Communications Commentary

General Information for Communications

Spend a few minutes reciting the radio alphabet until you know it by heart. Notice that almost all the letters are international words?  It's designed to be easy to remember even for people who don't speak English as a first language.  There are other radio alphabets, including this joke, but the phonetic alphabet below is the current one to use for aviation.

Alfa a Greek letter
Hotel where a pilot stays
a German name
a Slavic name
Bravo an Italian cheer
India a country
a European dad
a worldwide drink
Charlie a checkpoint in the Berlin Wall
a literary heroine
a Canadian province
cosmic rays
Delta a Greek letter
a metric unit
a literary hero
an American
Echo a reverberation
a Peruvian city
an American desert
an African people
Foxtrot a well-known dance
a biblical name
a well-know dance

Golf a Scottish game
a month of the year
what a pilot wears

The most common thing you will use the radio alphabet for is identifying your aircraft.

Let's say you are flying a C150 with the registration C-GABC into Wherever airport, in Canada. You have listened to the recorded ATIS message and it is on update "Delta".  When you call an air traffic controller, the prescribed pattern of communication goes like this:

Pilot: Wherever Tower, this is Cessna 150 Golf Alfa Bravo Charlie with Delta, over.
Tower: Cessna Golf Alfa Bravo Charlie, Wherever Tower, over
Pilot: Wherever Tower, Golf Alfa Bravo Charlie .... [your request], over
Tower: Alfa Bravo Charlie, that is approved, over
Pilot: Alfa Bravo Charlie

Note that the pilot does not leave the "Golf" out of his callsign until the controller does, but he is allowed to drop the aircraft type after saying it only once. When the pilot wants to indicate that he has heard and understood the controller's transmission, he simply says his call sign. In real life, almost no one says "over" but you will see it in answers.

In controlled airspace, (a) ensure you have permission before doing anything, (b) do what you are told as long as it can be done safely, and (c) if the instructions you are given are unsafe, or become unsafe, take whatever action is necessary to ensure safety, and inform the controller what you are doing as soon as possible.

Question-by-Question Explanation of Communications

From AIP COM 5.8.1
Canadian Private Civil Registration and Canadian or Foreign Carriers Without an Assigned Call Sign
(a) Initial contact: The manufacturer's name or the type of aircraft, followed by the last four letters of the registration.

(1) If an air traffic controller abbreviates your call sign to the last three letters, you may do that too, but you are not permitted to anticipate this.  
(2) The controller needs to record your complete call sign for Nav Canada records, so if you don't say the first letter, she will have to ask you, wasting everyone's time on frequency, "Alfa Bravo Charlie, are you a Foxtrot or a Golf?"
(3) This is the way it's supposed to be done, but most Canadian pilots and controllers don't say "over" at the end of transmissions.
(4) While in Canada, you don't need to say the "Charlie" at the beginning of the registration, because everyone's call sign starts with C. Flying a Canadian airplane in foreign countries you should say the C, as either "Charlie" or "Canadian." Some examples in the Radiotelephone Operator's Guide include the Charlie, but if you look at 5.8.1, the rule to omit the C. (The S&RG refers to 5.7.1, but the sections have been re-numbered).

If you haven't memorized the phonetic alphabet yet, make sure that you know the phonetic equivalent for each of the letters in your call sign before you try to make a radio call. And for the PSTAR, just make sure you know Foxtrot, Sierra, Quebec and Bravo.

The source for this is AIP COM 5.8.1: "Subsequent communications may be abbreviated to the last three letters if this abbreviation is initiated by ATS."

You do have to say "Alpha Bravo Charlie" every time. You can't just start calling yourself "Eh Bee Cee".  You will occasionally hear pilots revert to short forms of the letters, but this is incorrect, and can cause confusion.

It makes a lot of difference to the controller to know whether you are a Boeing 737, a twin Commanche, or a Cessna 150.  Include this information in your initial call, but then omit it in subsequent transmissions.  Terms such as "helicopter" "homebuilt" "ultralight" and "glider" may be used instead of the actual manufacturer.  This quickly indicates to the air traffic controller and other traffic on the frequency information on your speed, your manoeverability and appearance.  

