Understanding Air Traffic Control Communications

Air Traffic Control in communications with a pilot

In this article, we’re going to help all you new pilots out there who are struggling with understanding air traffic control communications.

Remembering specific radio calls can be difficult to learn at first. But once you become familiar with a few phrases, you’ll be piloting in a controlled environment in no time.  

WILCO

“Wilco” is a term you may hear on the radio after a pilot receives instructions from Air Traffic Control. It’s the short form of the phrase “Will Comply”. 

When you as a pilot say “Wilco”, you’re letting ATC know that “You have received their message, understand it, and will comply with it.” (source)

Even though this term may be used to acknowledge you’ve received instructions, it’s always a good idea to follow this up by repeating the instructions you received from ATC. So, there’s no miscommunication on what they’re telling you to do.

Roger

“Roger” is another example of a response that you’ve probably heard quite often when pilots are replying to ATC. This is simply stating that “You have received all of their last transmission.

”However, the term “Roger” should never be used as a response to a yes or no question. In those cases, the correct response would be either “Affirmative” or “Negative”.

Pilot in plane understanding Air Traffic Control communication phrases

Line Up and Wait

When tower wants to keep things moving quickly, you may get a clearance from them to “Line up and Wait”. This is telling you as the pilot, to taxi the aircraft onto the runway. 

But to then sit there and await further clearance. 

It does NOT clear you for takeoff. You must wait for tower to give you further clearance before actually taking off. 

The “Line up and Wait” clearance is given in situations that don’t allow for a normal takeoff clearance to be given. Like when an aircraft that just landed is still on the runway, but will be exiting shortly.

Traffic Calls

 When air traffic control communications tells you where other traffic is around you, they’ll use “Clock Positions.” 12 o’clock is directly ahead, and 6 o’clock is directly behind you. 

Keep in mind that when they’re telling you the traffic’s position, ATC is referencing your ground track and isn’t aware of any wind correction angles that you may be applying. 

An example of a traffic callout would be like this: “N31469, traffic 2 o’clock, 4 miles, opposite direction, same altitude”. 

They are pointing out the location, distance, and direction of the traffic in reference to you. It’s now up to you as the pilot to respond appropriately. 

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If you physically see the aircraft that ATC is trying to make you aware of, you may respond with “Traffic in Sight”. This does not apply if you’re only able to see the traffic on your displays or screens in the aircraft. You must actually make visual contact with the traffic to have the “Traffic in Sight”. 

If you don’t have that traffic in sight, the appropriate response is “Negative Contact”. This tells air traffic control that you are unable to see that traffic, and may need help avoiding it.

Landing Sequence

 If you’re flying into a busy airport, ATC may be talking to multiple aircraft rapidly. 

Many of those clearances would be authorizations for pilots to land. Instead of waiting for each pilot to land before clearing the next one to land, tower may clear many pilots to land in a certain order based on how they’re sequenced to arrive to the runway.

An example of this may be “N31469, you are cleared to land, runway one eight, number 3”.

So in this example, you’re the third aircraft that is cleared to land. Meaning there are two other aircraft that will get to land before you do. 

As in all scenarios, situational awareness is vital. You need to be aware of the locations of all the other aircraft and your order in the landing sequence.

Analytical view of Air Traffic Control phrases

A Proper Takeoff Call

After completing your run-up, you’ll need to let tower know you’re ready for departure. 

First, let them know who you are, where you are, and then what you’d like to do. Try to give them as much information as possible so they can plan appropriately. 

An example of one of these calls might be something like this: “Addison Tower, Skyhawk N31469, holding short of runway 16 on Alpha, VFR departure to the east”. 

After that call, tower will give you further instructions or at least acknowledge you. They might clear you for takeoff or maybe tell you to line up and wait. 

Alternatively, they may just say “roger” or “In sequence” which simply means they have you queued up in the order of departures to leave the airport. 

As always, read back any instructions they give you in order to minimize confusion.

Exit the Runway

The instructions and terminology that come right after you land can be tricky. So it’s important you understand what’s expected of you and how to respond. Depending on the situation, you may be asked to “Exit the Runway” at a specific intersection. 

Try to exit at that specific intersection, but only if it’s safe to do so. If it’s not, continue past that exit and take the next one. 

Now, when tower tells you to exit the runway, there are a few different ways they might want you to handle the radios. 

The first is when they tell you to “Contact Ground”. This means they want you to completely exit the runway and stop after exiting. Then, when you’re able to, call up the ground frequency and tell them where you are, and where you would like to taxi to. 

Another option is when they say to “Monitor Ground”. If ATC already knows where you’re going, they’ll likely give you taxi instructions and tell you to monitor ground. 

Read back any instructions they give you, then switch to the ground frequency after exiting. You don’t need to check in with the ground controllers since you were told to monitor. If they need to talk to you, they’ll call you. 

Another common phrase is “Stay with me”. This is typically given to pilots after they land and there is very little activity at the airport. Or there is only one controller operating all the airport’s control frequencies. When they say “Stay with me”, that just means for the pilot to not change to the ground control frequency, but rather stay on the tower frequency as they taxi. 

One more thing to note when receiving instructions after landing is controllers will often refer to the ground control frequency by just the decimal portion of the frequency.

For example, if the frequency is 121.6, they may say “Contact ground point 6” rather than reading out the full frequency.

Air Traffic Control Station

Resume Own Nav

The phrase “Resume Own Nav” is “used by ATC to advise a pilot to resume his/her own navigational responsibility. 

Basically this tells the pilot that ATC is no longer governing the course/heading of their aircraft, and it’s up to the pilot to navigate to their destination or to the next location they were cleared to.

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Hold Short

When you want to move location on an airport surface, whether taxiing to the runway or just moving the aircraft to another hangar, the ground controller may give you clearance to taxi. But might tell you to “Hold short” of a specific location like a runway or another taxiway.

An example of this would be if the controller told you “N31469, taxi to runway 15 via Alpha, hold short taxiway Sierra for opposite direction traffic.” 

In this instance, you must stop prior to reaching the entrance of taxiway sierra when you are taxiing on taxiway alpha. Only by receiving further instruction from air traffic control communications can you continue taxiing past that point.

Squawk VFR

When ATC is no longer controlling or guiding you, they will tell you to “Squawk VFR”. 

This is them telling you that you need to change the code that is set in your transponder to be transmitting the code 1200. 

This is the universal squawk code that means your aircraft is governed by Visual Flight Rules, and that you’re not receiving any Flight Following or other radar separation services.

Conclusion

These are just a few phrases and terms that you as a pilot need to be familiar with and understand in order to operate safely in a controlled environment.

There are of course many others that are important to understand air traffic control communications. Which is why we recommend you talk to a flight instructor and review resources like the “Pilot/Controller Glossary”. This can be found either online or in the back of most FAR/AIMs.

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