Radio Communications (AIM 4-2) & VFR Flight Plans (AIM 5-1-4)

Table of Contents

  1. Basics
  2. Alphabet and Numbers
  3. Useful Words and Phrases
  4. Radio Technique
  5. Avoid Saying
  6. Non-Towered Airport Radio Work
  7. Towered Airport Radio Work
  8. Flight Following


Who you are talking to: Hood River traffic, Yakima tower, Seattle center, etc.

Who you are: N3934F or Skyhawk 3934F, etc.

Where you are: distance to, and direction from, airport; then altitude, then direction of travel (if relevant)

What you intend to do: landing, ground reference maneuvers, etc.

End with area: Hood River, The Dalles, etc. (non-towered aerodromes)

Alphabet and Numbers

Letter Pronunciation
A Alpha
B Bravo
C Charlie
D Delta
E Echo
F Foxtrot
G Golf
H Hotel
I India
J Juliett
K Kilo
L Lima
M Mike
N November
O Oscar
P Papa
Q Quebec
R Romeo
S Sierra
T Tango
U Uniform
V Victor
W Whiskey
X X-ray
Y Yankee
Z Zulu
Number Pronunciation
0 ZEE-ro
4 FOW-er
7 SEV-en
9 NIN-er

"Decimal" or "point" for "."
For larger numbers, each numeral is pronounced separately. 10 is one zero, 19 is one niner. 238 is too tree ait. "Hundred" and "thousand" are used for altitudes. 10500 is one zero thousand five hundred.

Useful Words and Phrases

Affirmative Yes
Negative No
Expedite Act promptly
Unable Cannot comply
NORDO No radio
Say again? Repeat last
Emergency Urgent problem
Hold short Do not cross line
Standby Wait and do not respond
When able Act at first opportunity
Go ahead Proceed with your message
Ident Push Ident on transponder
Roger Message received
Squawk # Enter this # on transponder
Mayday (Repeated 3x) Grave emergency
Line up and wait Taxi onto runway, then wait
Traffic in sight I see the traffic you asked me to look for
Traffic no factor Previously described traffic is no factor (i.e. not going to collide)
Negative contact I do not see the described traffic
How do you hear me? What is the quality of my message? ("Loud and clear" is desireable)
Movement area Runways and taxiways. Clearance required at towered airports
Radio Check Someone please tell me how I'm transmitting

Radio Technique

As you master proper radio phraseology, you will get to say a lot of cool and impressive-sounding things. Other pilots will quietly applaud your professionalism and your passengers will be in awe - so much so that you do not need to say any of the following...

Avoid Saying

"With you" Of course you are "with" ATC; who else are you talking to? This is a verbal tic, like saying "You know?" or "Ummm."
"Area traffic please advise" AIM 4-1-9(g)(1): This phrase "should not be used under any condition." Listen to the frequency. Pay attention. You are the PIC.
"Clear of the active" Non-towered airports do not have active runways. Use the runway identifier. If there is only one runway, a pilot in the air who does not know the area may wonder "What other runways are there?" Again, use the runway identifier, or say "clear of the runway" for single runway airports.
"I have them on ADSB/fishfinder" ATC only cares about visual contact. Your mission is to see and avoid. A blip on ADSB-in does not equate to seeing.
"Roger" instead of a read back "Roger" just means received and understood. It is not a read back. It is also not an "affirmative." It should be used very rarely.
"Roger that" or "Copy that" What else would you be "rogering" or "copying", if not whatever ATC just said?
"For" and "to" Reduce the use of "for" and "to", as they are easily confused with "4" and "2".
"taking off" Don't say it unless ACTUALLY taking off.
"Yellow Cub" / "Red and White Skyhawk" AIM 4-2-4. Don't do it. use your unique identifier to avoid confusion and prevent collisions.

Non-Towered Airport Radio Work (AIM 4-1-9)

The primary purpose of position reporting on CTAF is collision avoidance. Your primary responsibility is to see and avoid. Monitor frequency, whether on approach or departure, within 10 nm of the airport. The AIM recommends self announcing on CTAF prior to taxiing onto movement areas and prior to taxiing onto the runway for departure. The AIM also recommends self announcing on inbound at the following points: 10 miles out, entering downwind, base, final, and leaving the runway. Once you enter a 10 nm radius of any non-towered airport, you should be monitoring CTAF.

Here's how those calls might go:

"Hood River traffic: Skyhawk 34F, at north ramp. Taxi 25. Hood River."
"Hood River traffic: Skyhawk 3924F, departing 25 to the north. Hood River.

