Ingo Noka

What did they say?

In Airmanship, Private Pilot License on September 26, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Piper Avionics Stack

A while ago I wrote about my radio practice at Senai airport.  I wrote it mostly to get things lined up properly in my own mind, so I never got around to publish it.   I now found it again in one of the abandoned folders on my laptop and think this may help somebody else with their first radio calls.  So, while I make it available here, I am aware that I am not that experienced myself and may get things wrong.  It always better to ask an instructor for clarification if in doubt!

Radio calls from start-up to take-off


One of the most intimidating experiences during my pilot training (and even today) is the radio communication.  At the beginning, I thought I would never fully comprehend what goes on and what I am supposed to say and when it was ok to say it.  This anxiety has eased somewhat, but hasn’t gone entirely.  So, I thought I would write down some of the stuff I have learned.  Writing it down helped me and maybe it helps somebody else as well.  I am using the start-up sequence at Johor Bahru Senai airport as an example.

How to make contact

Whenever I get in touch with a new station, I need to get myself “introduced” to them.  This means, the first thing I would do on the radio is to initiate the radio conversation with Johor ground control. I call the ground station I want to talk to like this: “Johor Ground, Niner Mike Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot on one two one decimal eight, Good morning/afternoon.”  I was taught to say the frequencies, but most other pilots don’t seem to do it.  Johor Ground is likely to accept that.  In fact I always wondered why the FRAS operating procedure requires to say the frequency and the best explanation I have come up with is that one controller may work both ground and tower, so it would be easier for the controller to ensure I am on the right frequency for the respective ground station if I say the frequency I am calling on (or I think I am calling on).  Another explanation would be that getting mentally ready for saying the frequency before the initial call to a new station ensures that I actually check whether I am on the right frequency or not.  Whatever the reason, I got used to saying the frequency and think it is good practice unless I talk to an extremely busy station.

The controller will say something like “Niner Mike Charlie Foxtrot, Go ahead.”  Don’t be surprised when they use a very abbreviated call sign such as “Charlie Foxtrot”.  There aren’t that many aircraft in Johor airspace or on the ground to create confusion if call signs are abbreviated much more than what is strictly allowed.  From here onwards, I can use “Niner Charlie Foxtrot.”

Tell them what you want

Once I get the go ahead, I have to tell the controller how many persons I have on board and what my fuel endurance is: “Niner Mike Charlie Foxtrot, POB one, endurance three hours and three zero minutes, [position call / or request/intention]”.  This first part is something that new pilots forget very often and sometimes even the experienced pilots don’t get it right.  I have heard the controller a couple of times asking scheduled airline flights to tell them POB, endurance and sometimes even the call sign.

Who is calling?

One word on how various stations are addressed.  Firstly, you need to remember that there is only one control station, but many aircraft talking to that control station.  In other words, the aircraft will always need to identify itself as the sender of a message, while the control station has to identify the receiver of the message.  When writing this while sitting in my chair at home, I think this is obvious, but when I am at the controls of an aircraft, even this simple fact may escape me when I am fumbling through my radio calls.  Anyway, when you initiate a call to a station at which your are already “registered”, you say your full or abbreviated call sign first and then you say what you want.  When you receive a message from the ground station they will also start with your call sign and say what they want.  In most cases you will have to read back or at least acknowledge that you have received the message.  To do that you will first read back the message and then say your call sign at the end.  Most student and low-hour pilots (including me) will confuse this and say the call sign at the end when initiating a call or say it at the beginning when reading back a message.  I caught myself a couple of times saying the call sign at both ends of the message, which is confusing to everybody else and takes too much time.  To get it right I have to remind myself before I push the button!  Intuition may otherwise overtake and you end up falling back into the pattern you would use for addressing your counterpart in a person-to-person conversations, like this (wrong)

Wrong: “Hi Joe, can I join you for lunch?” – “Johor Tower, request rejoining” or

Wrong: “Wait a second, Joe” – “Stand by, Johor Ground”.

