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What Is CTAF and How Do You Use It? | CTAF vs UNICOM

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In this article we’re going to explore the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency, also known as CTAF.

Radio communications can be one of the most stressful parts of learning to fly

For many students, there’s something intimidating about keying the mic. But it shouldn’t be stressful. While there are a lot of things to know, it’s never critical that you say everything perfectly. 

Like everything else, it takes practice, and we all make mistakes occasionally.

One great way to improve your radio communications is to spend time at an uncontrolled field calling on the CTAF. The CTAF lets you work on your radio voice until you sound like a pro. 

CTAFs are an integral part of operating at airports that don’t have a control tower. Let’s look at how to use the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency properly.

ctaf uncontrolled airport

What Is CTAF?

CTAF stands for Common Traffic Advisory Frequency. It’s a frequency at an airport allocated for pilots to self-announce their intentions and communicate with one another. 

It’s a basic collision avoidance tool at uncontrolled (non-towered) airports. In one way, it allows the pilots to be their own air traffic controllers.

The CTAF is clearly labeled on aeronautical charts for every airport. It’s shown with a C in a solid circle appearing after the CT (Control Tower), UNICOM, or MULTICOM frequency. 

At towered airports, the CTAF will be listed because it is used after a part-time tower closes for the night. 

In those cases, the CTAF is on the tower frequency, but not always. For example, the Tower Frequency at Addison is 126.0, and so is the CTAF when the tower is closed. Part-time Control Towers are shown on the sectional with a five-point star after the frequency. A table on the side of the chart lists the precise operating hours.

How Do You Self-Announce on CTAF? 

The best information about using the CTAF probably comes from the AIM (Aeronautical Information Manual). Chapter 4: Air Traffic Procedures covers the topic. 

To use the frequency correctly, it’s important to understand what you’re trying to accomplish. Then, remember to communicate clearly and effectively.

The format of the callouts never changes much. Here are the elements you’ll use every time.

  • Facility name (“Addison Traffic”)
  • Who you are (“Cessna 1234A”)
  • Where you are (“10 miles west of the field”)
  • Your intentions (“Inbound to join midfield left downwind Runway 15”)
  • Facility name repeated (“Addison Traffic”)
common traffic advisory frequency

Executing a Proper Self-Announcement on CTAF

There are a few nuances here worth noting. Because the CTAF is a shared frequency, you will often hear pilots making self-announcement calls at distant airports. That’s why it’s so important to verbalize what airport you are calling. 

Secondly, you both begin and end the transmission with the name of the facility, “Addison Traffic” in our example. 

This is because you’re calling out to other pilots in the area. And, as pilots, we all have a lot going on when we’re near an airport. Paying attention to the CTAF is critical, but what if you missed the first word of that transmission? 

What if your instructor was talking, or another transmission stepped on it? In this case, as you turn downwind for Runway 15, you might start worrying that there’s a problem even if you’re at an entirely different airport.

There is a lot of variation regarding how you identify yourself on the CTAF. Listing your full tail number, as is recommended in the AIM, is not generally necessary and might make your transmission longer than necessary. 

But you do want to make sure that you’re easy to identify from everyone else who might be in the pattern, either talking on CTAF or not. 

Some pilots choose just to state their aircraft type, “Cessna Skyhawk,” but this is troublesome when there are dozens of Skyhawks at even the smallest airports. If you fly a “Grumman Cheetah,” you probably don’t need to worry. 

Some pilots list colors “White and Blue Skyhawk, but this isn’t best practice. Other pilots can’t make out your colors while flying. 

It’s worthwhile to ensure that other pilots know what you’re flying and what type of performance and speed to expect. 

CTAF

“Cessna” provides little detail since it could be a slow-moving Cessna 150 or a very fast Cessna 414 in a higher and wider traffic pattern. 

For example, Cessna twins generally refer to themselves as “Twin Cessna,” whereas singles use their model names, “Skyhawk, Skylane, Stationair, Caravan, etc.” If it’s a rare bird, go with a simple “Cessna.” 