"Hood River traffic: Skyhawk 3934F, 10 east at 2000. Landing. Hood River."
"Hood River traffic: Skyhawk 34F, left downwind runway 7. Hood River."
"Hood River traffic: Skyhawk 34F, left base 7. Hood River."
"Hood River traffic: Skyhawk 34F, final runway 7. Hood River."
"Hood River traffic: Skyhawk 34F clear of the runway. Hood River."

Hood River is a small, normally quiet airport. The bolded calls above should always be made. But on the others, you will develop the ability to judge whether they are appropriate given the circumstances. Depending on your altitude, speed, and other factors, you might make your initial inbound call at 5 miles out, for instance. Or on a position announcement, you might add that you are "over the north bank of the Columbia" to provide clarification to other pilots.

If there is some congestion near the airport, you may choose to make a call such as:

"Hood River traffic: Skyhawk 34F is 2 north at 1500. Planning to cross over midfield and enter left downwind 25. Hood River."

A call like that can provide useful, even crucial, information to other pilots active in the area. (Note: this is one of the two recommended pattern entries.) Another useful position call is:

"Hood River traffic: Skyhawk 34F left 3 mile forty-five, runway 25. Hood River."

The 45 degree entry to the downwind is the preferred entry and other pilots should yield to those on the forty-five. Saying "forty-five" is the ONE exception to pronouncing numerals separately.

In a non-towered environment, always use your full call sign on initial contact and continue using it if a similar sounding call sign is on frequency. Both the FAA and the Air Safety Institute recommend using your aircraft model as the first part of your call sign, and then you can drop the 'November'. You can also abbreviate to the last three numbers/letters. (So N3934F becomes Skyhawk 34F.) Identifying yourself in this way gives other pilots useful information about your performance characteristics and is easier to recall. A Bonanza will fly the downwind much faster than a J-3 Cub.

On downwind with inbound aircraft behind you? This is a good time to share your intentions. You can add "full stop, touch and go, simulated engine failure landing, etc." after specifying the landing runway.

If you are flying in a non-towered environment and you hear a "Yellow Cub" (or similar) position report, you may ask, "Yellow Cub on frequency: what's your call sign?" First, you really do want this information to help with collision avoidance. Second, asking may cause the yellow Cub pilot to reassess his/her self-identifying practices. Making Color/Model calls only sounds cool to the ignorant.

AVIATE, NAVIGATE, COMMUNICATE - in that order. Instead of calling base and final, focus on flying the plane. As you become more skilled, you can add those calls in when the airport environment is busy enough to warrant them. If you are trying to make a position report and it causes you to lose control of the airplane and fly into a tree, then that radio call did not accomplish its collision avoidance objective.

If you need to taxi across the runway, always carefully clear the area first. It may be prudent to make a radio call depending upon activity. If you do, you can say:

"Hood River traffic: Skyhawk 34F on the ground at west end of runway, crossing runway to the north. Hood River."

Back taxiing also requires a radio call for maximum safety:

"Hood River traffic, Skyhawk 34F back taxi 25. Hood River."

Making this call after landing on runway 25 means that you have made a 180 degree turn and are taxiing to the beginning of runway 25. Only do this if you are sure no one else is in the pattern.

Finally, at a larger airport where you do not have line of sight on all the taxiway and runway endpoints, making a radio call before taxiing onto a movement area is a smart choice. "The Dalles traffic: Skyhawk 34F at fuel, taxi 31 via Alpha. The Dalles."

A similar, detailed position/intention report upon leaving the runway is also advisable.

Towered Airport Radio Work

As you near Class Delta airspace, you should listen to the ATIS. This will tell you the proper altimeter setting, as well as wind conditions which will give you a good idea of which runway is being used. Every hour, the weather report has an identifier, "Information Oscar", for example. About 10 miles from the Class Delta, this is what you would say:

"Troutdale Tower, Skyhawk 3934F. 10 east at 1500. Landing with Oscar. Request touch and goes."

From that point on, Tower is holding your hand. They will tell you what to do. If you aren’t planning to land, you do not need to talk about Oscar. For instance:

"Troutdale Tower, Skyhawk 3934F. 10 east at 1500. Transiting west."

You need to hear your call sign from Tower in order to enter the Class Delta. That is all.

"Skyhawk 3934F, standby." Radio contact has been established, you may enter
"Aircraft calling, standby." You didn't hear your name, so remain outside Delta.

Of course, Tower may also ask you directly to remain outside of their airspace.

Here's a sample radio exchange from initial contact to engine shut down:

"Troutdale Tower, N3934F, student pilot. 10 east at 2000. Inbound, landing with Juliett."
 "N3934F, roger. Say type aircraft. Report at 3 miles."
"Troutdale Tower, N3934F is a Cessna 172, will report at 3 miles."

(A little later...)

