Two mics, one goal. Clear communication between pilots and controllers creates the shared situational awareness that’s needed to keep you and your fellow flyers safe on the ground and in the air. But for some, talking to air traffic control elicits full-on panic and fear. A famous quote by comedian Jerry Seinfeld sums it up nicely — “People’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two? Does that sound right?!”
If you haven’t mastered the language of aviation, then yes, it can be downright nerve-wracking when you key the mic! But remember — air traffic control (ATC) is working to separate and sequence aircraft to keep everyone safe. Together, you and ATC are a team sharing the same mindset when it comes to safety. That’s why it’s important to learn the correct lingo, know and understand what certain words or phrases mean, and practice, practice, practice the proper phraseology you need to use when talking to ATC.
So how can you learn to “speak ATC?” For starters, take our quiz. You’ll not only find the answers below, but you’ll also get helpful tips and no-nonsense input from air traffic controllers, plus free, or low-cost resources you can use to learn, stay sharp, calm nerves, and practice your way into long-term success.
Scenario 1: Rollin’ Off the Runway
🎙️ “Cessna 1234 Oscar, Metro Ground, Runway 21 Intersection Golf, taxi via Taxiway Kilo and Taxiway Victor. Expect a delay at the runway for traffic.”
🛩️ “Cessna 1234 Oscar, will taxi to Runway 21 at Intersection Golf via Taxiway Kilo and Taxiway Victor. We will expect a delay.”
Pilot expects to use the delay for final preparations before takeoff when suddenly ATC is back.
🎙️ “Cessna 1234 Oscar, Metro Tower, Runway 21 at Intersection Golf cleared for takeoff, traffic is on a four mile final.”
Feeling rushed, the pilot accepts the clearance, even though he’s not prepared to takeoff. He starts the departure roll in the wrong direction, veering off the runway onto the grass.
What should the pilot have said to ATC?
- 🛩️ “Cessna 1234 Oscar, Roger”
- 🛩️ “Cessna 1234 Oscar, Unable”
- 🛩️ “Cessna 1234 Oscar, Wilco”
- 🛩️ “Cessna 1234 Oscar, Wasn’t Expecting That!”
Answer: The answer here is: Cessna 1234 Oscar, Unable. Remember, the final decision to act on ATC’s instructions rests with you.
You don’t have to accept the clearance. If you need more time, or if you’re unable to comply, just say “unable.” When in doubt, ask for clarification. Don’t feel rushed or distracted and remember to always use your call sign. Controllers are prepared at all times to repeat, clarify, or give alternate instructions to help you. Watch this FAA video of a real-life event where saying “unable” could have prevented the incident: RunwaySafetySimulator.com.
Scenario 2: Roger That Affirmative
🎙️ “Cessna 5432 India, do you have the airport in sight?”
If you can see the airport, how should you respond to ATC?
- 🛩️ “Cessna 5432 India, Yes”
- 🛩️ “Cessna 5432 India, Roger”
- 🛩️ “Cessna 5432 India, Affirmative”
- 🛩️ “Cessna 5432 India, Wilco”
Answer: Yes or No is not proper aviation phraseology. The correct terms are “Affirmative” for Yes, or “Negative” for No. “Wilco” is short for “I heard your message and I will comply.” “Roger” means “received and understood.” Never use Roger to answer a yes or no question. The correct answer to this question is: Cessna 5432 India, Affirmative.
“Pilots tend to mix up ‘roger’ and ‘affirmative’ quite a bit,” says Sarah Patten, Air Traffic Control Specialist at FAA Potomac TRACON. “If I’m trying to get a definite answer to a question (for example, do you have the airport in sight?), and they answer ‘Roger,’ that’s basically the same as saying ‘ok,’ or ‘I heard the question,’ which doesn’t make any sense,” Patten explains.
Using “Roger,” the conversation would go like this:
🎙️ “Cessna 5432 India, do you have the airport in sight?”
🛩️ “Cessna 5432 India, I heard the question.”
“That clearly doesn’t give me much of an answer,” she continues, “or much confidence that they’re going to wind up in the right place. Then I have to go back and ask the question again to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
One controller on Reddit wrote that when he hears a pilot say “Roger” as an answer to his yes or no question, he always radios back — “Is that an Affirmative Roger, or a Negative Roger?”
Always answer yes or no questions with Affirmative or Negative.
🎙️ “Cessna 5432 India, traffic one o’clock, two miles, eastbound.”
What’s your reply?
In this example, ATC’s transmission is not a yes or no question, it’s a traffic advisory. You should state whether you have the traffic in sight or “looking,” and include the aircraft’s position or identifier. Your reply should be: Cessna 5432 India, traffic one o’clock, in sight. Or Cessna 5432 India, looking for traffic. (See Scenario 3 for more on this topic.)
Scenario 3: Oh Say Can You See the Traffic?
🎙️ “Cessna 5432 Oscar, traffic three o’clock, four miles, eastbound 3,000, Embraer jet inbound for Runway two-niner, report the traffic in sight.”
🛩️ “Cessna 5432 Oscar, looking for the traffic.”
🎙️ “Cessna 5432 Oscar, additional traffic nine o’clock, three miles, turning northeast bound is a Marchetti climbing out at 2,000 feet.”
🛩️ “Cessna 5432 Oscar, I have the traffic in sight, he’s not a factor.”
🎙️ “Cessna 5432 Oscar, how is the traffic not a factor?! He’s turning inbound and descending out of 2,700.”
Which traffic did the pilot have in sight? The Embraer jet at three o’clock or the Marchetti at nine o’clock? Instead of saying “Looking for the traffic,” or “I have the traffic in sight,” what should the pilot have said to ATC?
