Communications Handbook -- Basic Procedures
last updated Tuesday, June 1st, 2010 @ 14:40 UTC

For many new flight simulator pilots, the prospect of using voice communications is the most intimidating consideration when contemplating joining our events. It doesn't have to be this way! Remember what was said in the Membership Requirements -- as long as you can speak and understand basic commands in English, don't worry if you don't have any experience with air traffic control communications. We will forgive errors made through the learning process. This document is a fairly comprehensive guideline for the bare-minimum basic phrases you'll need to get by in a TransGear event, but we don't expect that you memorize it and/or get it perfect the first time. Glance over it, make your best effort, and then come back and look at it again after the event when it's more likely to make more sense to you! (Then come back and join us again the following month and see how much you can improve!)

Keep in mind that everything we do procedurally in TransGear Airways gatherings, while "based on"/"inspired by" realistic procedures, are extremely watered down from the real world. The basics here will barely get you by in more detail-intense simulator environments like VATSIM but by no means is it intended to be a thorough training manual for real-world operations. Due to the limited scope of our operations, there is a lot of detail being glossed over for our purposes. It's a pretty good beginner's primer but don't take it as gospel if you should graduate to bigger and better aviation endeavors.

Part One -- Basic Concepts

The first important concept you need to know is limited vocabulary. Understanding what someone says over the radio is difficult. Mics are muffled or distorted, or there's background noise on one or both ends, or people are stressed from multi-tasking, or trying to talk fast because of their workload. You can't always make out every syllable of every word. However, in aviation and public safety and other life-dependant communication, misunderstandings must be minimized or eliminated. Pilots and controllers therefore use a limited set of "standard phrases" -- this reduces the chance that an affirmative phrase can be mistaken for a negative one, etcetera.

The second critical notion is that communication is two-way. The blame for a misunderstanding can almost always be laid upon the feet of two people -- the one delivering the message and the one receiving it. Again with the goal of reducing misunderstandings, standard aviation procedure calls for pilots to "read back" (i.e. repeat) certain instructions they are given, so that the controller can verify that the pilot heard them correctly.

Part Two -- Basic Vocabulary

Numbers. For starters, virtually all numbers said over a two-way radio should be read out as individual digits. "One fifty" and "one sixty" can sound very similar; "one-five-zero" and "one-six-zero" are much easier to distinguish from one another. The only place this is often relaxed is with the flight number in your callsign -- TGA1180 could very well be said "TransGear Eleven Eighty" and not "TransGear one-one-eight-zero." However, all headings, airspeeds, altitudes, altimeter readings, frequencies, and runway numbers should always be pronounced per digit.

A quick note about the number "9" -- there are two digits that can be mistaken for one another when sound quality is poor, and those are "five" and "nine". This caused the governing body, years ago, to institute the practice of using the pronunciation "niner" in place of "nine" to ensure that it could not be confused with "five." Many sources still designate "niner" as the proper pronunciation for the digit 9, but in my listening experience this practice has become relaxed, and I will hear pilots that say "nine" just as often as I hear ones keeping with the traditional "niner," and some pilots and controllers switch casually back and forth hapahazardly. On the other hand, amateurs who are not aware of the reasoning for this adjustment often erroneously believe that adding the suffix "-er" to the end of numbers is just something pilots do to sound "cool." If you ever hear someone say "fiver" over the air in any two-way radio setting, please educate them -- as such a practice can be quite painful to the trained ear!

Headings are always read out as three digits -- values less than 100 will be pronounced with a leading "zero" (heading 030 is said "zero-three-zero"); and due north is usually pronounced as "three-six-zero" even though your compass/HSI will generally read "000". Altitudes can end in the word "hundred" or "thousand", and are usually rounded to the closest of either; but altitudes at or above 18,000 (see note below) are usually referred to as a "flight level", in which the last two zeroes are taken off (such that 33,000 feet is referred to as "flight level three-three-zero"). Airspeeds are always assigned in knots, and refer to "indicated" airspeeds. Radio frequencies are always given to at least one decimal place, even if that place is a zero (as in 119MHz being referred to as "one-one-niner-point-zero"); the word used to incidate the decimal is supposed to be "decimal" but in the United States the word "point" seems to be in common use. Altimeter settings are always given in four digits (two before the decimal and two after), and the word "decimal" or "point" is sometimes ommitted (such that a setting of 29.80 might be said as "two-niner-eight-zero").