"Troutdale Tower, N3934F at 3 east."
 "34F, you are cleared to land straight in 25, say destination"
"Cleared to land straight in 25, I'm headed to transient parking. 34F."
 "34F, go ahead and exit the runway on your right - stay with me this frequency."
"Exit on the right, thanks. 34F."

(After landing...)

"34F clear of 25 at Alpha 4."
"Okay 34F, taxi east on Alpha and you will see transient parking on your left by the fuel tank."
"Taxi transient via Alpha, 34F."

The conversation might go like that, but it might not. Once a controller abbreviates your call sign to the last three, then YOU can abbreviate to the last three. Also, once you are reading back instructions it's usually clearer to end transmissions with your call sign. After you exit the movement area, you should not contact Ground unless you have a problem or question. When you are ready to depart from a towered airport, you will obtain the ATIS and any other relevant information. Then you will start your engine and taxi to the edge of the ramp, but NOT onto a taxiway. At that point, you contact Ground like this:

"Troutdale Ground, Skyhawk 3934F at transient with information Mike. Request taxi for departure to the west."

Notice, this follows the same formula: who you are calling, who you are, where you are, what you want to do. You might hear back:

 "34F, taxi 25 via Alpha."
"Taxi 25 via Alpha, 34F."

At this point, you will start taxiing towards 25. Along the way, you will perform your runup and instrument checks, then proceed to the hold short line for 25. Once you are there and ready for take off, you will switch your radio over to Troutdale Tower, and say:

"Troutdale Tower, Skyhawk 3934F, ready for departure runway 25."
 "3934F, wind calm, runway 25, cleared for takeoff."
"Cleared for takeoff, 3934F."

Then you can taxi onto the runway and take off.

Wind Check You don't need to identify yourself or state position to get a wind check. You can just say "Wind check". Then you might hear back, "Wind 290 at 14". This can be useful if the wind is rapidly changing, or if ATIS is not functioning. (ATIS is usually updated hourly.)
The Option You can request "the option". If you are cleared for the option, it means you can make any kind of landing you wish: full stop, stop and go, touch and go, or even a low pass or go-around. It's a useful tool that can take the stress out of landing in certain situations.
Unable You are the pilot in command. If you don't think something is safe, or you are uncomfortable doing it, say "Unable." The controller is sitting in the tower. You are in the plane. No one is going to get angry with you. The controller will work with you.
Progressive Taxi If it's a complicated airport with taxiways crossing runways and you are bewildered by the instructions you receive, just ask for a progressive taxi. Ground will tell you what to do, one stage at a time.

Above all, communicate. Don't guess at a controller's intentions. Ask for clarification. Feel free to negotiate. If you want to do something other than what tower has directed, ask if you can do what you want. Controllers work for pilots. Their job is to manage traffic in a way that maximizes safety, but they are there to help you.

Flight Following

For Hood River, we call Seattle Center on 119.65. If you wish to pick up flight following service, wait until you are at 3000 MSL or higher so Center will be able to confirm your position with radar. We DO live in the mountains. VFR flight following is a service that provides traffic and advisories (weather, airspace, and safety). Using it means you don't have to monitor a series of CTAFs, and it also means you are talking to expert help in the case of an emergency.

"Seattle Center, N3934F, VFR request."

You can use 'November' or 'Skyhawk' when communicating with ATC, but I've found they default to November, especially Seattle Approach/Departure. With Center, you want to listen to frequency a little bit first. Then wait for a solid two seconds of quiet before transmitting. Here's the rest of the dialogue:

 "N3934F, squawk 3704."
"Squawk 3704, N3934F."
 "N3934F, radar contact 5 south of Hood River. Say request and type aircraft."
"Position checks. Request VFR flight following to Astoria. Cruise at 6500. N3934F is a Cessna 172."
 "Roger 34F. The Dalles altimeter is 29.99."
"29.99, 34F."

That might be it. 119.65 is often a pretty sleepy frequency where this might be the only conversation for a while. ATC are allowed to abbreviate civil aircraft to 'N' or 'Model' followed by the last three, and pilots are supposed to follow suit. But in my experience, ATC will often just use the last three (34F in this case). If they do so, you are welcome to use the last three. But it's okay to say "Skyhawk 34F", as that provides useful information to ATC and other pilots.

These conversations can proceed completely differently, but it's always the same information, even if the order is different. Sometimes, you will call up with a request and then immediately get this response: "N3934F, squawk 5569 and say request." So you respond "5569, request VFR flight following to Astoria, N3934F."

When requesting flight following, different ATC have different preferences. But in the end, it’s about providing the following information:

Coincidentally, that is the order the controller enters the information into their system. Speak steadily and clearly.

