Talk Radio

Uh, M-Mayberry Traffic, Th-this is, uh…‘ According to the National Institute of Mental Health, many people (as many as one in five) suffer from specific phobias to some degree — fear of public speaking, however, is nearly universal (close to 95%). Although for some it can be a significant impediment to one’s career, as well as social mobility, for pilots it can have more immediate consequences. While there are some people with absolutely no inhibitions about telling the world what’s on their mind, it always seems that there’s an inverse proportion between that willingness and what’s actually there. (Writers are exempt from such reticence, of course.) Perhaps that’s a compliment to any nervous student pilot but as I recall, I certainly wasn’t without my own hefty helping of verbal incompetence.

In my fledgling days, I admit to drawing some slight sadistic satisfaction that stage fright wasn’t confined to the meek and mild-mannered; I’ve heard some fairly deep and sonorous voices stuttering helplessly through a speech. Why: When you’re learning something new, it takes all your attention — there isn’t much ‘mental bandwidth‘ left over. As your experience grows, and your moment-to-moment comfort level settles down, the mental jumble that jumbles your vocal chords gets sorted out. It’s that simple.

The good news is that the aircraft doesn’t fall out of the sky if your voice cracks or you get tongue-tied. Remember, it’s: aviate, navigate, and then communicate, in that order of priority … always.


  1. Peace and quiet: Extraneous noise is just plain stressful. A good headset, either the noise attenuating or the noise canceling variety (or at the very least a set of fifty-cent foam earplugs) contributes greatly to an increased presence of mind. You’ll think straighter and probably fly straighter when you’re not rattled by all that noise. Plus, you’ll stand a better chance of hearing what’s said by others.
  2. Knobology: Familiarity and comfort with all of the selectors on the audio panel and avionics is not easy for a student who often flies a few different aircraft. Knowing which control does what will save precious time — and nerves. A check of the full radio system should be part of your pre-flight (like a dress rehearsal). It’s the best time to find out if your transmit button is stuck, or your frequency selector knob is no longer connected to its shaft.
  3. Planning: It will help to gather your thoughts and mentally string together the ideas, if not the words themselves, before opening your mouth. Who are you calling, who are you, where are you, and what do you want? This applies whether you’re flying around square miles of Chicago concrete, or square miles of country corn over Kankakee. There’s nothing wrong with writing your own sort of teleprompter script for what you think you’ll need to say next. (You won’t need to for long, though. I know; I’ve been there.)
  4. Background knowledge: The more you learn about the air and the airspace, the more relaxed you’re going to be in it. In time, you’ll even learn how to elicit important information and services, whether that’s from Unicom and Flight Service, or from clearance delivery and Air Route Traffic Control Centers. You will learn what communication information to look for, and where, whether on a sectional or in the AFD — in time, it will come. You’ll learn how to use the services to maximum advantage, such as how to contact a Flight Service Station on a discrete frequency while listening over a navigation radio tuned to a VOR.
  5. Buzz words: Just as important as knowing when, where, and why to speak on the radio, is knowing what to say. There is a short but critical glossary of terms which one learns, generally referred to as phraseology. Due to the limitations of our ‘half duplex‘ medium (where only one person gets to speak at a time), the MO of the day is always ‘just the facts‘: We learn to keep it short and sweet.

Back when I was learning my way around the airspace system, I even went so far as to print out my own version of ‘Mad Libs‘ boilerplate scripts, with standard sequences of blank lines interspersed in the right places, filling in the particulars of what I’d be expecting to say, and to whom. I kept the cheat sheets at the ready, on my kneeboard.

There are several great ways to polish up speaking skills, and none of them require joining Toastmasters. Many applications are now available to learn the proper ways to say and to get what you want. Whether they’re in CD format or audiotapes from the last century, they’re out there. Another great investment is a hand-held transceiver: learn, just by listening. Low tech, but readily available aids include the Aeronautical Information Manual, and the Pilot/Controller Glossary — they contain all the aviation-speak you could ever want to master. Good books on the subject include ‘The Pilot’s Radio Communication Handbook‘ by TAB Books, or McGraw-Hill’s Controlling Pilot Error volume on Communication.