(NOTE: in Europe, I believe the cutoff for altitudes in feet versus "flight levels" is different, or perhaps the two terms may be interchangeable; I'm not exactly sure. However, in U.S. airspace, per FAA guideline, the transition point is 18,000. At or above this point, altimeters should be set to 29.92 regardless of the current barometric pressure; below that altitude, the "local" setting as advised by ATIS or ATC should be used.)

Letters. Have you ever noticed how many letters in the standard English alphabet rhyme with one another? Nine of them end in the long e ("ee") sound, five have a short "e" ("eh"), and four have the long "a" ("ay"). Only four don't rhyme with any others. To be sure letters said over the radio would not be misheard, the governing body set forth a standard list of words to be substituted for letters so that they could be completely distinct from one another. This can't be accomplished by using any name or word -- "Don" could sound like "John," for example -- only a standard set would do the job. That set is properly referred to as "The International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet", and appears in the table below:

The International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet
Alpha Juliet Romeo
Bravo Kilo Sierra
Charlie Lima Tango
Delta Mike Uniform
Echo November Victor
Foxtrot Oscar Whiskey
Golf Papa X-Ray
Hotel Quebec Yankee
India Zulu

The spelling alphabet is most often used in non-commercial aircraft callsigns (which are generally airframe registration numbers -- "N531MD" would be "November-five-three-one-Mike-Delta," for example), or in taxi instructions, as airport taxiways are almost always designated with a single letter ("Echo") or a letter follwed by a digit ("Lima-seven"), or occasionally a doubled-letter (such as "Alpha-Alpha").

Part Three -- Radio Transmissions

In TransGear events, there are two main types of radio transmissions you will make: a check-in and an acknowledgment. On occasion you may be asked by a controller to make a report; and in very rare instances you may also make a request, but most of the time that will only be if something is not going as planned. Virtually any other question or thought that might be on your mind is most likely not something that needs to be communicated to your controller, and thus should either be said/asked over multiplayer chat or saved for the forums after the event.

Check-Ins. When you first make contact with a controller, whether you are coming out of uncontrolled airspace or being handed off from another controller, you should make a full check-in with the new facility. The form of that check-in is "controller's callsign, pilot's callsign, pilot's position, pilot's intentions." (Yes, real-world pilots, we are intentionally generalizing and/or glossing over a piece or two here.) To fully understand that, let's break it down into its four parts:

Here are some example check-ins which you might make during TransGear events:

Acknowledgments. In the movies, pilots always answer "Roger" when they're given an instruction. In the real world, pilots are required to answer with a "readback" of certain key pieces of all instructions given to them by a controller, so that the controller can verify that they were heard correctly; if a controller's transmission contains none of the below items, only then may a pilot answer with simply "Roger"; but regardless, the last piece of ALL acknowledgments is the pilot's callsign! For our purposes, a "readback" must be given for any of the following:

... however, when in doubt, repeat back any instruction you were given, before ending the response with your callsign. Reading back purely informational transmissions such as wind advisories is not necessary.

Reports. Usually in uncontrolled airspace (and, actually, in controlled but non-radar-covered environments as well), pilots are used to giving "position reports" at each key part of the pattern. In radar-controlled airspace (which for our purposes, all controlled airspace is assumed to be), you really don't have to do that except when the controller has given you a "report {x}" directive. The most tempting one for many to say is "clear of runway {xx}."; but the Tower controller can usually see that, so there's no need to announce unless he's asked you to.

If you are asked to report crossing a certain waypoint or position, the form for doing so is very simple, concise, and precise: your callsign, followed by the position you were asked to report, followed (just for good measure) by your altitude. If you're asked to report crossing LaGrange VORTAC (and of course you've acknowledged the request by reading it back: "Okay, we'll report crossing LaGrange, TransGear {flt#}"), then upon doing so, your report should be "TransGear {flt#}, crossing LaGrange at {altitude}." If instructed to "make a left downwind for runway 23L and report midfield," and you've already read that back, then upon reaching that point you should say "TransGear {flt#} is midfield on our left downwind at {altitude}."