Once you have secured flight following you must listen to the frequency. Missing calls creates more work for ATC. Their primary job is sequencing IFR flight. They will only accept VFR requests when their workload permits. So be considerate and pay attention.

Traffic advisories are the single greatest benefit of flight following. You might hear the following:

"34F, traffic one o'clock, three miles, altitude unknown."

Center uses the clock system: straight ahead of you is 12 o'clock, straight out to your left is 9 o'clock, and so on. But they base this on your ground track. So if you are crabbing into the wind, you need to adjust for the difference when looking for traffic.

If you see the traffic: "Traffic in sight, 34F" or "34F has the traffic"
If you do not see the traffic: "Looking for traffic, 34F" or "Negative contact, 34F"

Once you have the traffic in sight, it is your responsibility to avoid it. If you do not find it, ATC will continue to call it out until it is no longer a factor. Then you will hear:

 "34F, traffic is no factor."

At that point, you can stop looking and respond "34F" or "Copy, 34F". If you are traveling far enough, you will get handed off to ATC in a different zone.

 "Skyhawk 34F, contact Portland Approach on 124.35."
"124.35, Skyhawk 34F."

You then dial in 124.35, listen for a moment, and announce:

"Portland Approach, Skyhawk 3934F, 4500, VFR."
 "34F, roger. Portland altimeter is 30.11."
"30.11, 34F."

When you near your destination, ATC will often verify that you have the destination airport in sight, and then release you:

 "N3934F, radar services terminated, squawk VFR, frequency change approved."
"Squawk VFR, N3934F, thank you."

Then you dial 1200 into your transponder and switch over to CTAF. Depending on your altitude and route of flight, ATC may verify that you have destination weather and NOTAMs and then release you well before you have your destination airport in sight. Flying up the Gorge is one example, as they will lose you on both radar and radio. You can, of course, cancel your VFR flight following at any time by making the request.

When you are using flight following, ATC does not choose your route of flight or altitude. But they do have extensive information at their disposal, and they will inform you if they have concerns.

Filing, Opening, and Closing a Flight Plan

VFR flight plans are a SAR (search and rescue) service. That is their sole purpose. They are often advisable, especially in the American West where we fly over vast swathes of rugged terrain. And they are required in Canada. Many Part 135 (private charter) companies also require their pilots to file VFR flight plans. There are three main ways to file a flight plan. You can call 1800WXBRIEF. You can go to You can use your EFB. Most EFBs have a filing feature.

There is a flight plan form (AIM figure 5-1-1), but whether you are filing the plan online or calling WXBrief, the following is the information you will need to file your plan.

  1. Flight rule - VFR.
  2. Aircraft identification - the N number.
  3. Aircraft type - usually G, see AIM table 5-1-4.
  4. True Airspeed - compute with your E6B or other calculator.
  5. Departure Point - 452 is Hood River.
  6. Departure Time - in Zulu time.
  7. Cruising Altitude - VFR: east is odd, add 500.
  8. Route of Flight - use a few waypoints along your intended route.
  9. Destination - name of airport and city.
  10. Estimated Time Enroute - calculate, and add a little padding.
  11. Remarks - prudent to add "call this number if flight plan not closed within 30 minutes of arrival time". This is insurance to prevent SAR if you simply forgot.
  12. Fuel on Board - hours and minutes of fuel you have. Day, 30 minutes extra. Night, 45.
  13. Alternate Airports - not needed.
  14. Pilot Info - fill it all out!
  15. Number Aboard - how many people are on the flight.
  16. Color of Aircraft - use main color.

Once you are in the air, contact FSS. The correct frequency is on the chart next to the VOR. Some EFBs have a feature for opening flight plans. And you can sign up for a service through WXBRIEF that allows you to send a text to open a flight plan. These methods require cellular service though, and you might not have reception.

"McMinnville Radio, Skyhawk 3934F on 122.3."

Flight Service Stations use a number of frequencies, so letting them know which one to call you back on is a good idea.

 "Skyhawk 3934F, McMinnville Radio. Go ahead.
"I would like to open my flight plan."
 "Skyhawk 3934F, your flight plan is activated. The Dalles altimeter is 30.02. We show no adverse weather along your route. We would appreciate any pilot reports on 122.0."
"30.02, thank you, 3934F."

Once you have your destination airport in sight, close your flight plan in the air. If you forget, you will need to call 1800WXBRIEF and close your plan on the ground. If you do not close your flight plan within 30 minutes of your ETA, FSS will mobilize SAR. So don't forget!

Now you know how to do all this, but should you? If you're making a VFR cross country, yes. If you don't make it to your destination, FSS mobilizes SAR. It's a safety cushion. The plane will have an ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter), but it may fail to work as intended. The thrill of aviation relies on a foundation of safety - which we build by creating redundancy.