The golden rule is to keep it short, and keep it simple. If you get nervous, forget the lingo and just use plain English, but be brief. Generally, there will be a predictable sequence of entities to whom you’ll need to talk — samples of which follow. (Note that these are all examples of what you would say to the entity identified in the left column and that several of these are not ‘first contacts‘.)

Radio Procedures — VFR:

Unicom: Smallville Unicom, Cessna 41 Charlie, radio check.
Unicom Departure: Smallville Unicom, Cessna 41 Charlie, runway one six, departure to the East
Unicom Arrival: (after monitoring local traffic) ‘Tumbleweed traffic, Cessna 5141 Charlie, ten miles east, two thousand five hundred, inbound landing two eight, Tumbleweed
Flight Service: Albuquerque Radio, Cessna 5141 Charlie on 122.1, listening Corona VORTAC’ …then… ‘Roger, 41 Charlie requesting activation of my VFR flight plan, off Smallville at 2030 Zulu
ARTCC: Albuquerque Center, Cessna 41 Charlie at niner thousand, five hundred, 15 West of Corona VORTAC on Victor 263, squawking 1200, request VFR flight following.
AWOS: (nothing — just listen for winds, altimeter, ceiling, etc.)
Flight Service: Prescott radio, Cessna 5141 Charlie, Tumbleweed Airport in sight, would like to cancel my VFR flight plan at this time

Radio Procedures — IFR:

ATIS: (nothing — just listening to current information, Oscar)
Clearance Delivery: Big City clearance, Cessna 5141 Charlie, with Oscar, GA ramp, IFR Phoenix
Ground Control: Big City ground, Cessna 5141 Charlie, at GA Ramp, ready to taxi‘ (then get directions, taxi to run-up area, switch to tower)
Tower: Big City Tower, Cessna 5141 Charlie, ready for takeoff
Departure Control: Big City Departure, 5141 Charlie, roger left 340
ARTCC: Albuquerque Center, 5141 Charlie with you at eight thousand
Approach Control: Phoenix approach, 5141 Charlie, out of four for two thousand
Tower: Roger Phoenix tower, 41 Charlie will report left downwind for two five left
Ground Control: Phoenix Ground, Cessna 41 Charlie requesting progressive taxi to Swiftair ramp
FBO: Swiftair, Cessna 5141 Charlie would like short-term parking, and we’d like some fuel

RADIO LIKE THE PROS (This is what you’re aiming for, and soon enough, it’ll all be second nature)

  • When you dial in any new communications or navigation frequency, always double-check it.
  • For any communications frequency, listen for a few seconds first, to make sure there isn’t a conversation already underway!
  • Discern more of what you need to know just by listening, first.
  • At the start of any flight, double-check for adequate volumes and audio panel settings.
  • Your first transmission in most cases is usually going to be just the name of the facility you’re calling and your full identification (aircraft type and tail number). There are exceptions of course, such as when giving traffic advisories, or calling ground for taxi clearance, as in the example above.
  • The busier the facility, the more patient you must be in waiting for them to get back to you.
  • Keep the subtlety and acerbic wit in the break room. If it’s 11 PM and you’re the only person on frequency, things are usually a little less formal, but as a rule, inflections and pregnant pauses just don’t carry well over the air.
  • If you don’t have ‘flip-flops‘ (standby frequencies) in your stack, you’ll write down each frequency used in succession.
  • Never hesitate to say ‘say again‘ when you either don’t hear or don’t understand.
  • Be aware that most boom microphones need to be kept very close to your mouth. (I remember how weird that felt, when I first started using one. But that’s how they work.)

BOTTOM LINE: If you don’t feel comfortable doing what they are asking you to do, or you don’t understand, say so. Embarrassment is unnecessary. Everyone listening is there to help.