Let’s get going

Continuing with the radio call sequence (stating your request after POB and endurance) while you are still on the parking apron, you will now ask for start-up and you will have to tell the controller what you are starting up for,  e.g. for circuit and landings, for operating in the training areas around Gunung Pulai or for a navigation exercise etc.

Some pointers here:  It is possible that the controller will come back and tell you what you requested is not available.  This is often the case for the circuit, for example when Malaysian Airlines or Singapore Airlines are doing circuit training or other small aircraft are in the circuit already (“circuit is active”).  Since this is not mentioned in the training manuals, a new pilot will likely be surprised and wouldn’t quite know what to say.

Of course, this sort of thing always likes to happen when you are on your own for the first couple of times.  My reaction when this happened the first time to me was, after a longish pause, “Hm, Ahm, Understood?”.  (You will get used to being embarrassed on the radio.)  The lessons I took away from this were

  1. Before making the first call listen to ground and tower frequencies a little bit to figure out what is going on and check the white boards in the club house for airline training times,
  2. Have a plan what you would ask for if you do not get your first choice (and if you are a student confirm with your instructor that the second choice is ok), and
  3. If you are not quite sure what to say you can respond with “Stand by, Charlie Foxtrot”.

My own call would be like this “Copy circuit not available, request south of Gunung Pulai, 2000 feet and below, Charlie Foxtrot”.  If I feel adventurous, I may even try to tell them my intention to get back to circuits when the aircraft currently occupying it is gone: “Copy circuit not available, request south of Gunung Pulai, 2000 feet and below, request circuits and landings as soon as available, Charlie Foxtrot.”

Get permission

Most of the time Ground Control will give you permission to start-up repeating your intention and possibly the QNH value as well.  (The controller may just say “Q” instead of QNH.)  You always need to read back the QNH.  Initially you will have problems to hear and remember the QNH value.  Here are some tips that helped me:

  1. Set the altimeter to between 110 to 120 feet (the elevation of the cargo apron in Johor) and read the QNH from the sub-scale.  This way you have a rough idea in what ballpark the QNH should be.
  2. Listen to ATIS (Aerodrome Terminal Information System) on 123.05 and memorize the QNH, but remember that the QNH by the time you start-up may have changed!

And, do not forget to actually set the Altimeter sub-scale to the QNH once you have read it back.  If you did not get the QNH value at all, you can say “Say again QNH, Charlie Foxtrot.”  And most importantly: read back the start-up clearance!

Get going

Once the engine is running and you feel comfortable with all the meter readings, go through the next few steps mentally before you make the next call.  The next call would be to ask for taxiing to the holding point.  From here things can go different ways, depending what controller you have and how they like to do things.  Most often it will go something like this: “Charlie Foxtrot, request taxiing to holding point [bravo]”.

I don’t think you have to say the holding point name.  At the cargo apron at Senai airport, there is only one possible holding point you could go to, and generally you have to leave it to ground control to decide to which point and via which taxi ways you are supposed to taxi.  Often the ground controller will give you permission to taxi and also tell you that ATC is available.  If they do that, you respond with “Cleared for taxiing to holding point bravo and ready for ATC, Charlie Foxtrot.”  I like to do this while I am still stationary, so that I do not have to read back ATC clearing while I am concentrating on steering the aircraft.

Even if they do not tell you that ATC is available, you should just say that you are ready for ATC to get this over with before start moving.  Experienced instructors and pilots do check lists, calls and aircraft handling all at the same time, but I am not even close to doing it this way.

The ATC clearance can be short or long and may include information that you do not expect.  usually it includes the runway, the turn direction after take off, the initial altitude, the QNH and the squawk code.  You must read back everything!  I like to start with the responder code, since this comes in last and is a four digit code that one can easily forget. If you do circuits or go to the training areas, the squawk code will likely be two one zero zero (2100). In Senai, the runway will be one six (16) almost all of the time and if you go to the training area or do one of the navigation exercise along the west coast the turn will be to the right.  The initial altitude will likely be the pattern altitude for light aircraft which is one thousand feet.

