While not a genuine stick-and-rudder skill, being good at talking on and – equally important – listening to the radio is a crucial ability to have as a pilot. Whether you are a general aviation pilot flying VFR and announcing your location and intentions at an uncontrolled field or an airline pilot flying IFR and talking to approach control, good communications allow efficient, effective, and safe air traffic. There are many ways to improve your radio procedures, even when not actually in the cockpit. Here are some great free resources to help pilots of all skill levels improve their communications skills.
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM). Obviously one of the official source documents for pilot communications. During your flight training, you became intimately familiar with this manual. If you have not read it since your formal flight training program, download the most recent edition and check to see what has changed or look at the table of contents and reread some sections that interest you. Great sections to review, specific to communications, are: “Radio Communications Phraseology and Techniques,” “Air Traffic Procedures,” “Two-way Radio Communications Failure,” and the “Pilot/Controller Glossary.” But since communications are inherently linked to everything we do, you’ll see “Phraseology” examples throughout other sections of the AIM that are also key to know and understand. Read it here
LiveATC.net. This website is a great resource to listen in to a lot of ATC frequencies, from ground, tower, clearance delivery, ATIS, approach, center and even FBO/Unicom. You can listen to a feed from their website or download a mobile app. They have archived sections of “Interesting Recordings” and also filter different frequencies that are in “Potentially Bad Weather,” which would theoretically make the radio communications a little more complex. For student pilots working on their private pilot certificates, this is a great way to get familiar with the new world of aviation communications. For those working on their instrument rating, listening to IFR communications will help add on that extra layer. Just by listening to how pilots and controllers talk on the radio is a great way to learn. Listen here
Some other good ways to train with LiveATC:
- Clearance Delivery: Listen to a clearance delivery for a Class B airport. Pretend you are receiving a clearance and copy it down. Practice your shorthand so that it becomes second nature.
- Ground: Pull up an airport diagram of an airport you are going to fly into and listen to ground controller instructions on how they route aircraft to and from the runways. For more advanced practice, find a Class B airport and listen to the ground controller (or more likely, one of multiple ground controllers) and be ready to copy a taxi clearance for an airliner that just cleared the runway and is taxiing back to the gate, or is leaving the gate and ready to taxi to the runway for departure. Pretend you are in the cockpit and write down the clearance. Finally, practice repeating back the clearance to the controller.
- Tower: If you haven’t flown to a Class B/C/D airport and have not worked with a tower controller, familiarize yourself with proper procedures and protocol. Also, if you are going to go to an unfamiliar airport anytime soon, it might be useful to tune up their tower frequency before you head out there to listen to common traffic patterns in use so that you are somewhat familiar and know what to expect when you show up there in the airplane.
- Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF): To brush up on your non-towered controlled fields, listen in to a busy CTAF. Practice building that mental picture of where each aircraft is in the pattern based off of their advisory calls. Practice making your own calls. Be sure to cross check the AIM Table 4−1−1 “Summary of Recommended Communication Procedures.”
- Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON or approach/departure control): In the IFR world, probably one of the most often used and busiest radio calls is the approach clearance. Pretend you are in the aircraft transitioning from the en route structure to the terminal area. Listen to the approach controller, be ready to copy a clearance, and then rehearse your response. Listen to airline pilots to see what of the original clearance they actually responded with and come up with your own response technique, using at least the minimum read-back items.
Handheld Aviation Scanner or Navigation/Communication radio. Although much of this capability can be replaced with LiveATC.net, if you have a specific VHF frequency that you want to tune up, but is not available on LiveATC.net, a handheld aviation scanner (or your backup handheld Nav/Comm) will do the trick, as long as you are within line of sight range of a transmitter. Find one here
Airline Inflight Entertainment. Certain United Airlines flights allow you to tune into Channel 9 on the inflight entertainment systems to listen in on the specific channel the cockpit is tuned into. You can follow along the Air Traffic Control (ATC) communications from departure to your destination. As an added bonus, follow along with a chart and an approach plate from your Electronic Flight Bag, while ensuring you are following the latest rules and regulations governing electronic devices.
YouTube. Certified Flight Instructor Jason Schappert from MzeroA.com has several good videos and webinars on YouTube discussing various communications topics from: “Uncontrolled Airport Radio Communications,” Class B/C/D communications, and their most-popular “The Secret To VFR Radio Communications Webinar.” Watch here
King Schools. John and Martha King have a free online course on “Non-Towered Airport Communications.” As with all of their paid courses, this one is also high quality. Watch here
FAA Order JO 7110.65 “Air Traffic Control” order. This is the official FAA publication that “prescribes air traffic control procedures and phraseology for use by personnel providing air traffic control services.” Although it is specifically for air traffic controllers and is pretty advanced reading for pilots, it is nonetheless the official instruction that the FAA prescribes for air traffic controllers. Read it here
FAA Advisory Circular 90-42F “Traffic Advisory Practices at Airports Without Operating Control Towers.” This Advisory Circular “contains good operating practices and procedures for use when approaching or departing airports without an operating control tower and airports that have control towers operating part time.” Although published in 1990, its procedures are still applicable. Read it here
Other FAA Handbooks. Download the latest “Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge,” “Instrument Procedures Handbook,” and “Instrument Procedures Handbook.” Read them here
AOPA Rusty Pilots Seminar. If you have been out of the cockpit for an extended period of time, and want to get back into flying, you can attend one of its Rusty Pilots seminars for free. Among other topics discussed are radio procedures. More info
It is incumbent on all pilots – whether student, sport, private, commercial, or airline transport – to be professional aviators. Using standardized, clear, and concise radio communications is one of those ways to achieve that goal. The only way to get better is to learn and understand the rules and to continue to practice those procedures. With these resources, best of all, you don’t even need to be in the cockpit to practice. Mastering listening and talking on the radio while on the ground will make these skills just as natural as breathing. Then, when you’re actually flying, you will worry less on making the correct call, which will make the actual flying that much more enjoyable.