When I was a kid, my dad took a small, transistor AM/FM radio, cracked it open and tinkered with the FM tuning coil. Within a couple of minutes, he turned it into an aviation-band receiver. I was probably the first 14 year-old, ever, to think his dad was a genius.
I spent hours listening to the radio, trying to figure out what the pilots were saying. I could understand most of the words but had no idea what they were talking about. Years later, in flight training, I finally learned the mysterious language of pilots and controllers.
A few airlines now offer a “Flight Deck” audio channel on their entertainment systems. On a long flight you can put on your headphones and hear the crew talking to the controllers. If you understand some of it, you can follow the progress of your flight. Curious to know the secrets?
It’s really not that hard. If you learn a few basic phrases and listen carefully, you’ll start to understand what is being said. A little later in this post, you’ll hear actual transmissions. All pilot/controller communication is carefully scripted and uses a standard phraseology. This is important because airplanes fly all over the world. Pilots and controllers everywhere expect each other to say certain things at certain times. This makes communication much easier.
Who’s doing the talking?
Let’s use a real flight as an example. US Airways flight 1939 is a daily non-stop from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. We’ll follow the progress of 1939 on Dec 27, 2013. When you listen to aircraft radio chatter, it’s important to know who’s doing the talking. Everyone on the radio has a call sign. We need to listen for our US Airways call sign: “Cactus 1939.” Why “Cactus?” America West Airlines merged with US Airways in 2005. America West (based in Arizona) used the call sign “Cactus.” The new US Airways moved its headquarters to Arizona so they kept “Cactus” – and it sounds pretty cool.
Cast Of Controllers:
We’ll hear a few different controllers on our flight. The first are the controllers in the control tower. Large airports can have over a dozen people working in the tower; they handle airplanes from engine start to just after take off. There are several types of controllers in the tower; we’ll talk about the two biggies: they use the call signs [Ground] and [Tower].
[Ground]: Ground controllers issue taxi instructions. Most of their instructions are given using phonetic alphabet letters like: alpha, bravo, charlie, etc. Airport taxiways are named by alphabet letter. A clearance to taxi on taxiways ‘J’ then ‘Z’ then ’S’ would sound like: “Taxi via juliet, zulu, sierra.”
Here are more things you’ll hear Ground say:
- “Taxi to runway three four” (The pilot is cleared to taxi to runway 34)
- “Hold short of Delta” (don’t go past taxiway “D”)
[Tower]: Tower controllers own the runways. Any airplane taking off, landing, or crossing a runway must have permission from Tower.
Runway numbers: You’ll hear controllers and pilots talking about runway numbers like Runway two five or Runway two seven Left. Runways are numbered according to their alignment on a magnetic compass. Philly’s westbound runways point to about 270º, so they are labeled “27.” When an airport has parallel runways (like Philadelphia), one will be designated “Left,” the other “Right.”
Phrases tower controllers say:
- “Line up and wait” (taxi onto the runway and wait for a takeoff clearance)
- “Cleared to cross runway two seven” (taxi across runway 27)
- “Fly heading two three zero, Runway two seven Left, Cleared for takeoff” (After takeoff, fly a magnetic heading of 230º. Cleared to takeoff on Runway 27 Left)
- “Cleared for the ILS, runway three four” (follow the Instrument Landing System, an electronic guidance system, to runway 34)
- “Cleared for the visual, runway one seven” (look out the window, find runway 17, and fly to it)
- “Cleared to land, runway two seven Right” (The pilot has permission to land on Runway 27 Right)
The next set of controllers handle traffic flow into and out of the airport.
[Departure] and [Approach]: Just after takeoff we switch to Departure. The Approach & Departure controllers watch radar displays in a large room, usually in a building near the base of the tower. They manage the aircraft that are within a 10-20 mile radius of the airport. Approach controllers funnel traffic towards the airport and get them lined up with the runway for landing. Departure controllers guide departing traffic away from the airport and towards the destination.
Departure phrases you’re likely to hear:
- “Radar Contact” (I see you on my radar, I’ll keep an eye on you)
- “Climb and maintain one two thousand” (climb up to and level off at 12,000 feet)
- “Cleared direct to Ft. Wayne” (fly direct to a specific navigation fix or airport)
- “Contact New York Center, one two four decimal six two” (This is a “hand-off.” The pilot changes to the new frequency of 124.62 and checks in with the new controller)
- “Cleared for the ILS runway two four left” (you’re cleared to follow the Instrument Landing System guidance to runway 24 Left).