Many controlled airports have a separate frequency that is only used to broadcast the ATIS. ATIS is a continuously looping recorded message, updated whenever the weather changes significantly, and at some airports every hour. Sometimes it uses a computer voice, but the information is provided by a human. Some uncontrolled airports have a computer generated broadcast called an AWOS, derived from automated observations.

As AIP RAC 1.3 says: "its purpose is to improve controller and flight service specialist effectiveness and to reliece frequency congestion by automating the repetitive transmission of essential but routine information."

(1) If you want weather information, always contact the FSS.  The ATIS only tells you the conditions at the airport.  It usually won't mention the cumulonimbus clouds 6 miles to the east.
(2) The ATIS broadcast spares the controller from having to tell every arriving pilot the winds, active runway, and other special information.
(3) If the weather is changing rapidly, the ATIS will probably be out of date. The controller will give you any new information when you call, so listen carefully.
(4) The ATIS continues to be broadcast even if the weather is so bad that even the IFR traffic can't fly.  At some airports there is a telephone number that connects to the ATIS, and on bad weather days that ATIS line continuously rings busy, as everyone keeps calling to see if they can go flying yet

(1) The phrase "with the numbers" is used when speaking to a Flight Services Station, to indicate that you have already heard the altimeter setting, winds and runway in use because you were listening while they greeted another airplane.
(2) "ATIS received" just sounds goofy. They put this choice in to catch people who have no idea.
(3) If a pilot listens to the ATIS then in the middle of his radio call realized that he has forgotten the letter, he will often say "with the information" but really he shouldn't. What if he listened to information delta and the tower had just changed it to echo? They wouldn't know he had the wrong information.
(4) Every time the controller updates the ATIS, he changes the letter identifying it. So first thing in the morning it is alfa, then bravo, then charlie, and so on. If you had information "Delta" you would call ATC and say, for example, "Vancouver Tower, this is Cessna Golf Echo Alfa Charlie with Delta."

From AIP RAC 4.5.6: "Pilots operating VFR enroute in uncontrolled airspace or VFR on an airway should continuously monitor 126.7 MHz when not communicating on the MF or the ATF."

(1) 126.7 MHz  is the VFR enroute frequency, as well as a frequency available at most FSSs. You can use it to make position reports and hear where other aircraft in your vicinity are, and you can ask for weather and NOTAM information when you are in range of an FSS.
(2) 123.2 MHz is the frequency to use when landing at an aerodrome with no published frequency, such as a private strip, or when landing a float plane on a lake.  Some aerodromes use 123.2 as a published frequency.
(3) 122.8 MHz is a very common UNICOM frequency for uncontrolled fields in the United States, and I believe it was once used as an air-to-air frequency in Canada.
(4) 122.2 MHz. is the frequency for Flight Watch in the United States. It's not quite the same as 126.7 in Canada, as pilots don't make position reports and can't change their flight plan on this frequency.  It is only for weather and PIREPs.

(1) There is no receiver mode of the ELT. It is a transmitter only.
(2) You'd need two radios to monitor both 126.7 and 121.5, but if you have two, and you're not using them for anything else, these are the frequencies they should be tuned to.
(3) The first five minutes of the hour is the time when it is permissable to test an ELT, so there is no point only listening then.
(4) There is sometimes weather or NOTAM information on the the navigation aid [navaid] voice frequency, but aircraft radios do not transmit on the navaid frequencies, so you would hear no aircraft in distress there. IFR aircraft with a communication failure may listen to voice-equipped navaids for instructions from air traffic control.

(1) The CFS gives details on every airport in Canada. Ask your flight instructor to show it to you if you haven't seen it yet.
(2) The Designated Airspace Handbooklists airspace dimensions and the name and contact information of the people to ask for permission to use restricted airspace. As a student pilot, all you have to know about it is that it exists.
(3) The A.I.P. Canada is a white ring binder full of pages that explain laws and procedures for pilots. It doesn't list information on individual airports.
(4) The Flight Training Manual is the blueish-purple book that your flight instructor keeps assigning you to read chapters from before lessons.

