Radio Etiquette for Pilots

FAA Safety Briefing Editor, general aviation pilot, and flight instructor Susan K. Parson recently published a list called “Rules for Radio” that spells out proper and incorrect radio etiquette when you’re communicating to air traffic controllers. These tips are incredibly valuable for student pilots or those struggling with ATC communications. So, here’s a list of what not to say, with some tips for what to say.

Don’t Make Up Your Own Lingo

Learn the language of flying. Just as English has its own grammar, syntax, diction, pace, and vocabulary, so does aviation. The FAA Pilot/Controller Glossary defines the meaning and proper use of aviation terms. Try practicing with a website like or an app like PlaneEnglish, or use an aviation-band radio.

Keep it Short

“Think Twitter, not your blog,” Parson says. Brevity is the goal in aviation communication. As you work to learn Plane English, practice writing what you might say. Make it a personal challenge to cut words to the minimum.

Think Before You Speak

The formula for short and simple asks a few questions. Who are you calling? Who are you? Where are you in terms of distance, direction, and altitude? What do you want to do? Make your message short and understandable. Ideally, you can accomplish this in just one transmission.

Slow Down

Don’t talk too fast. Although some controllers at congested airports will talk at an auctioneer like pace, it’s not expected that you do the same. It’s not a contest. Speak at a measured pace. If you don’t understand what the controller said, say “say again” or ask a clarifying question.

Use the Word “Unable”

There is no shame in using the word “unable.” If you’re unable to fly in bad weather communicate it. You don’t need to lead with a detailed explanation to the ATC. Just simply say “unable” to communicate your point with maximum efficiency. If the ATC wants to follow up with details they will.

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