- “Maintain one seven zero knots” (fly a speed of 170 knots)
- “Descend and maintain eight thousand feet” (Descend then level off at an altitude of 8000 ft)
- “Turn left heading two three zero” (turn the aircraft to a magnetic heading of 230º)
[Center]: The last type of control facility we will hear on our flight is the Air Route Traffic Control Center, or ARTCC. Better yet, let’s just call them “Center.” 🙂 The US is divided into 22 Centers that manage air traffic during the cruise phase of flight. When a flight is more than 10-20 miles from the departure or arrival airport, the pilots will be in contact with a Center controller. Flight 1939 will fly over New York, Cleveland, Indy (Indianapolis), Kansas City, Denver, Salt Lake, and Los Angeles Centers.
Center controllers work in nondescript buildings, sometimes located miles from an airport. Like the Approach and Departure controllers, they work in large rooms filled with radar displays. I only have audio for Cactus 1938’s initial check-in with New York Center, but that’s ok. Center chatter is really boring! Once a flight settles into the cruise phase, Center will call the flight every 20-30 minutes and say something like: “Cactus 1939, contact Denver Center on nineteen thirty two.” That means we need to change our radio frequency to 119.32 and check in with Denver. On the new frequency we would then say: “Denver Center, Cactus 1939 at flight level three four zero” which means we are at 34,000 feet and we’re fat, dumb and happy. Easy!
With a little help from the LiveATC.net archives, I have pieced together most of the radio calls of US Airways flight 1939 departing Philly and arriving in Los Angeles. Don’t worry, the four hour flight is compressed to under 9 minutes!
Remember, I said that pilot/controller talk is carefully scripted, right? It is, but when a place like Philadelphia International gets really busy, people start talking fast. Everyone stays on the script but they will sometimes leave out common words that are understood. As you watch the video, the audio will be captioned. I used parentheses to highlight unspoken but understood words. In a few cases parentheses will be used to add clarification.
If this is your first time listening to aviation communications, feel free to back it up and listen to parts you might have missed. Enough lecturing, let’s listen to some authentic pilot chatter!
Did you catch the little mistake that Los Angeles Tower made? He told Cactus 1939 that the aircraft 5 miles ahead was a Boeing 737 Dreamliner. The Dreamliner is a 787. He caught himself and started to laugh as he was clearing our flight to land. To a non-aviation person, it’s probably not that funny, but pilots and controllers get a kick out of those types of errors.
Want to listen to more ATC?
Sure, the video is kind of interesting, but if you want to have real fun, here are some resources for listening to live Air Traffic Control communication:
Listen to live ATC on the net:
Check out LiveATC.net for round-the-clock, live audio streams of ATC communication. Volunteers all over the world stream live, local audio from their personal scanners for everyone to enjoy. Coverage in the US and Europe is excellent. Most large cities have at least a few frequencies available for listening. LiveATC.net even has iOS and Android apps for listening on the go. This is the best way I have found to “surf” air traffic control.
Buy an aviation band receiver:
An acceptable aircraft band receiver or scanner can be purchased for under $100USD. Look for radios that have a VHF “Aircraft” or “Air” band (118-137 MHz). Good places to shop:
- The C. Crane Company sells the CC Skywave Travel Radio that includes AM, FM, shortwave, weather and air band. The company was kind enough to provide me with a sample Skywave to test. Air band reception from my house is as good or better than my Radio Shack Pro-91 handheld. I could easily listen to air traffic talking to approach control and tower from 15-20 miles away (I’m unable to hear the controllers due to my distance from the airport. VHF is “line-of-sight”). That’s pretty good for being in a house without an external antenna. The Skywave has no problem receiving WWV time signals on shortwave bands. Listening to a few international shortwave broadcasts in the evening is a breeze. The radio is easy to use and has plenty of storage (400 presets) for all your favorite aviation and short wave frequencies. Receiving NOAA weather alerts is a real bonus that could save your life on a stormy night. The $90 price tag, small size, earphones, and carrying case make the CC Skywave a very attractive travel radio.
- Amazon.com and eBay.com – There are plenty of new and used radios available. Do some research and read the reviews.
- Sporty’s Pilot Shop – Sporty’s Air-Scan radios are usually between $100-$200USD
A word from the AeroSavvy Barrister
(Not to be confused with the AeroSavvy Barista)
Do not purchase a transceiver (a radio with transmit capability). Transmitting on aircraft frequencies without proper authorization is a serious crime. If you want to talk on the airwaves, grab a set of FRS walkie talkies and go to town.
Do It Yourself – Build an aircraft band radio:
You can try to modify an old analog FM transistor radio to receive aircraft frequencies like my dad did 35 years ago. Head to a garage sale and find an old FM radio then follow the instructions and video at Instructables.com. If you try the modification, don’t expect crystal-clear reception. It works, but if you want to do a lot of listening, go get a handheld scanner.
Once you have a radio, the best listening will be close to an airport. If you live several miles away, you’ll be able to hear pilots transmitting from the air, but you won’t hear the controllers because their transmitter antennas are on the ground.
I’ll write a little more about aircraft communication in future posts. I’m busy collecting some interesting sound clips from different parts of the world.