40 Must-Know Pilot-ATC Radio Phrases for VFR Pilots

This is a list of pilot and air traffic control (ATC) phrases and examples for VFR pilots (student, private, etc) who don’t have a lot of experience with radio communications. Many terms and phrases used on the radio don’t have obvious meanings. This guide is meant to help with that.

I learned to fly at a fairly busy Class D airport with a control tower. I had to get comfortable talking on the radio and become familiar with radio procedures pretty quickly. At that time there was a fairly decent amount of other student pilots training. Also, F-16s were stationed there for the Air National Guard that flew frequently. This was pretty awesome and I had a lot of fun flying there!

On my first solo, I was told to make a LOW APPROACH by the tower controller. I wasn’t expecting that instruction because I had never heard that radio call at any point prior with my instructor. Luckily I did what I was supposed to and flew the low approach correctly, but it wasn’t obvious what I needed to do. I want to try and prevent you from getting caught off guard in the cockpit like this.

DISCLAIMER: This is not a complete list of terms you need to know. This is a hand-picked list from the Pilot/Controller Glossary of terms that I feel are super-important for new pilots when conducting operations at and around the airport, or other important phases of flight. Another useful guide is the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) for pilot controller communications. Study both of these manuals thoroughly during your pilot training.

I have listed the actual verbiage of the radio communications in capital letters. You should commit this phraseology to memory so you’re not caught off-guard in the air. I have also divided the phrases into various categories for different types of communications you will have. They are not listed in order of importance, but I did my best to do it alphabetically.

A Tip For Student Pilots

If you are a student pilot, the controllers want to help you. This is why you should identify yourself as a student pilot while communicating to ATC. Controllers will be able to better accommodate you, while you help them. As Tom Cruise said in that movie…help them help you.

An example radio transmission could go like this. “Muncie Tower, Cessna 2357X, is 10 miles to the south, inbound for touch and gos, student pilot.”

Just tack “student pilot” on the end of your initial radio transmission with a controller and you’re good to go!

Basic Radio Communications

ACKNOWLEDGE

If asked to acknowledge by a controller, it means they want you to confirm that you understood their latest instruction. The best way to acknowledge is to say “roger” and simply repeat the instructions you were given. If you didn’t understand the instructions you can ask them to repeat the instructions by using the phrase “say again.”

AFFIRMATIVE

Affirmative simply means…yes. Was this term easy to learn? Affirmative.

BLOCKED or STEPPED ON

Used to describe when a radio transmission was not readable due to multiple radio transmissions on the same frequency. This is also known as “stepping on” others. If two people transmit at the same time, they are both stepping on each other.

EXPEDITE

Quite simply…hurry up. If you are told to expedite some instruction from ATC, it means to comply promptly and do what they say for the sake of safety. Always remember however, that you should never compromise your or your passenger’s safety. If you can’t perform what is being asked by ATC, tell them you are “unable.”

HOW DO YOU HEAR ME?

This is a question that can be asked by a pilot or controller to another pilot or controller about the quality of their radio transmission. A good transmission can be answered with “loud and clear,” but a bad transmission can be met with “garbled” or “barely readable.”

MONITOR

Many times ATC will tell pilots to monitor frequencies. One of the most common examples is after landings, a pilot will be told “taxi to the ramp, monitor ground point six.” Monitor means switch to switch to the frequency, and listen to wait for further instructions. In the case of “ground point six” we would switch our radios to 121.6 (121 is the “ground” frequency), and listen as we taxied to the ramp.

NEGATIVE

The official way to say…no. Opposite of affirmative.

ROGER

“Roger” means I have received and understand your radio transmission. It is not a yes or no, like affirmative or negative. It’s simply an acknowledgement of hearing and understanding. Don’t use “roger” in place of “affirmative.”

SAY AGAIN

A request to repeat the previous radio transmission, most likely due to a misunderstanding in communications.

UNABLE

Simply, the pilot cannot comply with a request from ATC, or ATC cannot grant a request from a pilot.

WILCO

Short for “will comply.” It means you have heard the request and will comply with the instructions given to you.

Airport Operations

BACK TAXI

This is an instruction given by ATC, or pilots can request if needed, to taxi on the runway the opposite direction of the flow of takeoffs and landings. It may be used to increase available runway distance for takeoff, and there may be times where you should request it if you need it. It is also an instruction given to us by ATC after landing. Oftentimes you’ll be instructed to “make a 180 and back taxi” to exit a runway.

