A Beginner’s Guide to the Aviation Lexicon
By Susan K. Parson, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine (retired)
(Editor’s note: The original version of this article appeared in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.)
As noted in this issue’s “Bring Your ‘A’ Game” article, one of the first things that pilots in training learn is the aviation safety “trifecta” of aviate (fly the airplane), navigate (point it in the right direction), and communicate (talk to air traffic control). Flight instructors tend to take a military drill instructor’s approach to stressing the importance of the sequence, and a somewhat clichéd bit of advice cautions that pilots should never “drop the airplane to pick up the mic.”
There is no question that aviating — maintaining proper attitude, airspeed, and altitude — is also the top priority for a pinch-hitting pilot. But I would suggest that if you do wind up in that position, it is both appropriate and wise to make communication your second priority. You’re going to need help to navigate and land, so it’s best to speak up as soon as you are reasonably sure you have the airplane flying straight and level.
If you don’t remember anything else from this article, the two most important items to recall are the emergency radio frequency (121.5) and the word “mayday,” which means emergency. If your pilot has already been talking to ATC, you can start by clicking the mic on whatever frequency is tuned and uttering the magic “mayday” word. But since not all GA flights involve communication with ATC, you might want to use the next flight you take to learn how to tune the radio to 121.5. Someone is always listening to the emergency frequency, sometimes known as “guard.” It’s always a good idea to monitor 121.5.
Once you have made contact, whether on 121.5 or another channel, you need not worry about proper phraseology — just say what you need to say. But you might feel more comfortable, both as emergency preparation and just to know what’s going on, if you learn at least a little of the lingo. Here are a few tips that can help you decipher PilotSpeak.
For safety reasons, the language of aviation is highly precise in both its “grammar” (structure) and its vocabulary. In fact, there is a dictionary of aviation terms and phrases called the Pilot/Controller Glossary to ensure that pilots and controllers assign the same meaning to the same words and phrases.
When a pilot makes a transmission, they follow a specific structure. The script calls for the pilot to say something like: “Phoenix Approach, Skyhawk 1359T, twenty miles west at five thousand five-hundred feet, landing Falcon Field.” Now let’s look at the individual elements:
- Whom you are calling. “Phoenix Approach” or “Richmond Tower”
- Who you are, using the aircraft’s make, model, and tail number: “Skyhawk 1359 Tango”
- Where you are: “Twenty miles west” at “5,500 feet” (read from the altimeter)
- What you want to do: “Landing Falcon Field.”
The controller will use a similar sequence to respond:
- Whom ATC is calling: “Skyhawk 1359 Tango”
- Who is calling you: “Phoenix Approach”
- Where ATC thinks you are (sometimes based on radar): “Radar contact, twenty miles west “5,500 feet”
- What ATC wants you to do: “Maintain present heading; descend and maintain 3,500 feet.”
Depending on the situation, there are obviously many variations in terms of words and phrases that pilots and controllers use. Still, the structural sequence is the same.
To help avoid confusion with similar sounding consonants and numbers, in March 1956 the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted a standard phonetic alphabet for aviation use:
Alpha Bravo Charlie Delta Echo Foxtrot Golf Hotel India Juliett Kilo Lima Mike November Oscar Papa Quebec Romeo Sierra Tango Uniform Victor Whiskey X-ray Yankee Zulu
PilotSpeak numbers are pronounced mostly the same as they are in regular English, with just a few exceptions:
- The number three (3) becomes “tree.”
- The number five (5) becomes “fife.”
- The number nine (9) becomes “niner.”
Using the made-up tail number in the previous example, both the pilot and the controller will pronounce the airplane’s call sign as: “one-tree-fife-niner Tango.” You may or may not hear the call sign start with “November,” but if you look at the tail number of any U.S.-registered aircraft, you will see that it begins with “N” — November. Other countries use a different starting letter (or a combination of letters and numbers) to denote an aircraft on their registry.
Useful Words & Phrases
Now let’s decode some of the words and phrases you might hear:
ATIS: Automatic Terminal Information Service is recorded information on current weather and airport information, such as runways in use. Each successive ATIS recording has an alphanumeric designator to distinguish it from previous ones. For example, “ATIS Information Foxtrot is current.”
Squawk: This word refers to the aircraft’s transponder code, which can be either a standard code (1200 for visual flight rules — VFR) or a discrete code assigned by ATC. Squawk can be a noun (“say assigned squawk”), an adjective (“squawk code is 2345”), or a verb (“squawk 5423”).
Mayday: Hopefully, you will never have to use this one, but “mayday” means emergency. In case you’re wondering, the word is a corruption of the French term for “help me” (m’aidez).
Last but not least: Did you ever wonder why aviators say “roger?” The definitive answer seems to be lost in the mists of time. Still, a plausible explanation arises from aviation’s early days, when the industry adopted customs, procedures, and terms from established industries like the telegraph business. Given the uncertain quality and reliability of Morse code telegraph transmissions, the receiver would transmit a single letter “R” upon successful receipt of a message to signify that “I have received and understood your transmission.”
Early aviators needed a similar protocol. As it was not possible to transmit a Morse-coded “R,” they did the next best thing by transmitting the word “roger,” which was at that time the spelling (“phonetic”) alphabet version of the letter “R.” Then, as now, it was simply an acknowledgment that “I have received and understood your last transmission.” So, assuming this explanation has legs, be grateful that aviation adopted this practice before the phonetic alphabet changed from “roger” to “romeo!”
If you don’t remember anything else from this article, the two most important items to recall are the emergency radio frequency — 121.5 — and the word “mayday,” which means emergency.
Susan K. Parson was editor of FAA Safety Briefing until she retired from the FAA in January 2023.