The Four W’s of Aviation Radio Communications


What’s the hardest part about pilot training? Almost everyone will say, “Talking on the radio.” However, even beginners can sound good on the radio if they apply some simple rules. I’ll first discuss those rules and then give some tips all pilots can use to improve their radio skills.

The Four W’s of Radio Communication

Usually the hardest radio call for a pilot to make is the first one — the “initial call up.” However, every initial call (and many subsequent calls) just need to remember the four W’s:

  • Who am I calling?
  • Who am I?
  • Where am I?
  • Where am I going, what am I doing, or what do I want to do?

Let’s take two examples of this, one for an uncontrolled field and one with a control tower.

As you get ready to enter the traffic pattern at an uncontrolled field, typically you will make an announcement such as:

“Milltown traffic (who am I calling?), Cessna 12345 (who am I?) entering 45 to downwind (where am I?), runway 22 for landing Milltown (what am I doing?).

With a control tower, you might instead say:

Ocala tower (who am I calling?), Cessna 12345 (who am I?) eight miles north at two thousand five hundred with Charlie (where am I? — and add the ATIS), landing Ocala (what do I want to do?).

Once you have established communication, you don’t need to use the four Ws for all of your communication. Instead, you will just read back critical instructions to the controller so they know you have received them. For example, if the controller asks you to enter a right downwind for runway 24, you would reply, “Cessna 12345 will enter right downwind for 24.”

Try some different scenarios with your friends or a flight instructor, and pretty soon you’ll know what to say at all times.


Even when you know what to say, talking on the radio still takes some practice. Here are some tips that will have you talking like a pro in no time.

  1. Listen to ATC communications. If you don’t have a radio that receives aviation frequencies, see if you can borrow one from another pilot or your flight school for a week. Listen to what pilots say to ATC on their initial call up and how they respond to ATC directions. Try to listen to ground, tower, approach, and center frequencies if you can.
  2. Write down what you are going to say before you make your initial radio call. You can even make up fill-in-the-blank scripts to do this. After a few weeks of this, most people can make calls on their own, but you may still want to write down complicated calls.
  3. If you’re a student pilot, be sure to say so in your initial call up so ATC will be more careful in how they handle you.
  4. Don’t be concerned if you forget something. Even experienced pilots sometimes forget to tell the controller their altitude or that they have the ATIS. Don’t worry — controllers will ask you for something if you’ve forgotten it.
  5. Study Chapter 4 and the Pilot/Controller Glossary in the Aeronautical Information Manual for recommended phraseology.

If all else fails, use plain English! Not all situations lend themselves to recommended ATC phrases or you may just forget how to say something. I was once departing an unfamiliar airport and as I called ground I suddenly realized I had no idea where I was on the airport. The call went something like this, “Littletown ground, Cessna 12345, ummm… ” (at this point I was wildly looking around me) “I’m at the Chevron sign, ready to taxi with Delta, departing to the west.” Whew — saved by the Chevron gas sign! Ground found me and let me taxi.

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