BRAKING ACTION

Braking action is the effectiveness of the brakes on the runway and airport surfaces when it is snowing or raining heavily. If precipitation has caused the runways and taxiways to be slick, braking action will be given a rating such as poor or nil. If it is okay, it will be given a good report. Braking action reports will often be mentioned in the ATIS broadcasts and should be noted when approaching an airport.

CLEARED FOR THE OPTION

The “option” gives the pilot discretion to do whatever he/she desires during an approach and landing. This includes the option to touch-and-go, low approach, missed approach, stop and go, or a full stop landing. This clearance is often given to pilots by ATC when we are at a controlled airport and have the traffic pattern to ourselves with no other aircraft in the vicinity.

CLOSED TRAFFIC

This one baffled me for a while when I first started flight training. If I approached the airport and requested touch-and-gos the controller would say something like “cleared for the option, after the option, make left closed traffic.” I never knew what the “closed” part of that meant. It means successive trips around the traffic pattern in which the pilot does not exit the pattern.

GO AROUND

A procedure in which a pilot abandons an approach to land, and reconfigures the aircraft to climb. This usually includes adding power, and slowly “cleaning up” the aircraft configuration. Sometimes ATC will order pilots to go around if there is a safety concern. Many times this will be another aircraft on the runway, but it could also be for a variety of other reasons.

You may also decide to initiate a go around if you determine that you cannot safely land. In situations of extreme crosswinds for example, it may be wise to abort a landing, go around, and try again.

LAND AND HOLD SHORT OPERATION (LAHSO)

When listening to ATIS, you will often hear “land and hold short operations are in effect.” LAHSO are used at airports with intersecting runways or taxiways, and aircraft are instructed to land and hold short of a specific location on the field. Usually the “hold short point” is a runway, but can also be a taxiway, or approach/departure end of another runway.

As the PIC, you have the authority to accept or reject the LAHSO instruction. Student pilots on solo flights are not authorized to accept LAHSO instructions.

Before accepting a LAHSO clearance, make sure you can safely meet the demand placed on you and your aircraft. Keep in mind landing distance requirements for your aircraft, and your ability to land at the necessary spot on the runway.

LINE UP AND WAIT

“Line up and wait” is the instruction given to a pilot just before takeoff. Back when I was flying the official phraseology was “position and hold” but that has changed.

It means to literally, taxi onto the runway, line up with the runway centerline, and wait for further instruction. Obviously the next instruction given is “cleared for takeoff” unless unforeseen circumstances come into play to prevent a takeoff.

Many times this instruction will be issued when it is necessary to wait on other aircraft to taxi clear of the active runway, cross the active runway, there is traffic at the departure end of the runway, or wake turbulence is a factor from a heavy aircraft taking off/landing.

LOW APPROACH

A low approach is an approach to landing where a go-around is initiated before landing and the aircraft does not touch the ground.

MAKE SHORT APPROACH

Sometimes you will be asked to “make short approach” while practicing landings in closed traffic. This is an abbreviated downwind, base, and final leg of a traffic pattern, used to get on the ground quicker than the standard traffic pattern.

Sometimes it is requested from ATC to pilots for traffic separation, and other times us pilots will request short approaches if we are practicing power-off 180s to simulate engine failures.

PROGRESSIVE TAXI

Requesting progressive taxi instructions from ATC is another way of asking for precise, step-by-step instructions on how to reach a location on the ground. It can be used if you are at an unfamiliar airport and want to prevent getting lost on the ground.

Do your own homework and study the airport diagrams before arriving at an airport so you don’t absolutely need to request progressive taxi. Think of it as a backup service that you can request if you really need it and are overwhelmed. Don’t hesitate however, to request it if you are not confident that you know where you are on the field. The last thing you want to do is wander aimlessly at an unfamiliar airport on the ground.

RUNWAY HEADING

The magnetic heading of the runway. If the runway is 10 but the magnetic heading of the runway is 104 degrees, the “runway heading” is 104, not 100. Pilots will often be told to fly runway heading after a takeoff.

STOP AND GO

This always confused me when I started because I knew that I needed to perform stop and gos to meet night flying requirements. A stop and go is a landing where after touching down, the aircraft is brought to a complete stop, then a takeoff is performed from the spot in which the aircraft initially came to a stop.

Navigation

ABEAM

If you are “abeam” something, it means the object is 90 degrees to the left or right of the track of your aircraft. The most common example is “abeam the numbers,” which describes your position on the downwind leg of a traffic pattern, when the runway numbers are 90 degrees off of your flight path. This is often the point at which you start or continue to configure the aircraft for landing.

DIRECT

Instruction to fly a straight path to a navigation aid, fix, or point. This is usually used in IFR operations while receiving radar vectors, but it’s not exclusive to IFR. If instructed by ATC to fly direct to a certain location, this would require you to deviate from the current route.