(1) UNICOM is the name for a ground station, and the question said there was no UNICOM.
(2) The closest ATC unit would be at another airport, and could be hundreds of miles away.
(3) You address the traffic as, for example, "Powell River Traffic, this is ...."
(4) You are talking to all the traffic, not just the guys you hear.  It's okay to address a call to a particular aircraft, if you want to clarify the pilot's intentions.  You can address it by any portion of the call sign you remember, or by another means, "Zulu Victor Papa, this is Zulu X-Ray Tango: can we go ahead?"  "Aircraft calling east of the river, say your altitude"  "Last aircraft calling, your transmission was unreadable."

(1) 121.5 MHz is the emergency frequency.
(2) As described above, this is the United States "Flight Watch" frequency.
(3) If there is no other published frequency, use 123.2
(4) This is the enroute frequency.

(1) As it says in CARs 602.97, if you're inside the MF area, you must be on the frequency. Therefore you must wait until you are outside of the area to leave the frequency.   AIP RAC 4.5.7 recommends you monitor the frequency for another 5-10 nm.

The relevant rule is from AIP RAC 4.2.5:
"If a pilot is required to cross any runway while taxiing towards the departure runway, the ground or airport controller will issue a specific instruction to cross or hold short. If a specific authorization to cross was not received, pilots shall hold short and request authorization to cross the runway."
(1) Unless specific instructions were given to cross the other runway, the pilot must hold short and ask or wait for clearance to taxi across.
(2) You do not need specific clearance to cross other taxiways, as long as you stay on the taxiway you were directed to take..
(3) Absolutely not. There might be aircraft landing before you will be cleared to leave.
(4) A clearance will normally include "hold short" or "cross" the other runway, but if it doesn't, you must stop.

This is a common question for schools to mismark. I used to have it wrong on here, even. If your instructor marks it differently than I do, politely point out the AIP section, and ask for an explanation of why your answer is wrong. Some instructors are willing to admit to mistakes and some aren't: you'll find out which kind you have.

A restriction is the only part of a VFR clearance that must be read back.  

The controller offers an immediate take-off when she has only a small break in traffic to get you out, and needs you to move quickly, or not at all. If you can't do an immediate take-off because you need more time to get yourself organized before taking off, reply "Unable" and stay where you are. There is no penalty for refusing an immediate. If you do accept this clearance, do not taxi at excessive speeds or corner dangerously. Just taxi smoothly into place and keep going.

Usually the controller will tell you the altitude of the traffic, if known, and if the altitude is "unverified" or based only on the transponder reply of the aircraft. An unverified altitude signifies that the controller is not talking to the other aircraft.

(1) Never do anything that interferes with your safety, no matter WHO tells you to.
(2) You were cleared to land.  A touch and go might interfere with other traffic.
(3) Do what you are told with all due safety considerations.  The Transport Canada study guide refers you to CARs 602.31 for this question.  
(4) The controller wants you off the runway. Turning around takes too much time. If you really want to exit at a taxiway that is behind you, ask the controller for permission to "backtrack" to that taxiway. If the controller wants you to exit at a particular taxiway (maybe because the snowplow hasn't cleared the others) she will tell you by name which taxiway to exit at.  "Turn right at Bravo."

3.18 & 3.19
The radiotelephone distress signal to indicate grave and/or imminent danger requiring immediate assistance is MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. The radiotelephone urgency signal to indicate a condition concerning the safety of an aircraft, vehicle or of some person on board which does not require immediate assistance is  PAN PAN, PAN PAN, PAN PAN.  Note that it is effectively "pan pan" repeated three times, although many people will just say "PAN PAN PAN."  The answers  EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY and URGENCY, URGENCY, URGENCY are just red herrings.

The trick is to say one MAYDAY, and three "ALL STATIONS." After that it can be "distress traffic ended"  "silence finished" or "seelonce finie."

This information is not in the AIP or the CARs, but the RTORC. The PSTAR study guide tells you the answer is on page 17, but that's just the beginning of the section. You will find the actual answer on page 20.

