3 Things Every Pilot Needs to Know About… Communication at Non-Towered Airports

Pilots can be grouped, divided and described by many features, qualities, etc… One of these descriptors is whether the pilot learned to fly at an airport with a control tower or if the pilot learned to fly at an airport without a control tower. I’m not going to get into that debate today… Maybe someday, but not today.

Anyways, if you ask pilots who learned to fly at an airport with a control tower about flying to a non-towered airport, you’d like hear about the “Wild, Wild West” atmosphere where it is simply astonishing more midair collisions and accidents don’t occur.

plane and building

Regardless of if there is a control tower or not, it isn’t difficult for a pilot to sound like a professional on the radio!


Conversely, if you speak with a pilot who learned to fly at an airport without a control tower about flying to an airport with a control tower you’re more likely to hear about the experience being rushed, more regimented and possibly less fun, if not down right frightening.

Regardless of whether a pilot learns to fly with or without a control tower at their home base airport, there are some simple things that can make radio communications at non-towered airports much easier!

  1. The phrase “Final approach fix inbound” means nothing to student and most private pilots…

While I’m not going to dwell on making straight in approaches in this space right now (I’ve done that before, you can read it HERE), I do want to discuss how this is stated over the radio.

Fancy instrument rated pilots or the quick-to-impress advanced instrument rating students fully understand the meaning of terms like missed approach point, visual descent point, final approach fix, etc… Just because YOU might know what these things are and what they mean, doesn’t mean that other, less experienced (or even more experienced) pilots know what these things are. Or where these points are at the airport where you are reporting them.

Let’s say you are making a straight in approach to an airport in visual conditions (whether or not anyone else is in the traffic pattern). You are coming towards the airport, and you want to announce your position and intentions so that other pilots know where you are and what you’re doing, so they don’t run into you. Likewise, you want to know all of these things about them! Well there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, let’s take a look…

WRONG WAY: “Mansfield traffic, Skyhawk 12345, final approach fix in-bound for Runway 32.”

RIGHT WAY: “Mansfield traffic, Skyhawk 12345, 5 miles out, straight in final for Runway 32.”

The calls are very similar except for one detail… Every single pilot knows what the second one means, the first though, only instrument rated pilots (or pilots doing instrument training) know what this means.

So I ask you to ask yourself a simple question: “If I could make the second radio call and possibly prevent having someone fly INTO ME, why wouldn’t I?”

NEWS FLASH, your instinctive and automatic response of not wanting to have someone potentially position him or herself on a converging course with you is the right one. You are right to want other pilots to know where you are, that is why you are using the radio in the first place! So like I said, make sure your radio calls are easily understood by all levels of pilots, you never know it may save YOU some day!

  1. Have you ever seen the movie Meet the Parents? Color is not a good descriptor…

“Mansfield traffic, white Cessna, entering left downwind, Runway 32, Mansfield.”

Seriously? In what world is that an effective radio call? I mean come on… Really?

Yet, pilots continue to do this. It always brings me back to the original Meet the Parents film, where the main character Greg, played by Ben Stiller, finds himself in an awkward position when he receives the wrong suitcase after his airline lost his bag. Stiller’s character asks the airline associate something along the lines of, “Do you think maybe in an effort to make a profit Samsonite made more than one black suitcase?”


A “White Cessna”…

Gee, do you think maybe there is more than one white Cessna out there? Heck “White Cessna” could literally mean anything from a white Cessna 150 to a white Cessna Citation X…

A Citation X departing from Runway 23 at EWB. (8/26)

Also a “White Cessna”… See what I mean?

Would it really be too difficult to say “Cessna Skyhawk” as opposed to “white Cessna”? Unless your aircraft is all red or all black, chances are the color isn’t going to help anyone identify it… Now, if you said “Red Cessna,” or more appropriately, “Red Skyhawk,” you’re actually providing useful information to other pilots… Just a thought…

We’ll get into why “White Skyhawk” is better than “White Cessna Skyhawk” with the next point.

  1. Be accurate and concise

I’ll start #3 by saying, please, please keep your conversations off the CTAF. I really don’t care that you brought your cousin flying today and you went to XYZ for breakfast, then flew down the coast looking for XYZ and now you’re coming back to get home for the family BBQ… I really don’t care and neither do the three other pilots in the traffic pattern!

Alas, the true message to this point is to maximize your message, while minimizing the word count. Think of a radio call as the opposite of your 11th grade English paper that had to be so many words long. Your radio call can be quick, easy and extremely accurate. To quote Ranch Wilder (the announcer) in the 1994 movie Angels in the Outfield, “Less is More!”

Let’s take a look:

“Mansfield Traffic, Cessna Skyhawk 12345, to the northwest, about 10 miles at, we’ll say, 2,700 feet, in-bound, setting up for the forty five degree entry to the left downwind for Runway 32, Mansfield.”

My instructor critique of the radio call is that it is good, in the sense that it contains all of the proper pieces of information. The steps for improvement would be to reduce some of the words and save time on the frequency, this can benefit both yourself and other pilots (and controllers when you fly to towered airports). Now let’s take a look at the same radio call, with all of the same information, in roughly the same order, but more concise and easier to follow…

“Mansfield Traffic, Skyhawk 12345, 10 miles out on the forty five entry at 2,700 feet, Mansfield.”

When you look at the two radio calls you can see the first is the “long-winded version to maximize word count for your English paper,” and the seconds is the “be as accurate and concise as you can with your scientific finding.”

There are multiple benefits to employing more concise radio calls:

  1. Shorter messages use less frequency time.
  2. Shorter messages are easier for other pilots to follow and understand without becoming lost in the words.
  3. Shorter messages (if done properly, including all of the proper information) sound much more professional.
  4. Shorter messages offer fewer opportunities to mess up… For pilots worried about sounding professional…

With that, I rest my case on using accurate and concise radio communications!

Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9

Since it’s almost Christmas, here’s a bonus thing every pilot should know: Don’t be a jerk… Mistakes happen… You don’t have to be first all the time… And remember, take a deep breath, look out the window, enjoy the view and forget that “snarky” comment to the hotshot in the Cirrus, he or she is an aviation-lover too, you have more in common than you think!


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