Piper aircraft stick with their model names, “Warrior, Archer, Arrow, Seminole, etc.”

The best policy is to use your model name and an abbreviated tail number like “Archer 4 Tango Foxtrot” or “SportCruiser 4 Papa Sierra.”

With all of these nuances, hearing some weird things said on CTAF frequencies is not uncommon. It’s always best to keep it professional and remember what you’re trying to accomplish. 

When Should You Report on CTAF?

Now you know the basics of what to say on CTAF, when should you say it? Here’s an outline of a complete flight, but you might make a random call whenever you feel it’s necessary.  

  • Taxiing to the runway
  • Taking the runway for departure
  • Turning crosswind
  • Departing the pattern
  • 10 miles out from the airport
  • Overflying the field at altitude
  • Entering the pattern (usually midfield downwind)
  • Turning downwind
  • Turning base
  • Turning final
  • Short final (only if necessary; if there are aircraft holding short) 
  • IFR approach calls (try to make IFR calls as close to the VFR calls above as possible, so that a non-IFR-rated pilot would understand.)

General Tips for Using CTAF

  • The CTAF is not a replacement for see-and-avoid; it is a supplement to it!
  • Since you don’t legally need a radio at many uncontrolled fields, remember there might be aircraft in the pattern that can’t hear you and aren’t transmitting on the CTAF.
  • Keep communications clear and concise—don’t add too many unnecessary details, and don’t use the CTAF for chit-chat.
  • Always identify left and right-hand traffic patterns and runway numbers to clarify. Airports have multiple runways, and some pilots might not follow the recommended procedures. (“Turning left downwind Runway 9” versus “Turning downwind”)
  • Call out your turns, as this provides the point at which the aircraft is most visible (wings tilted) and a specific place for other pilots to look for you (as opposed to an entire leg, which could cover a mile or more). 
  • It’s just as important to listen to the CTAF as to call on it. It takes practice, but you must create a mental image of what is happening in the traffic pattern based on what other pilots say. Then, you must compare their position with yours to determine if there’s any collision risk between their actions and yours. 
  • Never hesitate to ask for clarification from another pilot. “Cessna on downwind at Addison; confirm you’re in left traffic,” or perhaps, “Archer calling crosswind, confirm you’re using Runway 15.”
  • If you think it will help clarify your location to other pilots, there’s nothing wrong with making an extra call. But mind that the frequency doesn’t get clogged with pilots making too many calls, as this might prevent someone from saying something important!
CTAF vs UNICOM

CTAF vs UNICOM

CTAF is often confused with UNICOM, another frequency listed for airports. Adding to the confusion, the CTAF and the UNICOM frequency are often the same. 

At uncontrolled airports, this is usually 122.8. 

But there are other official UNICOM frequencies; you might also see 122.7, 122.725, 122.975, 123.0, 123.05, or 123.075.

What is UNICOM?

UNICOM (Universal Communication) is defined as an Aeronautical Advisory Station. Historically, it was a non-government facility that could provide a pilot with information about an airport. In practice, an FBO or airport worker on the field could look at the wind sock and tell the pilot what the field conditions looked like. 

The Evolution of UNICOM Services

These days, this service has been replaced by automated weather observers, like ASOS or AWOS stations. 

A UNICOM frequency is rarely used to provide airport advisories anymore. Today, it’s more commonly used to call an FBO directly and ask for services. 

Perhaps you need them to know that you’re coming in to drop off passengers, or you need the fuel truck ready because you are making a quick turn.

If operating at an airport with a shared frequency, the word the pilot calls will determine who they are trying to talk to.

For example, by calling “Addison Traffic,” a pilot self-announces position reports on the CTAF. If, on the other hand, the pilot wants to talk to someone at the FBO, they should call for “Addison UNICOM.” 

If an airport doesn’t have an official UNICOM frequency, it will have a designated MULTICOM frequency. 

In practice, there’s no real difference between a MULTICOM and a UNICOM, but a MULTICOM might not have anyone monitoring it. 

It’s used as the CTAF, and there might be airport workers who use it on the ground. MULTICOMs are usually 122.9.

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