Requests. Most of the time, the only request a pilot will need to make of a controller during a TransGear event is for their clearance to push back from the gate when they are ready to depart from one of the controlled hub airports ("TransGear {flt#}, request startup and pushback."). In very rare cases, a TransGear pilot might need to make some other request of the controller. In these unusual instances the requests are to be kept as short and direct as precisely what follows and no more. The only instances I can think of in which this would be the case are:

The Air Traffic Control channels are not for FlightGear technical support or aircraft help. If you do have a question about the simulator ("What's the key for lowering gear again?"), a question about the event ("So, if I landed late, do I still take off at my scheduled time or do I have to wait fifteen minutes?") or some sort of technical issue ("None of the scenery for this airport is loading! What do I do?"), these may be asked over MP chat, or you can request to switch off the frequency for a minute and try to raise someone on 122.75; but the Air Traffic Control channels are not the appropriate venue. The short answer for any technical glitch, by the way, is to try to solve it or work around it, or else shut off and restart your simulator or even the PC itself and re-spawn on a non-active runway or other nearby location. Even then, "I have to reload; where should I re-spawn?" is best asked via typed chat.

Part Four -- Putting it All Together

In TransGear events, the "spoke airports" (the ones at the beginning and end of the event) are not staffed with controllers. The "hub airports" (the ones in the middle, where multiple flights pass through) are almost always staffed by a two-person Air Traffic Control crew: one person handling Approach/Departure, and one person handling Tower/Ground. The frequencies in use for each (using FGCom) are published on that event's page here on the website, and may or may not reflect the actual Approach and Tower frequencies used in the real world at these airports. When approaching within 80nm of one of these airports, your initial contact should always be with the Approach/Departure controller. If you are starting (or re-starting) at a controlled airport, you should be in touch with the Tower/Ground controller. Once you do so, you only switch from one to the other when you are instructed to do so by the controller you're currently in contact with!

(NOTE: it is strongly recommended to use the "range-extended" version of FGCom, available on the Charts and Resources page. However, it may not be available for Mac users as of this writing. If for some reason you must use the standard version, which only supports contact with facilities within 50km or approximately 27nm, it is advisable to make inital contact with Approach via Multiplayer Typed Chat, advise them you will check in by voice before 25nm out, and proceed that way. The controllers should have no problems working with you in that manner, but please use extreme caution while typing and flying -- always make sure you have a dialog box before trying to enter your message!)

What follows below is sort of a "script" you can use as a guideline for your flight. To cover all of the bases, it assumes you are starting at a controlled airport and also arriving at one; so ignore any pieces which don't apply if you are starting or ending at a spoke airport. The instructions may not also come in the precise order listed, depending on the exact situation. Also, keep in mind that the wording used by the controllers may not be exact but should be as close as possible to the phrases as they appear below.

