An Unexpected Primer on Aviation Radio

6 Mar 15 2 Comments

I’ve been waylaid by an unexpected birthday party! It’s hard to complain about such a lovely thing. So here’s something from the archives: a 2008 post about Air Traffic Service Units in the UK and my native ability to talk too much. I’m on my way to Paris (!!!) but I’ll be back with fresh content next week.

This is an explanation of the different people that a pilot may speak to when flying around Europe with real-world examples: me flying November 666 Echo X-ray and trying to stay out of trouble.

Air/Ground Radio Airfields with A/G Radio offer an information service with a radio operator who are not licensed and not under close CAA supervision. They identify themselves by saying the airfield name followed by the word radio. It could just be a guy on a mobile radio with no other support. They will offer a basic information service and report known traffic to you.

“Enstone, this is November 666 Echo X-ray.”

No response. I frowned.

“Enstone Radio, this is November 666 Echo X-ray, radio check.”

It had been a chaotic day and we were late leaving. And now that finally everyone was bundled up into the plane and ready to go, the youngster on the radio wasn’t responding. Technically, I didn’t have to request permission to start but it’s generally the polite thing to do. The last time I flew from this airfield, the chap called me just as I was entering the runway to let my know my son had left his bookbag in the cafeteria. Service like that is invaluable and so I didn’t like to risk upsetting anyone but it was frustrating to be sitting here waiting on someone who’d walked away from the mike.

I called a third time, no response. Had he gone for a cup of tea or what? Cliff frowned at me and I shrugged. I decided to try once more. This fourth call elicited a response: a confused voice came back over the radio.

“Are you talking to me?”

I winced. Who was playing with the radio, for god’s sake? That’s when Cliff’s mum piped up from the backseat.

“I don’t understand why you are saying Enstone Radio,” she said.

I started to snap back an answer when it sunk in. We were at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. I’d been flying in and out of Enstone the previous week and we’d be landing there today but right now? We weren’t talking to them.

“Bembridge, this is November 666 Echo X-ray, request, uh … geography check.”

I could hear the relieved laughter as he responded. “November 666 Echo X-ray, confirmed, you are parked just outside of my window.”

“Thanks for that. Request start.”

“Nothing to affect,” he told me and we were finally on our way.

Flight Information Service Airfields with FIS are an information air traffic support unit staffed by licensed Flight Information Service Officers. They identify themselves by saying the airfield name followed by the word Information. Their function is to assist pilots to operate safely by offering a traffice service and helping with information regarding weather and aerodrome details.

The tricky thing about Information stations is how they let you know what you should be doing without ever actually telling you what to do.

“Shobdon, this is November 666 Echo X-ray, inbound to you.”

“November 666 Echo X-ray, this is Shobdon Information, go ahead.”

“November 666 Echo X-ray is a PA32 inbound to you, I’m looking to join the circuit downwind for runway 09, right hand.”

The response was immediate. “November 666 Echo X-ray we have three in the circuit, recommend an overhead join.”

I had already descended to 1,300 feet, too low for the manoeuvre that he was referring to, flying over the runway and then descending on the dead side. I also couldn’t see the point, I was perfectly set up to simply turn right and join the circuit in another mile.

He repeated the call. “November 666 Echo X-ray, recommend an overhead join.”

As I continued towards the airfield, I felt frustrated and confused: the advice that the Officer was giving me didn’t make sense. I didn’t like to argue with him, however, and I had to admit it wouldn’t make that much difference to me.

“November 666 Echo X-ray is climbing to 2,300 feet for overhead join.”

A moment later, it suddenly clicked. I was saying Runway 09 but I had been heading for the join for Runway 27, that is, the same runway going the opposite direction. I couldn’t possibly join downwind from my present position which is why he wanted me up and out of the way of his traffic.

I went overhead and joined downwind from a sensible position, much to the relief of Shobdon Information.

Air Traffic Control Airfields with an ATC service have an active control tower staffed by air traffic controllers and are under close CAA supervision. Only ATC are authorised to issue clearances. They identify themselves by saying the airfield name followed by their function (Ground, Tower, Approach, Director, Radar). They offer a variety of services including control, flight information and traffic.

The flight from Guernsey to Alderney was only notable in its simplicity: it took longer to get everyone into the plane than it did to make the journey. Only as we landed did it get hectic.

“Backtrack and exit at Alpha.”

I always feel a faint Top Gun thrill at phrases like that which sound so complicated but I now know are simple. “Wilco” I said with a knowing nod.

