How Do Pilots Communicate with Air Traffic?

Typically, pilots communicate with air traffic control via very high frequency (VHF) radio calls. These are used for the vast majority of communications between pilots and air traffic control, accounting for 95% of all communications.

The way these pilots communicate via very high frequency, at least in simplistic terms, involves a transmitting station sending a straight line travelling signal to the receiving station from the aircraft.

They can send very clear voice communications to be exchanged between pilots and air traffic wardens. 

This only works if there is a line of sight between the aircraft and the air traffic control station, due to the frequencies only being able to travel in straight lines.

This means that any structures (both natural and manmade) can disrupt this. The frequencies can be limited if there are lots of mountains, hills, and built-up areas in the way.

In instances where the very high frequency voice communications cannot be used due to the height of the vehicle or obstacles in the way, there is another form of communication that can be used. This is the controller pilot data link communications service (also known as CPDLC) which is very similar to texting.

This allows pilots to communicate with air traffic control without the need for voice communication. It works via satellite signals which can connect to the air traffic control on the ground.

How can I talk to ATC?

When you are a trainee or newly qualified pilot, it can feel extremely nerve-wracking the first time you need to talk to air traffic control. However, we promise that as soon as you do it once it will get better and far easier to deal with. 

Keep in mind above all else that air traffic control is there to help you. That is their sole responsibility and they want to help ensure you, your flight and your passengers are safe. All you need to do is ask.

There are some pieces of vocabulary that you should keep in mind that will make conversations between you and air traffic control that little bit easier. you will notice that they are very short and sweet. this is a good thing as you will not have time or concentration for a long chat. you need to be able to communicate quickly and effectively.

  • Affirm - Yes 
  • Negative - No
  • Roger - Yes, I acknowledge what you said 
  • Wilco - Will comply or will do 
  • Request - you are requisition something
  • Say again - repeat what you just said (say it again)

Make sure you are as clear and concise as possible when you are talking to air traffic control. Be polite and respectful, and remember that they are there to help you.

Keep in mind how a basic conversation may go. You will likely need to establish who you are talking to, who you are, where exactly you are, what is the reason for your contact with them, and your ATIS information at that moment.

Is listening to air traffic control legal?

In the United States of America, it is legal to listen to air traffic control transmission. However, this may vary based on the particular State you are in. You should also not assume that this remains the same around the world as many other countries may not allow you to listen in, or may have stricter rules.

As well as this, there may also be local and federal laws in place to restrict and prohibit what exactly is allowed and what you are allowed to do with any information you receive as a result of listening to the transmissions. There are also situations where listening is not allowed.

Around the world, these rules vary a great deal. For example, in the UK they are not allowed to listen at all! There is a law in place in the UK known as the Wireless Telegraphy Act which bans the listening of any transmission unless specifically intended for the public.

What frequencies do pilots use?

The frequency used by pilots depends on the aircraft the pilot is flying. Different types of flying require different frequencies. For example, if you are flying a private fixed wing aircraft then the frequency you have to use is 122.75 MHz.

If you are flying a helicopter then this changes to 123.025 MHz. A pilot in a civil aircraft will likely use several frequencies in the 100MHz band. This has 760 allocated channels between 18.0 and 136.975 MHz.

You might use different frequencies depending on the communication you are trying to convey, such as if it is a distress call if you are communicating with a flight watch, and if you are trying to reach air traffic control. With this in mind, pilots of these bigger planes for carrying lots of civil passengers will likely use a large number of different frequencies.