Pilot Communication: Radio Calls in Controlled & Uncontrolled Airspace

Making Radio Calls in Controlled and Uncontrolled Airspace


Radio Calls in Controlled and Uncontrolled Airspace – Video Transcript


Today, we’re going to take some feedback from one of our subscribers and answer a question about radio calls. We’re going to dive into how to make radio calls effectively and I’m going to break that up into two elements. First, we’re going to talk about what I refer to as the grammar of a radio call, and the second is the differences that we would see in controlled airport environments, or controlled airspace environments, and those radio calls versus in uncontrolled environments. So, let’s go on ahead and jump into the grammar of a radio call.

When we think of a radio call, usually there’s many different parts and really one of the biggest things that stands out is when we listen to what’s happening on the radio, we can hear words but it’s not really structured the same way that we speak the English language. This is why I refer to this as the grammar of a radio call, because grammatically, we don’t use the English language. We instead, have this shorthand version of the language.

So, what I’ve done is take an example radio call here where we are trying to come inbound to land at an airport, and what I’ve done is divided the call into three sections. This is the structure of a sentence if you will, or the structure of a radio call for this purpose. It’s going to start with this first section, which is “the who”, which is who we’re talking to, and who we are. So inside of there is two parts. The who we’re talking to, in this case we’re calling Georgetown tower, so that’s the control tower at an airport that is called Georgetown, and the second part is who we are. So, in this case, I’m describing ourselves as Archer 12345. So, you can think of this as your callsign. The standard way that we identify ourselves is the model of our aircraft and then the registration number associated. There are examples of other types of call signs, for example, at the airlines. Pretty much every airline has a callsign, so for example, Southwest Airlines calls themselves Southwest and then they have a number, but the number afterwards would be the flight number. So, if the flight from Phoenix to Dallas is flight number 123, then the Southwest flight would be called Southwest flight 123. In our case normally, in general aviation, it is in the aircraft’s model and then the registration number or tail number of the airplane.

Next, we have this section which is “where”. What that means is, we’re going to try to describe our location. So, in this case I say that we’re 10 miles to the north. We mean north of the airport because we’re calling this tower. In some cases, maybe we’d have to give more specific direction, so we’re 10 miles north of a certain VOR, or if it’s a VFR reporting kind of situation maybe it’s 5 miles west of a lake or a road. In this case, I don’t need to provide my altitude. Once again though, that could be another way to describe my location is maybe where I’m at geographically and then where I’m also at on an altitude play.

Last bit here I just summarize as “what” and this “what” portion is describing why we’re making this call really. So we got through the initial information, who we’re talking to, who we are, where we are, and then what is our intention? What are we trying to do? So, in this case, I say we’re going to be landing and we have the ATIS information Bravo, let’s say. So, this is an example of how this “who, where, what” grammar or grammatical structure is broken out amongst radio calls. This really applies to pretty much every kind of radio call that we make. When we break down the differences between controlled experiences and uncontrolled experiences, we’ll see that there could be some slight differentiation but for all intents and purposes, this structure generally works for pretty much all radio calls. Next, let’s take a deeper dive into the differences between a controlled airport environment and the uncontrolled environment.

Now, what I want to do is jump into some of the differences in radio calls between controlled environments with ATC and uncontrolled environments. To start with, let’s talk about operations in controlled environments. This would be true, for example, for operations at an airport that’s controlled by a control tower, or ground control. This would also be true for enroute services with an approach control, or a center control as well, and so generally there’s a sequence to how these radio calls are made. It starts by us making an initial call, or a request, then we can anticipate that controller replying back with clearance or an instruction. Then it would end with us making that read back. A read back is just us confirming that we heard the correct clearance or instruction, so we basically are just repeating that instruction or clearance back to ATC. One interesting bit about read backs is there’s a slight change to the grammar. So instead of the “who, where, what” that we had talked about before, it now is that we just simply repeat this clearance or instruction back and then we end the radio call with our callsign, or who we are again. That’s generally that sequence.

Now as you continue on with the same controller, they may come back and give you a new clearance or a new instruction and then the cycle would repeat. Every time they provide you with the clearance or an instruction, we simply make a read back. If you have an additional request, obviously that would restart this whole cycle over again. All right now let’s jump over to uncontrolled operations for a moment.

In an uncontrolled environment, such as maybe a practice area or an uncontrolled airport, we do what is known as self-announcing. Self-announcing is a little bit different. We would basically, make the same complete radio call, the who, the where, and the what, every single call. There’s nobody that’s going to basically reply back to us to give us an instruction or a clearance so we’re just always identifying who we are, where we are, and what is going on to the general traffic in that area. One thing that is a little bit interesting, is we once again make an amendment to the “who, where, what” grammar. We now always start and end every call with who that group is that we’re talking to. For example, if we were at an uncontrolled airport called Eagle Airport, then we would start the radio call with “Eagle traffic” and then da-da-da-da-da, go through the rest of the “who” and the “where” and the “what” and then we end the radio call once again with “Eagle traffic”. This just identifies the beginning and the end of our radio call.

Now a big piece that is sort of shared by both of these is just related to radio calls in general and the value that they have. The real value of us effectively communicating on the radio is situational awareness. What I mean by that is, in either scenario, being able to talk on the radio is fine but listening on the radio is probably more valuable. Being able to listen to what ATC is doing with other aircraft in that area, or other aircraft that are self-announcing in the same region as you, that’s really what’s going to help you with situational awareness. I think that’s critical in two parts, the situational awareness as far as traffic avoidance, so of avoiding or ensuring your course is avoiding other aircraft, and second is about anticipation of what will happen next. For example, if I’m at a controlled airport and I’m listening to ATC talk to some of these other airplanes and I can position where they are in the traffic pattern, then I might be able to better understand where I’m going to get sequenced into this traffic pattern. That just lets me anticipate the radio calls that ATC might give me. Similarly, at an uncontrolled airport, we might be able to identify where other traffic is located. This might help us identify runway and use, or once again help us steer clear of some of that traffic. In either case, I think the situational awareness that effective communications on the radios has is really where a lot of that value comes from. So not just talking, but also listening.

We’ve talked a little bit about what I call the grammar of a radio call as well as the differences between controlled environments and uncontrolled environments hopefully that answered some of your questions related to radio communications.

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