5 things every VFR pilot should say

Radio communication is always one of the hardest things to learn for many pilots. It actually seems to make flying harder sometimes: you’re already busy flying the airplane when ATC gives you a call so fast all you catch is your tail number. Other pilots in CTAF areas can make it even worse. Let me give you the top five things I’ve learned to say over the years that have made flying easier and safer.

1. “Say Again or Confirm.” Please don’t assume or guess that you got the call correct. If you aren’t 100%, sure ask ATC. “XXX approach, 41F can you say heading again.” It is much safer to ask, “Long Beach Tower confirm 41F clear to land runway 30” than to risk a runway incursion. I often tell students the only difference between an airline captain and an amateur on the radio is that the airline captain asks more questions to make sure they got it right.

Pilot talking on radio in Cessna
Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand what you just heard – the pros aren’t.

2. “Big Bear traffic: Blue and White Cessna 42X is on a 45 entry for left downwind 26, Big Bear.” Always add your color and type of aircraft to radio calls in non-towered areas and airports. Making radio calls with just a tail number is useless. If I’m close enough to read your tail number, I probably don’t need to hear your call! When you tell people what to look for, “red Piper” for example, you make it much easier to see you. It makes the whole are safer.

3. “Can I get progressive please?” I learned to fly at a very busy airport and taxiing at busy airports is pretty easy. That’s not true for all. When you ask for progressive taxi instructions, you make the whole airport safer. Ask controllers and they will always tell you they like to give progressives. All controllers know that it takes less time to give progressive instructions than to fill out the paperwork on a runway incursion if you get lost.

4. “Negative contact.” is critical to your safety. I won’t fly without flight following because they can see traffic five miles away and behind me. They try to call out as much traffic as they can, workload permitting. It is very important that if they call out traffic and you don’t see it within 30-60 seconds that you tell them, “Negative contact.” If you don’t tell them, they may assume that you will see and avoid. If you tell them you don’t see them, they can help you with vectors, a change in altitude, or just a better idea of where to look.

5. “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” This is the phrase that needs to be said much more often. After reading hundreds of NTSB reports, I have found one universal truth. People who died in aircraft accidents either did not declare an emergency or did so way too late to get help. People who declare an emergency, before it becomes one, are much more likely to have a safe outcome.

I know this will generate some controversy, but in my opinion when things start to go wrong, I would like people to say “mayday” immediately and much more often. I’ve declared an emergency with an alternator failure, at night, and when the EGT temperature on one cylinder was so high it had to be wrong. I’ve declared an emergency so often on SoCal that they respond with, “Hi Gary, what’s up?” There will be a lot of people who say that you should wait, or troubleshoot, or not bother a busy ATC.

The NTSB records are full of hundreds of dead pilots who overflew multiple airports with “minor” problems before becoming part of horrible crashes. ATC is never too busy to help a plane land safely before the fire starts or before the engine quits. They would much rather stop for five minutes to help you than try to find an ELT signal later.

This article is a companion to Gary’s “5 things every IFR pilot should say.”

35 Comments

  • All great points. If I may add: if you are flying downwind , waiting for the controller to call you up for landing, and that airspace ahead of you is coming really fast, don’t slow down to stall speed or start freaking out! Simply click the mic and ask: tower Cherokee 1234, would u like me to do some 360s?. You will either get a yes, or called to turn base. Both are better then slowing down 1000ft above the ground.

  • Great article Gary. Also, really enjoyed your IFD540 seminar the other day. Hope to fly with you one of these days.

  • you don’t abbreviate your call unless the controllers abbreviate for you. and since you are broadcasting in the blind, you don’t abbreviate your call sign.

  • Gary – All great points, but there should be an emphasis added for #2. Make sure it is clear to all that a pilot should ALWAYS include his call sign along with the color. More than once someone has just announced “blue and white Cessna” in their radio traffic, only to find multiple Cessnas in the pattern, perhaps even some with similar colors.

    Airport traffic MUST be able to concretely identify different aircraft in the pattern, and the only way to positively do that is to ensure that all radio announcements include a call sign.

    Another good habit pilots should practice is to make their pattern announcements during the actual turn to base, final etc. An aircraft flashing the entire wing surface in a 30 degree turn is far easier to spot than one in level flight.

  • “Making radio calls with just a tail number is useless.” Useless? The equivalent of making no radio calls at all? Please … just do what is published in the AIM. No more – no less. This ain’t Oshkosh.

