Learning to use the Comm Radio


When you listen to ATC, at first it sounds like incomprehensible gibberish.

Some suggestions:

- get an ANR headset, especially if you don't have perfect hearing any more like us old farts. It makes a huge difference.

- listen to ATC on a scanner or the internet, preferably at your home airport. After a while, you realize that they are saying the same thing over and over again.

- ATC tells you an awful lot of stuff that their rules say they have to, but a lot of it is not very important. They bury the important stuff, kind of like a practical joke. For example, let's say you are holding short of the runway at Some Big Important airport, and ATC clears you to take off. It might sound something like this:

"Cessna Alpha Bravo Charlie, cleared for takeoff runway 29. The wind is from 310 at 5 gusting 6, there are clouds at 3600, 4900 and 8300 feet, the sky is green, there is an aircraft at 2000 thirteen miles to the southwest, I forgot my lunch, my wife locked her keys in the car, maintain 1500, my dog needs house-training"

What do you need to remember from the above?

- cleared for takeoff, maintain 1500

everything else is unimportant. You climb through that altitude, which every student pilot insists on doing, ATC will file a CADORs on you which TC Enforcement will review. However, as far as we know, the ATC's wife's car still has the keys locked in it.

All of the above are about listening and comprehending the fast-talking ATC. Now onto you talking on the radio. Every radio call you make will have the fundamental form of the 4 W's:

††† Who you are talking to
††† Who you are
††† Where you are
††† What you want to do

Now, once you get good, you will realize that there are slicker ways to make (e.g. IFR) radio calls, but the above structure is a great set of training wheels for you learning to ride a bicycle.

Let's say you are going into Some Big Important Airport. Your radio call might sound like:

††† Big Important Tower
††† Cessna Fox Alpha Bravo Charlie
††† 10 miles south at two thousand with Whiskey
††† Inbound for full stop

About the only thing weird about the above is that you have Whiskey on board, which is the ATIS you listened to, before you tuned in the Tower freq. That means you know the wind, altimeter setting, runway in use, etc.

I should mention that as VFR you generally donít have to read back the entire ATC instruction issued to you. All you have to do is acknowledge it with your registration, and that's a really good idea when the freq (and ATC) is really busy.

However, from flying IFR I have the habit of reading back the really important bits - altitude and heading assignments, for example.

Let's say ATC responds to your initial radio call with:

"Cessna alpha bravo charlie, there are eighty-seven aircraft
in the circuit at the moment, altimeter two eight nine nine,
active is runway 95. Report over the tanks that used to be
painted silver, not above two thousand"

I would reply:

"Tanks two thousand, bravo charlie"

Remember there are 87 aircraft in the circuit, and every syllable counts. Don't speak too quickly, otherwise you're wasting your tenths of a second on the radio. Say it clearly with a minimum of words, and say it once.


acboyd@gmail.com†† Jan 2012