So most of the time the radio call will go something like this: “Niner Charlie Foxtrot, clear ATC for south of Gunung Pulai, two thousand feet and below.” or, “Clear for circuit and landings, runway one six, left turn, one thousand, squawk two one zero zero, QNH one zero one zero.”

Hand over to tower

In the clearance to taxi, ground control will often tell you to switch over to tower when you reach the holding point.  There is a difference between switching straight away and switching when reaching the holding point! One of my instructors was very particular about this.  In one instance I read back “Clear taxi, Switch over to tower, Charlie Foxtrot.” and I was told that ground control asked us to switch over only when we reach the holding point and not immediately (and I did not read back the frequency of Johor tower either!).  While doing practice flights in Senai airport all this may sound a bit pedantic (the holding point is practically in the same place as the cargo apron and the tower frequency is known to everybody), but it is definitely good practice to do everything as if you are at an unfamiliar much bigger airport.  At least this is what I do now, and I am thankful for the professional (don’t cut corners) training that I received from instructors like captain Singh and Captain Kevin Muk.

Now you are ready to go.  Don’t forget to look out before moving.  I follow a practice that Captain Singh recommended to me, which is to say out loud what I intend to do: “Left clear, front clear, right clear”, while I move my head and sometimes even point with my hand.  It is easy to look out while thinking about something else.  You end up not seeing anything even if it was there.  Generally, I try to force myself not to fall into this trap and do everything with the purpose to mentally realize what I do, see and hear.  Saying everything you do out loud helps with this.

When I reach the holding point I bring the aircraft to a full stop, switch over to tower frequency and call them: “Niner Mike Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot, holding point bravo, will call when ready.”  Note that I use the full call sign, but don’t mention the POB and endurance.

Ready to line up

Once I am ready, I say “Niner Charlie Foxtrot, ready to line up.”  The tower will now tell me again the runway, turn direction, initial altitude and maybe a squawk code.  It is possible that the controller is trying to expedite things and gives me a clearance to take off at the same time.  I have to read back the take off clearance and after that I do not need to ask for take off clearance again.  I do not even have to come to a full stop when I line up on the center line.  But I would say it is best practice to do it anyway, albeit very briefly to make way for other traffic.  However, most of the time I only get permission to line up!!!!  Important: Do not take off without explicit take off clearance from the controller.

As soon as I have the a/c lined up and did the CAT checks (compass/Directional Indicator/runway direction, artificial horizon upright and level, temperature and pressure readings in the green), I tell the tower I am lined up and ready for take off.  Often the controller tells me the turn direction and initial altitude again when clearing me for take-off.  For circuits it may go something like this: Me: “Niner Charlie Foxtrot, lined up one six and ready for take off.” Tower: “Niner Charlie Foxtrot, clear for take off one six, left turn, one thousand.” Me: “Clear take off, one six, left, one thousand, Charlie Foxtrot.”

Taking off

From my experience a couple of unusual things can happen during line up and take off.  The controller may ask

  • for an expedited take off,
  • for an early left/right turn or
  • for a long climb before turn.

The expedited take off is similar to receiving take off clearance together with the line up clearance.  I just acknowledge the clearance and move to center line as quick as possible and take off without bringing the aircraft to a full stop first.

For the early turn, I am trying to be very conscious of my low altitude.  Instead of turning immediately when I receive the call, I keep climbing straight, acknowledge the call, look out and make a shallow 15º turn.  The temptation to yank the aircraft without much thought into a steeper turn than what you would normally do during full power climb is great!

The long climb is easy enough. You just keep climbing and turn once you are established at the cleared altitude .

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