  • I agree that aircraft type (i.e. Skylane ***** or Citation ***) is important. But let me ask those who think color is irrelevant a simple question. Why do you have to put the color of your plane on your VFR or IFR flightplan forms if it is irrelevant? As Director of Search and Rescue for our local Civil Air Patrol, that is very important for us to find you when you crash because you had a mid-air collision. So why isn’t it important to just mention the color on non-towered airports BEFORE you crash into another plane. What is frustrating for me (and I don’t respond) is for the pilot to say after they give their position in a non-towered airport “Any traffic in the area please respond”. Totally underscores that pilot as a non-professional idiot. Could be seven airplanes coming in to land. And you want all of us to respond? In my humble opinion, that is only getting radio clutter which is what some have used as the excuse not to give the color of the plane.

    • Frederick – you’re combining, conflating, and confusing several different ideas in your comment here.

      First of all, the purpose of VFR flight plans is not to serve “see and avoid” in the traffic pattern. It is for the purpose of identifying and locating missing and/or downed aircraft. Aircraft color matters in that context. It has nothing to do with radio calls in the pattern.

      Secondly, complaints about people who don’t use the radio properly – and there are plenty of those, unfortunately – have nothing to do with proper radio protocol from all pilots in making radio position and intention reports in the pattern at non-towered airports.

      We need to be standardized and concise in our radio reports. That is how we improve our odds of seeing and avoiding.

  • If you say “White Skylane 2468X” rather than “Skylane 2468X”, I am given a warning and know you will be hard to pick out from the background of the white clouds. Then I can look harder for white. Actually happened when I found a downed experimental plane that was white and downed a few years back. I knew what I was looking from the air and it was NOT looking for the numbers. Respectfully, would like to know what the difference is between looking for a downed plane and a plane still in the air? Also, if another plane says “Blue over White Skylane 12345BP”, I can KNOW which plane is talking on the radio from what I actually see from my airplane. The author’s point in this article is that the numbers don’t ID you to others. And in my humble opinion, he is hitting the proverbial nail on the head. The whole point of giving your position at an uncontrolled airport is to allow other pilots to ID you and be able to “SEE AND AVOID” you when you are coming in for a landing. The numbers don’t really help anything unless there is a controller in a tower or approach control or I am on the ground and confirming that the plane I found is the one lost. But the type and color of the airplane does help greatly to ID you to others. But until the FAA speaks, you do what you feel comfortable with and I’ll do what I KNOW makes a difference to keep me and my own passengers’ bippy safe.

  • Frederick,

    Thanks for the backup on adding type and color. It’s great to hear from a Search and Rescue professional. Thanks for your service to the CAP.

    Fly safe,

    g

  • No, thank YOU for bringing up what the FAA should have addressed years ago. You are the professional. I’m just a scruffy lawyer who has learned over the 42 years of practicing law to speak the truth “in love”. But speak the truth. Sure, others may disagree. But you can disagree without being disagreeable. This forum is great to allow for various sides to speak their own opinions. And like the originator of this magazine envisioned as well as his son, all of us learn from others. Kinda’ like a group of pilots in the hanger. We all love and care for each other. But we definitely have our own opinions.

  • I don’t believe color is a useful bit of information, but giving aircraft type, location and altitude are essential. They tell others in the pattern WHAT to look for as well as WHERE.

    First of all most aircraft that are painted are painted in multiple colors, and the amount of base color can vary a lot. Too much information in a pattern call is by itself a problem. Second, not all pilots can see color.

    Third, aircraft color is superflous, unnecessary information anyway – what is important to other pilots in the pattern is WHAT to look for (aircraft type – which tells you how big and how fast, roughly) and WHERE to look.

    That’s what the AIM says, and it is just good standard practice.

    • And as far as using the aircraft tail number reporting, it’s not provided in the call with the expectation that another pilot in the pattern will actually be able to read the tail number. That’s a silly, un-serious criticism that reveals the critic doesn’t understand the purpose of the radio reporting standards in the AIM.

      Rather, the purpose of giving the tail number, including abbreviated tail numbers, in the pattern is so that in the very common situation at busier airports where multiple Cessnas or Pipers or Cirrus’s are in or arriving at the pattern or on the ground, listeners can tell WHO is doing the reporting.

      It can make a big difference if Cessa 48 Papa Charlie is reporting on short final during a straight in while you’ve up til then keeping tabs on Cessna 22 Lima who is on a 45 degree entry to the pattern after calling 5 miles out. If all you hear is Cessna this or that, one could easily confuse one aircraft for another and ignore the aircraft on short final thinking, “hey, he’s behind me, no worry”.

      There is good reason for the radio procedures described in the AIM. We pilots shouldn’t be trying to rewrite a standard … the entire purpose of making radio reports at all is to aid pilots in maintaining safe separation with no or at least minimum confusion.

  • At uncontrolled fields, I call myself “Green & White Low-Wing”. No one cares what my N-number is and if I said “Green & White Viking” or “Green & White Bellanca” most people wouldn’t know what the heck that is.