At this step... ... with this controller... ... initiate or expect... ... this exchange.
Parked at gate, preflight done, at or after scheduled departure time, ready to start Tower/Ground Initiate You: "TransGear {flt#}, request startup and pushback."
ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, cleared to start up and push back, expect runway {rwy#} for departure, report when ready to taxi."
You: "Clear to push back, TransGear {flt#}."
Pushback complete, ready to taxi Tower/Ground Initiate You: "TransGear {flt#}, ready to taxi."
ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, taxi via {taxiway#(s)} to {rwy#} and hold short."
You: "Taxi via {taxiway#(s)} to {rwy#} and hold short, TransGear {flt#}."
Arrived at, and holding short of, intervening crossing runway (IF APPLICABLE) Tower/Ground Expect ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, clear to cross {rwy#}, then continue on {taxiway#} to {rwy#} and hold short."
You: "Crossing {rwy#}, continuing via {taxiway#} to {rwy#} and hold short, TransGear {flt#}."
Arrived at, and holding short of, departure runway Tower/Ground Expect (OPTIONAL/AS NEEDED) ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, runway {rwy#}, position and hold."
You: "Position and hold runway {rwy#}, TransGear {flt#}."
Arrived at, and holding short of, departure runway
... or ...
Positioned and holding on departure runway
Tower/Ground Expect ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, [fly runway heading until {altitude} | {other instruction} | {none}], wind {heading} at {speed}, runway {rwy#}, clear for takeoff."
You: "{Readback of post-takeoff instruction if given}, clear for takeoff {rwy#}, TransGear {flt#}."
Departed runway, gear up, at least 1,000 ft AGL Tower/Ground Expect ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, contact Departure on {freq}."
You: "Switching to {freq}, TransGear {flt#}."
Handed off from Tower to Departure Approach/Departure Initiate (Check-In) You: "{Facility} Departure, TransGear {flt#} climbing thru {altitude}, [departing via {SID name} | for {direction}-bound departure].
ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, {facility} Departure, radar contact, [proceed direct {SID entry waypoint} | {altitude and heading assignment}]."
You: "{readback of waypoint or heading/altitude assigned}, TransGear {flt#}."
Climbing to cruise or intermediate altitude as assigned Approach/Departure Expect (OPTIONAL/AS NEEDED) ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, {new heading and/or altitude assignment}."
You: "{Readback of assigned heading and/or altitude}, TransGear {flt#}."
Climbing to cruise or intermediate altitude as assigned Approach/Departure Expect ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, resume own navigation."
You: "Roger, TransGear {flt#}."
Cleared to resume own navigation, climbing to cruise Approach/Departure Expect ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, clearing my airspace, radar services terminated, frequency change approved."
You: "Roger, TransGear {flt#}."
*** ... contact destination Approach/Departure controller on published frequency once within 80nm of arrival airport ... ***
Approaching within 80nm of arrival airport Destination Approach/Departure Initiate (Check-In) You: "{Facility} Approach, TransGear {flt#}, {nm} miles {direction} of {waypoint/airfield} at {altitude} [descending to {altitude}], [inbound via {STAR name} | inbound direct]."
ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, {facility} Approach, radar contact, altimeter {altimeter setting}, expect ILS approach runway {rwy#}."
You: "Roger, TransGear {flt#}."
Descending per procedure or intermediate altitude as assigned Approach/Departure Expect (OPTIONAL/AS NEEDED) ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, {new heading and/or altitude assignment}."
You: "{Readback of assigned heading and/or altitude}, TransGear {flt#}."
Descending below 10,000 feet Approach/Departure Expect ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, reduce speed 2-5-0 knots."
You: "2-5-0 knots, TransGear {flt#}."
Approaching within 30nm of arrival airport Approach/Departure Expect ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, reduce speed 2-0-0 knots."
You: "2-0-0 knots, TransGear {flt#}."
Nearing [inital approach fix | localizer intercept | visual with airfield] Approach/Departure Expect ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, reduce speed 1-7-0 knots."
You: "1-7-0 knots, TransGear {flt#}."
On localizer intercept heading (IF APPLICABLE) Approach/Departure Expect ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, maintain heading until intercepting localizer, clear for ILS approach runway {rwy#}."
You: "Clear for ILS approach {rwy#}, TransGear {flt#}."
On visual pattern intercept heading (IF APPLICABLE) Approach/Departure Expect ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, report visual contact with the runway."
You: "Will report visual with the runway, TransGear {flt#}."
... then ...
You: "TransGear {flt#} has the runway in sight."
ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, clear for visual approach runway {rwy#}."
You: "Clear for visual approach {rwy#}, TransGear {flt#}."
Cleared for approach Approach/Departure Expect ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, contact {facility} Tower on {freq}."
You: "Switching to {freq}, TransGear {flt#}."
Handed off from Approach to Tower Tower/Ground Initiate (Check-In) You: "{Facility} Tower, TransGear {flt#}, {nm} miles out on the [ILS | visual] approach {rwy#}."
ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, wind {heading} at {speed}, runway {rwy#}, cleared to land."
You: "Cleared to land {rwy#}, TransGear {flt#}."
Touched down and braking Tower/Ground Expect ATC: "TransGear {flt#}, make any available [left | right] turn off of the runway and taxi to the gate of your choice, remain on this frequency."
You: "Vacating to the [left | right] and taxiing to the terminal on your frequency, TransGear {flt#}."
(NOTE: as with departing, clearance must be requested and/or received before crossing any intervening runways.)