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Air Traffic Control Communications: A Guide for Aspiring Pilots

Before becoming a commercial pilot, let us help you understand the basics of air traffic control. Call (480) 372-9815 today to begin your aviation training.

When flying a commercial jet, staying in contact with the airport traffic control tower is essential. Pilots and air traffic controllers use radio communication to collaborate both in the air and on a ground station.

If you are working towards receiving a commercial pilot license in Arizona, this guide to air traffic control communications can help you understand some of the basic principles and terms.

The Duties of Air Traffic Control Facilities

Any ATC facility is responsible for giving landing or traffic information to a number of other aircraft besides your own. The control facility has several essential duties, including:

  • Bear all ground station equipment
  • Handle radio reception
  • Prevent radio frequency congestion
  • Monitor tower frequency
  • Advise speed adjustment procedures
  • Direct arriving and departing aircraft
  • Expedite medical or military aircraft

In addition to these facilities on the airport surface, air traffic controllers operate remote radio sites and supplemental weather service locations. ATC communications are vital because controllers have multiple frequency assignments. Civil aircraft pilots need to understand what each assigned frequency means and rely on the primary local control frequency.

The Federal Aviation Administration has a set of safety regulations that pertain to air traffic control communications in the United States. The International Civil Aviation Organization is a similar agency that regulates civil air travel in the United Nations.

Common Types of Radio Communications Failure

Radio equipment can malfunction, so student pilots need to understand what to do in order to remain in contact with the ground station’s receiver. Transmitting and receiving frequencies can give pilots trouble while in the air. If a radio malfunction occurs, consider the source of the problem.

It’s possible that either your receiver isn’t working, the transmitter failed, or both pieces of equipment are to blame. If you experience radio failure prior to landing and suspect only your receiver is malfunctioning, contact ground point and relay the following information:

  • The type of aircraft you’re piloting
  • The aircraft’s position and altitude
  • Your desire to land

If your transmitter is not reliable, but you need air traffic information, keep the aircraft above the airport’s traffic area. You can monitor the traffic using the control frequencies nearest you and wait for a signal.

Failure of all radio communication means you should stay in a zone of concentrated air traffic near the airport. Even if you can’t reach the same frequency as the tower, maintain visual contact and use lights for aircraft identification and communication.

Using Light Signals to Communicate

If you can’t rely on a radio, light signals are a useful way to make initial contact with controllers in the tower. Pilots and controllers use the following color-coded light system to land or arrive safely:

  • Flashing red: Taxi clear (on-ground) OR do not land (in-flight)
  • Flashing green: Cleared to taxi (on-ground) OR return for landing (in-flight)
  • Flashing white: Return to the starting point (on-ground)
  • Steady red: Stop (on-ground) OR give way and circle (in-flight)
  • Steady green: Cleared for take-off (on-ground) OR cleared to land (in-flight)
  • Alternating red and green: Use extreme caution (both on-ground and in-flight)

Use your landing or navigation lights strategically during nighttime flights.

Common Terms in Air Traffic Control Communications

Over time, ATC instructions have shortened into distinct phrases that are now commonly referred to throughout the aviation industry. Understanding such usage, from ground station call signs to take-off instructions, will make you a more adept pilot. Below are some of the most common terms and their meanings:

  • Acknowledge: Notifying a party that their message was received.
  • Affirmative: A form of saying “yes.”
  • Cleared: Giving pilots the go-ahead, often said as “cleared for take-off” or “cleared to land.”
  • Closed traffic: Low approach where an aircraft doesn’t exit the traffic pattern.
  • Fuel remaining: Informing ATC about the remaining time pilots can operate aircraft on their fuel level, including reserve fuel.
  • Have numbers: Confirmation from pilots that they have wind, runway, and altimeter information.
  • Line up and wait: How controllers tell pilots to bring the aircraft to the runway but not take off yet.
  • Maintain: Refers to the altitude pilots should keep aircraft. Often follows calls to either climb or descend to a certain altitude level.
  • Mayday: Distress signal of extreme danger ahead, requires immediate assistance when said three times.
  • Minimum fuel: The aircraft is at a fuel level where it can’t face delays getting to a destination, or an emergency situation may occur.
  • Negative: A form of denying permission, saying “no.”
  • Radar contact: How ATC lets pilots know they appear on the flight radar.
  • Squawk VFR: How ATC tells pilots to fly under Visual Flight Rules and change transmitter code to 1,200.

Contact Leopard Aviation to Become a Licensed Pilot

Are you interested in becoming a commercial pilot? Our flight school trains aspiring pilots in Scottsdale and Mesa, Arizona. Learn the complexities and importance of air traffic control communications with our professional instructors.

To learn more about Leopard Aviation and come one step closer to earning your pilot license, call (480) 372-9815.

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