialists may initiate abbreviated call signs . . . The pilot may use the abbreviated call sign in subsequent contacts with the ATC specialist.” (AIM 4-2-4 a. 2.) If the controller does not abbreviate your call sign, you shouldn’t either.

Did I surprise you, or make you angry with this article? Tell me.

**All call signs used in this article were created randomly. They are completely fictitious.


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11 thoughts on “What is an Abbreviated Aircraft Call Sign?*”

  1. Jeff – Appreciate the tips. Just transitioning back into aviation after a multi-year gap. Remembered the rule of when ATC abbreviates but not the type + abbreviation.

    1. Mike:

      Even pilots who fly several times a week don’t remember that rule. Pilots who fly corporate aircraft seem to violate the rule, and drop their prefix or aircraft model in their abbreviated call sign, more than anyone else. I don’t know why that is. It just is.


  2. Pingback: How to Pick up VFR Flight Following | ThinkAviation

  3. Looks like this was written a few years back, but it was helpful nonetheless. My MEI taught me to abbreviate our Seneca’s call sign at uncontrolled airports. I found no evidence for that according to the AIM. What do you think? If the axiom holds true to only abbreviate after ATC has done so, then I think that instructor is the one that needs a lesson.

    1. Andrew,

      I agree with you. The AIM does not support abbreviating one’s call sign when in an uncontrolled traffic pattern.

      Many pilots, including some flight instructors, learn radio procedures by apprenticeship. Bad information is passed along with good information. Good catch.


      1. Johnny Waldrip

        Here is what AOPA has to say about it.

        1. Be Specific
        • When you transmit, begin by stating the name of
        the airport, followed by the model of your aircraft
        (Skyhawk, Cherokee, Bonanza, etc.) and the last
        three alphanumerics of the aircraft N number.
        • It’s common practice for pilots of homebuilt and
        other aircraft certificated in the experimental
        category to identify their airplanes as
        “experimental.” There is a tremendous
        performance differential between a Lancair and a
        Baby Ace. Likewise, an RV-4 silhouette is altogether
        different from an Acro Sport. In order to aid
        identification and predict performance, ASF
        recommends that all traffic-pattern announcements
        include the aircraft type.
        2. Be Brief
        • It’s more important for pilots to know what kind of
        airplane you’re flying than to know your complete
        call sign. Knowing the model of airplane will help
        other pilots plan their pattern flight relative to you.
        The abbreviated version of your call sign takes up
        less of valuable air time. It’s also easier for other
        pilots to remember a short call sign if they need to
        request an update on your position.
        • To prevent confusion, use your full call sign whenever
        you hear another aircraft with a similar call sign.

  4. I’ve been flying for over 20 years, but just last weekend I made the same mistakes noted in your article. Thanks for clearing things up.

  5. Thanks Jeff,

    This website is a fantastic resource. While training for my BFR (after a 15 year break) my flight instructor told me I could shorten my call sign earlier. At the time this didn’t seem right, but I wasn’t sure.

    Thank you for clarifying, and point me at the definitive source.


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