ETA

Estimated time of arrival. Can be calculated by taking the ETE and adding it to the time of departure. ATC will ask for this on occasion, especially on a cross-country flight.

ETE

The total time it will take from departure to landing (takeoff to touchdown). This is a term commonly used in cross-country flights. Sometimes ATC will ask for it.

TFR

Short for “temporary flight restriction.” Always know where the TFRs are when flying, unless you want an F-16 off your wing 😉.

ATC Radar Services

CONVECTIVE SIGMET

This is a SIGMET (Significant Meteorological Information) that is related to convective activity (thunderstorms). If you are on a cross-country flight, and ATC comes on the radio discussing a CONVECTIVE SIGMET, pay close attention. All SIGMETs and AIRMETs are important. However a CONVECTIVE SIGMET can often pop up unexpectedly. This is all the more reason to conduct ample study of the weather before every flight away from your home base.

FLIGHT FOLLOWING and TRAFFIC ADVISORIES

As a VFR pilot, you may request “flight following” or “traffic advisories” from ATC when you would like to be informed of other traffic in your proximity. This is used to help you safely avoid other aircraft.

You may request flight following at any point during your flight, as long as you are in the radar range of the facility you are contacting. An example traffic advisory from ATC could be “Skyhawk 749DX, traffic two oclock, 3 miles, eastbound, six thousand.” This tells you that you need to start looking out your right side for an aircraft at six thousand feet.

IMPORTANT: The pilot-in-command (PIC) is ultimately responsible for avoiding aircraft on VFR flight. VFR advisories are issued from ATC on a workload permitting basis. IFR traffic is higher priority than VFR, so you’re not guaranteed to get an advisory issued to you when controller workload is high.

Once you make visual contact with the traffic, you can respond with TRAFFIC IN SIGHT, or NEGATIVE CONTACT if you don’t see the traffic.

IDENT

When a controller tells a pilot to “ident” they are asking them to press a button on the transponder that allows them to see where you are on radar. It helps with aircraft identification and allows the controller to confirm they are seeing the correct aircraft.

NEGATIVE CONTACT

If you are issued a traffic advisory, and after visually searching for the traffic you still don’t see them, you can inform ATC “negative contact on the traffic.” This will let them know you can’t see the traffic and may need further assistance locating them. Usually they will continue to update you if a potential collision is imminent, but traffic avoidance under VFR is the PIC’s responsibility.

NUMEROUS TARGETS IN VICINITY

This is a term used to let pilots know that there are numerous aircraft in a location that you have requested advisories in. This is used in lieu of individual traffic advisories for each aircraft that poses a hazard.

RADAR CONTACT

This is the term ATC will use to let you know they see you on their radar, and have positively identified you. The most common times you will hear this is when you have requested flight following and are contacting a departure controller, and when arriving at an airport and requesting traffic advisories on your way in.

RADAR SERVICE TERMINATED

This is used by ATC to let you know they are no longer providing traffic advisory services that have been previously been provided.

RESUME OWN NAVIGATION

This is used mostly under IFR flights, but after receiving a radar vectors (heading(s) assigned to you), ATC will tell you when to resume navigating independently of their instructions, by using this phrase.

SQUAWK VFR

To “squawk” means to dial your transponder to a specific code. The “VFR” part means transponder code 1200. This is the code that VFR aircraft are advised to use, unless otherwise instructed by an ATC facility.

TRAFFIC IN SIGHT

If issued a traffic advisory, this is the phrase used to inform ATC that you have spotted the aircraft.

TRAFFIC NO FACTOR

If a traffic advisory has been issued to you by ATC, and is determined to be “no factor” it means that it no longer poses a safety hazard and separation is adequate.

TRAFFIC NO LONGER OBSERVED

This means that the controller can no longer see targets (aircraft) on his/her radar that were previously issued in an advisory. It DOES NOT however assure that there are no aircraft. It just means the controller can’t see them on the radar scope.

Many times when you inform a controller that you are switching radio frequencies to a Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) for an uncontrolled airport, they will tell you “no traffic observed in the pattern.” to help you familiarize yourself with what they see. On the other hand, they will often say “numerous targets observed in the vicinity of XYZ airport.”

Conclusion

This list is my personal guide of recommended radio phrases, examples, scripts, terms, and lingo for pilots who are fairly new to flying in busy, controlled airspace and airports. Study these terms and commit them to memory.

Are there any terms I missed? Have any terms tripped you up in the middle of a flight? If so, let me know in the comments. Thanks!

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