Except that having spun the plane around, I couldn’t find Alpha. There was a bit of a turn-in on my right but it disappeared into grass and with the wet weather I was worried about taking a wrong turn and getting stuck in the mud. I grabbed for my plate with a map of the airfield.

“Turn right,” said an impatient voice on the radio. “And expedite, I’ve got another one coming in.” Two planes at the airfield at once, this must be a veritable traffic jam by Alderney standards. I bit my lip and turned the plane right onto the grass and paused.

“Carry on,” said the voice again. “Straight ahead, between the two markers. I take it you’ve never been here before?”

“Affirm,” I said in my best professional pilot voice. Followed by “Sorry,” blowing away any semblance of radio competence.

“Just carry on straight. And expedite!”

Finally the map and the ground in front of me clicked into place, I wondered if the air traffic controller could see the small light bulb appearing over the cockpit as I made my way to the parking area. I had just chosen a nice easy spot to park when the voice came back.

“Pull forward to the blue markers, then face south and then west.”

I frowned as I pulled forward, was he trying to make it difficult?

“Which way is south,” I hissed at Cliff as I fumbled to get the map out again.

“Turn left,” he said. I turned then tried to picture a map in my head. If I am facing south then I’m looking towards Texas. California is west and on my right. Got it! I opened my eyes and looked around. “So west is to the right now, right?”

Cliff sighed at me. “Just use the Directional Indicator?”

I blushed and turned the plane until the DI pointed west.

“Just park there,” said the voice. The other plane had landed and radio silence descended. It would probably be at least an hour before they see any further traffic. I shut the engine down.

Military Air Traffic Zones It goes without saying that you should be unfailingly polite to any controller who has fighter jets to back him up. In the UK, the pilot should contact the controller either 15 nautical miles or 5 minutes flying time from a military boundary, whichever is sooner, requesting penetration. To enter the central area (Aerodrome Traffic Zone) you must receive permission and comply with the controller’s instructions.

My first run-in with the military was actually in France.

We had landed at an airfield for refuelling but they were having technical difficulties and informed us that they would not be able to offer fuel for the rest of the day. A quick glance at book showed us another airfield on route that listed AVGAS 100L and so we jumped into the plane and went straight there, plotting the route as we went.

“Cognac, this is November 666 Echo X-ray.”

“November 666 Echo X-ray, pass your message.”

“November 666 Echo X-ray is a PA32 inbound to you, currently 20 miles to your NW at 4,000 feet, request airfield information and joining instructions.”

There was a brief pause.

“November 666 Echo X-ray can you state your intentions.”

“We’re inbound to you for refuelling.”

“November 666 Echo X-ray are you aware that this is a military airfield?”

“Oh. Uh, no. Negative. I was not aware.”

“November 666 Echo X-ray I say again, can you state your intentions?”

I bit my lip but silence seemed likely to get a missile aimed in my direction.

“Er, I intend to ask your advice on where we could go for refuelling in the local area?”

The controller was perfectly friendly about it, verifying that I was not in an emergency before recommending that I fly direct to Angouleme and even offering me a heading and a flight information service directly to the airfield. Anything, I guess, to keep me out of his zone.

Using the radio professionally has become an essential requirement in the modern aviation environment. Radio provides the interface between you and others, especially the Air Traffic Service Unit (ATSU) whose frequency you are using. You will make life more comfortable for yourself (and others) if you can use the radio efficiently.

The Air Pilot’s Manual: Radiotelephony for the Private Pilot’s Licence

When I first started my PPL, I was told that I had a real knack for using the radio. Getting my radio licence was the easiest part of the entire training. Little did I know that in the meantime, I would manage to mess up speaking to every different type of Air Traffic Service Unit in existence.

Category: Learning to Fly,


  • Well Sylvia, I must admire you for your honesty. Very few people, when mentioning silly mistakes, will admit to them. Even more so when they themselves are considered to be professionals in that field.
    My first flying lessons were on Piper Cubs on a grass field, Hilversum (EHHV) in the Netherlands. There was no radio, neither on the ground nor in the Pipers. In those days, the ‘sixties, it was still possible to fly all the way to the south of France, VFR, without radio.
    I worked for a year in Lagos, Nigeria, and finished my PPL there. Lagos Flying Club in those days was based at a small aerodrome, Kiri Kiri, but during the week the club planes were kept at Lagos Airport.
    So the use of R/T was mandatory. Nobody bothered about an R/T licence.
    When I returned to the Netherlands I continued to fly in and out of controlled airspace. Soon I was told that I would not be allowed to use R/T unless and until I obtained a pertinent licence. This was a separate licence, not an entry on the PPL.
    I did a course and was ticked off by the instructor for my “non-standard” phraseology.
    Once I had the piece of paper (actually, it was printed on linen!), to celebrate my newly acquired status, I went on a flight to Schiphol Airport.
    This is a major airport and I made certain that my radio procedures were correct as I had been taught.
    To my disgust, the ATC controller’s response was: “Papa Victor Bravo please leave my control zone, we are too busy for beginners”.
    I stopped flying, retired, around the 22.000 hour mark now about 50 odd years further and I don’t think I ever bothered with (too) precise R/T ever since.