Answer: The pilot should specify which traffic he has in sight by including either the aircraft identifier (Embraer or Marchetti) or the aircraft’s position (three o’clock or nine o’clock) in the transmission to ATC.
Shared situational awareness is key. Brevity is important, but controllers must know that you’ve heard the traffic advisory and that you completely understand the traffic picture.
“Any time you’re flying in or out of a VFR airport, it’s likely the controller will give you a traffic call on more than one aircraft,” says Peter Sachs, a former controller currently working in the FAA’s UAS Integration Office. “If a controller gives you two traffic calls and you say, ‘traffic in sight,’ does that mean you see both aircraft, or just one?” he asks. At Class D towers, controllers may issue general instructions to avoid traffic (“turn north”), but they can’t issue radar vectors. “That doesn’t mean you should ignore those calls just because you think you have the complete traffic picture,” Sachs explains.
“It can be especially frustrating to make a traffic call for someone and get no response,” says Patten. “I have no way of knowing if they heard what I said and are busy looking out the window, or if they didn’t hear me at all. If a pilot is looking for traffic and doesn’t have it in sight yet, that’s helpful to know — ‘Cessna 5432 Oscar looking for traffic’ works well in that situation,” she explains. “Also, a pilot telling me that they ‘have the traffic on TCAS’ (or ‘ADS-B,’ or ‘the fish finder,’ or any number of other things I’ve heard pilots call it) doesn’t help me as a controller. If you don’t tell me that you have the traffic in sight, I’m going to keep giving you traffic advisories until you actually see the other aircraft,” she adds.
Consider the midair collision in Colorado this past May. The accident is still under investigation, but some information suggests that a misunderstanding of the traffic picture may have been a factor. The controller advised the Cirrus pilot of Metroliner traffic and he replied, “Have traffic in sight.” The Metroliner was also issued an advisory to which he replied, “We’re looking.”
Do not ignore traffic calls or provide an ambiguous readback. Make it a best practice to reply back to ATC using the aircraft’s identifier or position.
🎙️ “Cessna 5432 Oscar, additional traffic, four miles to your north is a Metroliner for the parallel.”
🛩️ “Cessna 5432 Oscar, Metroliner traffic in sight.
🎙️ “Cessna 5432 Oscar, traffic nine o’clock, Delta Airbus A320.”
🛩️ “Cessna 5432 Oscar, traffic nine o’clock, in sight.”
Scenario 4: Stand By Me
🛩️ “Metro Tower, this is Cessna 1234 India, holding short of Runway 21, ready for departure.”
🎙️ “Cessna 1234 India, Metro Tower, Stand By.”
🛩️ “Cleared for takeoff Runway 21, Cessna 1234 India.”
Clearly, the pilot did not have clearance to proceed. But what does “Stand By” actually mean?
- 🛩️ Clearance to Proceed
- 🛩️ Line Up and Wait
- 🛩️ Hold Short
- 🛩️ Wait
Answer: “Stand By” means wait. Monitor the frequency, we will re-establish contact. It does not deliver clearance. It is simply a way of saying, “I will get back to you soon,” or “I’m too busy to answer you right now, but I will be right back.” If ATC seems to have forgotten you, never assume you have clearance to proceed. When there is a break in transmissions, call again.
“If I say ‘Stand By’ to a pilot, I usually have something else that needs my attention before I’m able to add another airplane to whatever I’ve got going on,” explains Patten. “Sometimes, whatever I’m dealing with that has me instructing a pilot to stand by may be going on behind the scenes. I may be coordinating something with another sector or facility, I may be trying to fix or find someone’s flight plan, or I may be giving a relief briefing. There may be a moment or two of silence on a frequency after I tell someone to stand by, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t anything going on. I usually just need a minute or two to get something else settled before I have enough time to properly handle a new request,” says Patten. She explains that a big part of being a controller is knowing your operational priorities (and your limits). Using “Stand By” helps keep things under control.
Scenario 5: I’m Listening
🛩️ “Metro Ground, Cessna 2345 Oscar, FBO west parking with Information Echo, ready to taxi.”
🎙️ “Cessna 2345 Oscar, Metro Ground, Stand By.”
🛩️ “Standing by, Cessna 2345 Oscar.”
🎙️ “Cessna 2345 Oscar, Metro Ground, Go Ahead.”
🛩️ “Taxiing to Runway 21, Cessna 2345 Oscar.”
True or False. Was the pilot cleared to proceed?
Answer: False. The pilot was not cleared to proceed. The phrase “Go Ahead” is only used as an instruction to proceed with your request or transmission. It is not used for any other purpose and does not deliver clearance to proceed.
“‘Go Ahead,’ says Patten, is one I find myself using quite a bit, and it means exactly what was mentioned: go ahead with your transmission, NOT go ahead and do whatever you want!”
Did you get all the questions right? Before you check out the resources below, make a point to contact your local FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam) Rep to see if there are any scheduled tower tours, or if one could be set up. You can meet some controllers (I promise they won’t bite) and see how it all works. That’s a great way to learn the right lingo and help push the fear out of push-to-talk.
Free — liveatc.net, FAA Pilot/Controller Glossary (online), FAA Safety Team Course: Radio Communications Phraseology and Techniques, “How to Become an Air Traffic Controller” on the FAA’s The Air Up There podcast.
Jennifer Caron is FAA Safety Briefing’s copy editor and quality assurance lead. She is a certified technical writer-editor in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service.
Content Disclaimer: Products and services mentioned in this article do not constitute official endorsement on behalf of the FAA.