    I save all the tail number stuff for the controllers. They are tracking me by a display in front of them with my tail number next to my “blip”, not looking out the windshield at 800′ AGL. And in the case of a Tower controller, he is trained, practiced, and focused on mentally assigning numbers to the planes he sees out the window. Plus, he is not distracted by trying to fly a plane at the same time.

    Ever notice that when a controller calls out traffic for you, he never mentions the traffic’s N-number? That’s because it is meaningless if you are separating yourself visually from traffic. Kinda like in the pattern at an uncontrolled field.

    Just because something is in the AIM doesn’t necessarily make it the safest option.

    This is really just a “Coke vs. Pepsi” debate. The important thing is that pilots make position reports. Don’t be like that Jack-Hole that cuts people off entering the pattern and the first radio call he makes is when he turns final (Grrrrrrr).

    • Thanks for your reply, I like the low wing, high wing calls as well. I also think you’re right on the coke v pepsi analogy but I’m wondering …

      Does that make the guy who cuts people off without any radio calls the guy who preferred “new coke”?

      Fly safe,

      g

    • Nah, I wouldn’t go for the color and wing configuration. A green&white low-wing means it could be anything from a Bellanca to a FlyBaby. Knowing the type gives me a much better idea where to look and what I’ll expect to see in terms of approach speed, altitude and pattern size. The last three of the N number do give a better resolution of traffic when there are multiples of the same type in the pattern. Generally, you should be able to spot traffic far enough away that color is not obvious. It works at OSH with controllers sitting on the ground with binoculars, but the rest of the time; not so well.

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  • Ahhh, VFR radio communications–especially at non-towered airports…my favorite topic!!!

    I don’t necessarily disagree with anything that’s already been offered. I see your point(s); but I tend to lean towards PJ’s logic: If folks just followed the guidance in the AIM, whether you agree with it or not, I think non-towered airport ops would tend to be a lot…calmer.

    I get vexed when folks completely disregard any/all guidance in the AIM regarding traffic pattern entries, spacing and radio procedures. Or they come smoking in going twice as fast as the other planes already established in the pattern…. anyway…Since the author’s original focus was on radio calls, I’ll stick to the communications piece.

    Being able to accurately, and succinctly, identify Who and What You Are, possibly including what color(s) you are, is certainly important, but is just one piece of the overall non-towered airport comms puzzle.

    I always use my N-number derived call sign. If I’m in a bright red PA-12 Super Cruiser, or yellow Cub, I’ll certainly add that discriminator to my call sign.

    If I’m in a single-engine, “xxxx-on-white” Cessna, I’m going to identify myself by make and model, to emphasize size and shape differences. I’ll add the color info if there are other aircraft in the pattern. However, a Skycatcher looks a lot different than a Stationaire; if these two planes are sharing a traffic pattern, the fact they may both be “green-on-white” seems superfluous. (Of course, I also think it’s OK for Citabria drivers to call themselves “Champ”; has fewer syllables and is a lot easier to say on the radio.)

    Where I live, on any nice Saturday, you can easily find yourself dog-fighting with a half dozen “green-on-white” Cessna 172s, a handful of “blue-on-white” Piper Warriors, and 3 to 4 “white” Experimentals. My point is you can’t rely just on the aircraft type, call sign or color combo, to build and maintain adequate situational awareness in the traffic pattern. In fact, you can’t/shouldn’t rely on the radio in the first place—which is probably good, since radios aren’t required. It always comes down to See and Avoid.

    What’s as important–even more so–than how you describe your airplane, is making the proper calls to begin with, so I can pick you out of the flying circus.

    I hope we all agree there is way too much buffoonery being broadcast on the CTAFs; and that tends to be annoying—although entertaining at times as well. Some of my favorites:

    – The pilot who keys the mike—then decides to think out loud for a few minutes; or narrates his entire trip around the local area. I guess they figure that the more they talk, the more they are increasing everyone’s situational awareness. I don’t dispute the value of accurate information, but more isn’t always better. Treat your broadcasting time on the radio like the gas in your tank: Use it wisely.

    – Pilots that use local geographic references when making traffic pattern calls/position reports, instead of specifically referencing the airport or runway itself. Reporting “2 miles south of the twin bridges”, “East of the State Park”, or “Over Joe’s house” might mean something to a local operator, but probably not much to the transient pilot.

    – The FBO that discusses fuel prices, restaurant menus, or rental car options, over the CTAF, with an aircraft parked on the ramp, while airborne planes are trying to make traffic pattern calls. Do that in person—or use a cell phone!

    But what really lights me up is the inappropriate, unprofessional, and CB radio-type conversations, which are not only wrong—but dangerous. There’s no place for vulgar language—or petty arguments—over the radio—period.

    Bottom Line:

    Follow the AIM: Adjust as required, given the circumstances. Always strive for brevity.