  • Another funny story about ATC, if I may Sylvia:
    It was in the mid-seventies. I was flying a Cessna 310. We were departing from Brussels (EBBR). The weather was a bit cloudy, moderate visibility, dusk.
    In those days,at Brussels for IFR departures take-off clearances were issued by approach control, not by the control tower.
    We were no. 3 for departure. I can’t remember what departed first but no 2 was a RAF Dominie. This was still in RAF use at the time, a little aircraft, in civilian guise known as the Heron which was the 4-engined sister of the twin-engined DH Dove.
    The first aircraft was lined up on the runway (runway 20?), the Dominie was told “Line up behind departing aircraft”. Which was acknowledged by a clipped RAF voice.
    The Dominie then wormed it’s way around the back of the departing airliner and took up position on the runway threshold.
    As the first aircraft departed, ATC told us to be ready in sequence for an immediate departure.
    I must admit that I cannot remember the exact sequence of events, but confusion reigned when ATC (remember, approach control) had started to direct new arrivals to the runway and, realising that they were on finals and getting a bit close, told the Dominie “to hold clear of the runway”. Whereupon the RAF crew replied: “We are still on the runway”. A baffled moment of silence and the question “what were they doing on the runway?” The slightly indignant retort came: “Sir, you told us to line up BEHIND and so we did”.
    A pregnant silence was followed by a string of instructions. I am making up the airlines’ identities but it went like: “Sabena xyz make an immediate overshoot, maintain runway heading and climb to …., Alitalia abc, go around, make a right turn heading … and climb to … , RAF (the Dominie), take off immediately, PH-STR (we), after departing Dominie line up be ready for an immediate departure.”
    What caused all this was that in Europe (and perhaps elsewhere) the term “line up behind” was often used in lieu of “line up after departing”.
    Most pilots knew this but for the true-blooded British RAF pilots this could means only one thing: crawl up quite literally BEHIND the other aircraft.
    I have once nearly lined up (at Paris Le Bourget) directly in front of a landing light aircraft because the French controller, at a busy moment during a lull in between demonstrations of the LBG air shows, got a bit flustered and confused the term “cleared into position and hold”. He told me something that sounded like “cleared position hold”.
    Fortunately, before moving on to the active, I had a good look and saw the arrival in time. Of course the French controllers – I have good reason and multiple scares in French airspace to very much distrust French air traffic control – blamed me for the confusion.
    My total of known “air misses” or incidents that could have led to an on-ground collision (in 45 years, 22000 flying hours) were 5: One in Nigeria (Learjet 25D with B 737), the other 4 were in France. And I have witnessed one at Paris CDG that was avoided only because all parties (pilots of 2 aircraft and ATC) happened to communicate in French and the pilots were alert.
    It happened at night. There was (probably still is) a lot of night time activity at CDG due to many air cargo and postal operations.
    There was only one south runway. Very long because Concorde was still operational. Only “heavies” were allowed to use the full length, all others were compelled to take off from an intersection.
    The cloud base was low, visibility perhaps 2000 m.
    An Aeropostale Boeing 737 was lined up for departure at the intersection, quite a distance from the touch-down zone. ATC communication between the 737 and the tower was in French. Another aircraft, on short finals for the same runway, was cleared to land.
    Fortunately, this aircraft was also French and the Aeropostale pilot instantly cut in “Nous sommes encore sur la piste” (we are still on the runway).
    Whereupon the Aeropostale was cleared for an “immediate take off, expedite” and the other one landed safely just after the departing had lifted off.
    But if the crew of the aircraft awaiting take-off had not been French-speaking they may have missed the fact that another one was landing right behind them.
    In the dark, the crew of that aircraft would only have seen the rotating beacon of the other one ahead too late with insufficient room to stop and too slow to take off again.
    The mixing of languages in ATC is dangerous, but still national pride prevents the practice from being banned.

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