A departing flight will normally remain on tower frequency until clear of the Control Zone.  Sometimes it may be necessary to leave the frequency early, for example in order to get permission to enter adjacent airspace.  In such a case, you must request, obtain and acknowledge permission to leave the frequency early.

(1) You might hear, "Delta Oscar Golf, number two behind the Cherokee on base."  If you hear, "Charlie Alfa Tango, number one" the controller is probably going to clear someone to take off before you, or allow someone to cross the runway.  If there is no one in front of you, and no one else using the runway, you will probably get landing clearance.
(2) You already got that information from the ATIS before you entered the control zone, and the controller would have updated it with your initial clearance to join downwind.
(3) They will tell you who you are following, but you have to listen out to figure out who else is around.
(4) You MIGHT get landing clearance on downwind. You might not get it until short final.

(1)&(2)"Roger" means "understood" and "Wilco" means "I will comply" but both are unnecessary, because just reading back your callsign means "received, understood, and will comply" all in one.
(3) Some old pilots do this. DON'T.  It's useless and annoying, and you'll still be asked to read back an acknowledgement.
(4) A transmission containing nothing but the call sign means, "I have received your transmission, I understand it, and I will comply" If there is anything you do not understand or do not agree with, you must say so. "Victor Whiskey X-ray unable runway 26. I am on floats" "Alfa Bravo Charlie unable runway one nine. I require at least 2000 feet to land." "This is Uniform Charlie Kilo, I do not understand the clearance." It's WAY WAY better to say "Echo Delta Foxtrot is a student pilot. Say again slowly" than to get run over by a 737.

(1) All airport radio station operators were once addressed as "Such-and-Such Radio."  The name and responsibilities of the guy or gal with the microphone changed, but the call sign stayed the same. Flying Start visitor Art Legunchuk explained it to me.
(2) It is a Flight Service Station, but you address it as "radio." Call it nostalgia. I have flown with a pilot who said "Vancouver Flight Service, this is ..." and they still answered him.
(3) A UNICOM is just someone at the field with a microphone, maybe the fueler, or the dispatcher at a flying school, not a professional flight services specialist.  
(4) You have to say who you are talking to.

(1) An FSS is not an air traffic controller.
(2) This service includes weather, NOTAMS, and flight plan filing
(3) You can receive FSS services in controlled or uncontrolled airspace.
(4) Terminal radar service is an air traffic control function.

(1)You can go into any FSS and read NOTAMs in person, or get them by telephone or radio, or on the Nav Canada website. The United States Department of Defense has an international NOTAM site, too.
(2) Ugh, no. There are hundreds of NOTAMs changing every day, and many of them change too quickly to be mailed.  A.I.P. updates are mailed to all active piots.
(3) NOTAMS cover airport closures, navaid outages, tractors working near runways, helilogging, airshows, parachute jumping, new radio antennae, airspace changes and many other similar warnings.
(4) NOTAMs are valid until the exact time on the NOTAM, or until cancelled or replaced, if the time on the NOTAM is APROX. Some NOTAMs are valid for a few hours, e.g. for a Snowbirds performance over the town, and others for weeks or months, e.g. for resurfacing of a runway.

(1) APRX stands for approximately. If the time and date given on the NOTAM does NOT say APRX, then the NOTAM expires at that time.
(2) A NOTAM might cover several weeks or even longer.
(3) Note that the time and date is given in Zulu, so that in Vancouver, 05:00Z on October 6th represents 10 pm on October 5th.
(4) There is no need for a cancelling NOTAM if an exact time is given in the original NOTAM.

The time quoted is approximate, therefore a NOTAM must issued to replace or cancel it.  It's like if your friend says she'll be out of town until approximately the 23rd.  If it is the 24th, you had better check with someone to see if she's back, and not just count on her being back.

Here's the scale for reporting how easy it is to hear someone's radio.  If you compare it to tuning in AM radio stations on your car radio, a low strength signal sounds like you have the volume turned down, while a low readabilty signal sounds like you are not quite tuned to the correct frequency.
readable now and then
readable with difficulty
perfectly readable
(from AIP-COM 5.10, not 5.9 as it says in the guide)

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This page written 8 October 2002 by Robyn Stewart.  Last revised 7 August 2004.

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