    Fights On! Viva la ADS-B!

  • Tom and Duane nailed it. More half-baked “advice” here that is worthless, or perhaps even dangerous. How many airplanes are white with blue trim? Almost all. Stick to the AIM. Instead of cessna go ahead and say skyhawk, or abbreviate last two numbers which are almost always unique.

    A few more points to consider:

    1. Some places record the CTAF to assess landing fees. State your full N number at these places when landing at least once, otherwise it looks like you are trying to skirt the rules. It is good practice in case somebody needs to contact you regarding a safety concern too.

    2. The article author conflates declaring an emergency and saying mayday. Saying “MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY” in a high traffic density area will shut everybody up – it is designed to get full attention, support from all listeners, and silence nonessential radio traffic. If that is what you need, then fine. However, if you just need to declare an emergency in a controlled fashion, do so, and then get off the frequency (they may give you a discrete one for ATC communications) with somebody that can help you.

    3. If you call MAYDAY for your electrical failure, keep in mind you may make a jet filled with passengers go around. You may delay operations, and even possibly increase the danger to other busy airspaces as they delay their nonessential comms.

    The quote: “MAYDAY is a phrase that needs to be said much more often” is utter foolishness. If you need ATC immediate undivided attention, then go ahead, but if not then fly the plane, troubleshoot, and get assistance and declare emergency in an appropriate fashion.

    The fact that the author, a “master instructor” boasts about how frequently he has declared an emergency is concerning.

  • “Making radio calls with just a tail number is useless.”

    Am I the only one that has had occasion to actually talk to another plane in the pattern? I’m much more comfortable coordinating directly with “two six x-ray” than “blue striped Cessna.”

    My view of working in an uncontrolled airport pattern is that self-announcing works for the majority of the time, but there are occasions when I have felt the need to ask if the landing is a full-stop or tough & go – those are very different things on runways that require a back-taxi to clear.

  • Adding color or colors and high or low wing to call in the pattern at a non-towered airport only adds 2-3 seconds to your radio call and helps anyone else in the pattern to identify you. Since when is the AIM completely correct or able to cover for every situation? By all means, type, location, altitude and pattern intentions are essential but knowing Cessna 66N is green/white on a left downwind lets be know that Bubba flying the pattern in a red experimental without a radio isn’t known to 66N and I can warn him and keep clear myself.

    It’s about providing more complete situational awareness to other pilots which helps all our safety.

    • Adding 2-3 seconds to every call at a busy non-towered airport can get someone killed.

      Brevity, sticking only to what is necessary for safe flight, is and must be the objective.

      If you’re lollygagging at a remote rural airport where they get one or two operations a day, that might work out. Not at the busier airports.

      • Situational awareness gained is more valuable than call brevity. That simple. I fly in the Bay area and, if I listen to the comms traffic at any of the local airports, towered or not, there is always time to add pertinent information to your calls. Your statement that this could “get someone killed” is a bit hyperbolic. You are right that sticking to what is necessary for safe flight is the primary objective. However, lumping brevity in the same sentence does not put it at the same level of importance, it falls below getting a more complete traffic picture.

        • Adding color commentary adds nothing, nada, zero to situational awareness.

          Who, what, and where – that’s what the AIM calls for, no more no less.

          • “Red and white skyhawk” is better than “Skyhawk 66N” when you’re 2 miles away, fewer syllables too. That’s the who and what, just add where…

  • The author replies with enthusiasm to every participant who either agrees with him or compliments him, and replies to virtually none of the several of us who are promoting professionalism in communication. The Master CFI’s techniques are NOT better than the standardized, published, communication protocols that all the rest of us have been complying with forever. You telegraph your amateur status and your rogue tendencies when you waste community air time telling me where the wings are mounted on your airplane or what color some of your airplane may be, especially when you exclude your make, model, and/or registration. For example, “Debonair” tells me everything I need to know about you, whereas “white low wing” just tasks me wondering if you’re a Tomahawk or a T-38. You hear stuff on the radio all too often that just makes you cringe. This is some of that stuff. To the Master CFI I respectfully submit: the only thing worse than making this stuff up is publishing it to the greater community.

  • These are all great (though I agree with the question about whether “Mayday” should be used if an aircraft isn’t imminently going down; declaring an emergency would seem sufficient). On a recent flight from Minneapolis to Tucson in my white high-wing LSA 27J (a Jabiru, which perhaps10% of pilots could identify), I was reminded of the importance of two things: Repeating the location about which you’re calling at the end of a transmission (“Lakeville traffic, high-wing LSA 27J entering left downwind runway 30, Lakeville); and stating a direction of flight when announcing departure. When you’re high enough to hear several CTAF’s, the former helps immensely; and simply announcing departure without direction greatly limits the helpfulness of the announcement.

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