How Do Pilots Communicate With Air Traffic Control?

Have you ever wondered what all those different terms a pilot says when he is flying and communicating with air traffic control? We will show you exactly how a pilot communicates and why they use all those different words when talking on the radio. We have a list of how each letter is represented in word form, and a list of pilot and ATC terms. Have a look at the information below to help you to decipher what pilots are saying over the radio. NOTE: When you see the letters ATC below, it stands for Air Traffic Control.

How Do Pilots Communicate

Aviation (pilots and ATC) have their own special vocabulary. Mostly all letters that are relayed over radio are spoken in word form. To say the letter “R” it is relayed as “Romeo”. For example, if an air traffic controller tells a pilot to turn on taxiway 3C, it would be relayed as Three Charlie. If a pilot is using his radio to communicate with ATC, and is informing ATC his aircraft number (call sign), for example if the number was 9394N, it would be communicated to ATC as Nine Three Nine Four November. This is to help pilots and air traffic control to fully understand each other and avoid errors in otherwise simple communications.

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Example of Pilot to ATC communication:
Aircraft: Los Angeles Tower, three seven charlie (37C), holding short of two three right.
Tower: Three seven charlie, Los Angeles Tower, runway two three right, cleared for immediate takeoff.
Aircraft: Roger, three seven charlie, cleared for immediate takeoff, two three right.

Who controls all these Aviation rules?:
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is the agency that controls worldwide aviation. The ICAO has chosen English as the official language of all aviation. This makes communication much easier in a large worldwide air transportation system. Everything relating to aviation is controlled and approved by the ICAO. This includes all language, runway markings, taxiway markings, radio frequencies, etc…

How are all the letters in aviation pronounced?:
Pronouncing letters and numbers can be easily misunderstood such as hearing an “E” for a “D”. Since this can cause confusion, thus leading to accidents, letters and numbers in aviation are spoken using the International Aviation Phonetic Alphabet. This alphabet substitutes an entire word to represent one single letter. The first letter of a particular word is the letter of the alphabet it is representing. For example if ATC needs to communicate the letter “K”, it would be spoken as a complete word using the word “Kilo”. See below for the complete aviation/pilots alphabet.

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Aviation/Pilot Alphabet:

A = Alpha (al fah)
B = Bravo (brah voh)
C = Charlie (char lee)
D = Delta (del tah)
E = Echo (eck oh)
F = Foxtrot (foks trot)
G = Golf (golf)
H = Hotel (ho tell)
I = India (in dee ah)
J = Juliett (joe lee ett)
K = Kilo (key loh)
L = Lima (lee mah)
M = Mike (mike)
N = November (no vem ber)
O = Oscar (oss cah)
P = Papa (pah pah)
Q = Quebec (qwa beck)
R = Romeo (row me oh)
S = Sierra (see air rah)
T = Tango (tang go)
U = Uniform (you nee form)
V = Victor (vik tor)
W = Whiskey (wis key)
X = X-ray (ecks ray)
Y = Yankee (yang kee)
Z = Zulu (zoo loo)


What about some of the other terms used in Aviation?:
ATC (air traffic control) instructions to pilots usually consist of keywords followed by specific numbers. As an example, “turn right heading….” is always followed by an heading number. The “Pilot and Controller Glossary” is the USAs official guide for the “correct words.” Here are a few specific words that you may hear over ATC radio audio frequencies.

ABORT = To terminate a preplanned aircraft maneuver

ACTIVE RUNWAY = Runway in use


AIRSPEED = To communicate the speed of your aircraft

AIR TRAFFIC = Aircraft operating in the air or on an airport surface

BLOCKED = Used to indicate that a radio transmission has been interrupted

CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF = ATC has authorized an aircraft to depart

CLEARED FOR THE OPTION = ATC authorization for an aircraft to make action at discretion of pilot

CLEARED TO LAND = ATC authorization for an aircraft to land

CLOSED TRAFFIC = Operations involving takeoffs and landings or low approaches when the aircraft does not exit the traffic pattern

EXPEDITE = Used by ATC when prompt compliance is required

FLY HEADING = Informs the pilot of the heading they need to fly

FUEL REMAINING = Used by pilots or controllers when relating to the fuel remaining on board

GO AROUND = Instructions for a pilot to stop his approach to landing

HAVE NUMBERS = Used by pilots to inform ATC that they have received information

IDENT = A request for a pilot to activate the aircraft transponder identification

IMMEDIATELY = Used by ATC when an action is required to avoid an imminent situation

LINE UP AND WAIT = Used by ATC to inform a pilot to taxi onto the departure runway to line up and hold

MAINTAIN = Means to remain at the altitude or flight level specified

MAKE SHORT APPROACH = Used by ATC to inform a pilot to alter his traffic pattern to make a short final approach

MAYDAY = The international radio telephony distress signal

MINIMUM FUEL = Indicates that aircraft fuel supply has reached a state where little or no delay is required

NEGATIVE = That is not correct

NEGATIVE CONTACT = Used by pilots to inform ATC that the previously issued traffic is not in sight

OVER = I have finished talking

RADAR CONTACT = Used by ATC to inform an aircraft that it is identified on the radar display

RADAR SERVICE TERMINATED = Used by air traffic control to inform a pilot that they will no longer be provided any of the services that can be received while in radar contact

READ BACK = Repeat message back

REPORT = Used to instruct pilots to advise ATC of specified information

ROGER = I have received all of the last transmission

SAY AGAIN = Used to request a repeat of the last radio transmission

SAY ALTITUDE = Used by ATC to understand an aircraft’s exact altitude

SAY HEADING = Used by ATC to request an aircraft’s exact heading

SQUAWK = Activate specific modes on the aircraft transponder

STAND BY = The controller or pilot must pause for a few seconds to attend to higher actions

TRAFFIC = A term used by ATC to refer to one or more aircraft

TRAFFIC IN SIGHT = Used by pilots to inform a controller that issued traffic is in sight

UNABLE = Indicates inability to comply with a specific instruction

VERIFY = Request confirmation of info

WILCO = Will comply

What does it mean when ATC tells a pilot a “heading”?:
A heading means what direction of flight. When ATC instructs an aircraft or pilot to turn to a certain heading, this number relates to the pilots aircraft heading indicator and shows what direction to go. This indicator is basically a compass. All heading numbers will consist of 3 numbers. Flying North would be a heading of 360. Flying East would be a heading of 090. Flying South would be a heading of 180. Flying West would be a heading of 270. It is very simple if you just picture a compass pointing North in your mind. If the ATC tower tells the pilot to turn to a heading of 140, that would be a Southeast direction. Have a look at the aircraft heading indicator below to learn more.

aircraft-heading-indicatorAircraft Heading Indicator

For more information on aviation related subjects, visit Aviation Explorer, a large aviation database online.

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Have we forgotten a critical word or term from our list above? Please leave a comment below so we may add it to our list.

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