If talking on the radio is not your forte, then flying into a busy, controlled airport, with controllers rattling off instructions at 60kts per hour is probably not your thing. There are obvious benefits to training at a controlled airfields, for the exact reason that you learn how to communicate with those super humans in the tower. However, for those of you who quiver at the very initiation of contact with the ATC, fear not, here are some tricks that will help…

The 4 C’s

In order to make your radio calls sound really professional, there are 4 elements that you should always keep in mind:

  • Clear – Always use standard phraseology, speak a little slower, and pronounce your words clearly.
  • Concise – Avoid unneccessary pleasantries, try to get your message across in the shortest time possible.
  • Consistent – Make sure that your messages are consistent, follow the order and use proper phraseology.
  • Correct – Be very accurate when describing your position – ‘approximately’ and ‘abeam’ are not helpful to those trying to understand where you are.

Establishing contact – The 4 W’s

Before pressing the PTT button, first listen out on the frequency and do not just butt into a conversation between the controller and other aircraft, make sure they are done, wait for a gap and then make the call. By listening in, you can also pick up alot of useful information, that can be noted in anticipation of what the ATC is going to tell you. Here is how to start, and get things going:

  • Who – Are you calling? e.g. Wonderboom Tower. 
  • Who – Are you? State your call sign, and once you get the go ahead, state your aircraft type (this helps the controller anticipate your aircraft performance and determine where to slot you in). and if you are on a flight plan, add the number (this avoids lengthy conversations as the ATC already has access to your info)   e.g. ZS – ABC, Sling 4, Flight Plan 2345 
  • Where are you? Be accurate when stating your position, preferably at a known reporting point.
  • What do you want to do? If you are on a flight plan, the controller should already have some idea what your intentions are, but in any case be short, clear and concise e.g. ‘ Request joining for landing’.

The instructions

The next part is where it all goes down… This is the moment you need to be ready for … When the ATC responds with instructions and information! If you don’t know the airport, then a bit of pre-planning can go a long way:


  •  Call the tower before you take off and get some idea of the active runway, and approach procedures based on the direction you are coming from. The guys would prefer you to ask questions beforehand, rather than mess up and waste their time when you arrive. 
  • Familiarise yourself with local reporting points, if flying VFR, and if these are actual landmarks, such as a dam, then have a look at Google Earth to get a rough idea of what it will look like from the air.
  • Prepare for the initial ‘go ahead’ – When the ATC says ‘ZS – ABC go ahead’, Then you should know that there is certain information they need, so prepare for this before you arrive, as this prevents them from asking for it. Most commonly, you will need to say your call sign, aircraft type, persons on board, endurance, position and intentions. Alternately, if you are on a flight plan (this makes life easier for everyone), the state your call sign, flight plan reference, position and intention.
  • Prepare instruction notes – If you are familiar with the field, or you called before time, you will have some idea of the likely approach or departure procedure instructions, so write these down, as well as any other useful information that you may have obtained from listening in to conversations with other aircraft, such as the local QNH, radio frequencies etc. You should also make notes of the runway numbers and taxiway indicators, so that you merely tick off the correct ones.
  • Write short hand – Be ready, once the controller starts to speak, use short hand or symbols familiar to you to get the information down that you do not have. Remember that you are only required to read back only the instructions that you have been given, and NOT the information. This includes the QNH as it will require making a change on the sub-scale of your altimeter. 

Try to read back everything you have been told in the correct order, otherwise you are giving the controller more work, as they now have to check your disjointed communication, to make sure that you have understood all the instructions. Below is an example of clearance short hand, but it is a good idea to develop your own in order to get everything down as fast as the controller speaks.


Go ahead –

Here is an example of a  pre-written note to remind myself of the information that I will give the ATC once they have said ‘ABC go ahead’


Shorthand clearance –

This is an example of shorthand used to write down the following clearance:

Alpha Bravo Charlie, runway two niner in use, QNH one zero two zero, after departure turn right and report outbound 2 miles west of the power station. 


Finally, if you have missed some information, or there was a break in transmission, then the correct procedure would be to say: ‘Say again, ABC’. Sometimes, transmissions may be a bit difficult to hear, or the controller has a foreign accent, in which case, if you are flying in the company of others, use your resources, and ask everyone to listen out. 

If you have heard, and read back the instructions, but you cannot comply, for example, in your single engine aeroplane, on a very hot Summer’s day at high altitude, you might find that the aircraft performance does not allow you to climb to a certain level, then you should make it known that you cannot comply. Say ‘ABC, cannot comply flight level 085, requesting flight level 065’.