ATC communications

Hello pilots, I have only flown a handful of times, but ATC communications seems to be what I struggle with most. Is this typical for first time flyers? Any tips or suggestions on how to enhance my skills in this area? It seems I have a hard time keeping up with their rate of speech and collecting all of the information. How long before you felt confident with your ATC communication?

@Bradley2655 - Hey Layne.

I’m not an instructor (yet), but I am a former air traffic controller. I’m sure some of the CFIs or mentors will jump in with some good advice, but having come from the other side of the mic, a couple things come to mind that might help.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Practice your radio calls just like you chair fly maneuvers. Driving home, practice your phonetic alphabet off license plates, make position/traffic calls to other cars (“Blue Mazda, 2 o’clock”), or go through your CTAF calls in the pattern in order.
  • Anticipate calls you expect to receive while flying (like pattern entry instructions when you get ready to call up a Class D tower), so you can rehearse your answer beforehand.
  • Listen to LiveATC at a familiar airport. You can do it online, and they have apps for iOS and Android so you can listen in the car or wherever. Even if you don’t understand everything that’s going on, you’ll be keyed into the conversation and it’ll start to become more natural. See if you can get to the point where you can respond to ATC instructions as the pilots are doing it.
  • Similar to the previous one, if it’s a busy day at your home field, sit out with a radio on or tuned to LiveATC, and follow along with the traffic picture. Anticipate what the controller is going to do, and answer the calls as the pilots. You’ll get the picture pretty quickly.
  • Accuracy comes first. What I mean by that is as a controller, I would rather a pilot read back instructions/make a request correctly but include unnecessary details as opposed to the hotshot who is trying to sound like a pro but can’t get his calls right. “N3BL turning right heading 090 and maintaining altitude VFR N3BL” vs. “Three Bud Light goin’ east”. The speed’ll come with time.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell a controller to repeat something you missed. Tell them to slow down a bit if need be. Most will be fine with it. As for the few who throw in that an exasperated sigh or complain? Ignore it. Their job is to serve YOU, not the other way around. If you are genuinely more demanding than they can accommodate at the moment, they have procedures to deal with that. Don’t let yourself be intimidated; everybody had to learn at some point.
  • Tossing in “student pilot” at the end of your initial check in can be really helpful. You don’t have to be solo to do it. I don’t know why more people don’t take advantage of this.
  • Do your best to sound confident in what you’re doing. A pilot who sounds capable will get better service. Ones who sound confused often get pushed to the back of the queue. This worked in reverse, too – controllers who sounded unsure of their instructions get walked all over by pilots.
  • Remember that everybody’s human. It’s not just you screwing up. Pilots do it all the time. So do controllers. Be patient with yourself.
  • Finally… practice, practice, practice. Just to drive that point home. Aviation phraseology is about as close and you’ll get to a foreign language without actually leaving English. The more you do it, the more natural it’ll get.

On my intro flight, my instructor let me take the radios. When our airport got socked in and we needed to go IFR and fly an ILS in, I handled all of the clearances hands-free, without any repeated readbacks or hesitation. He was really impressed until I explained that I had issued the same clearances thousands of times before. You’ll get there too – just keep at it.

Edit: Wait, I thought of one last one. Sorry, these are just off the top of my head, but wanted to include this…

  • Get ahead of the plane as much as possible so you have more brainpower to devote to the radio. Think about how you workload varies as you fly. It is typically highest in the pattern, on final, and during takeoff, and lower during cruise. When your workload is lower, it’s easier to focus on your weak areas and they stress you out less – so do everything you can to keep things manageable when you know you’ll be busy. 15 miles from landing? Take care of the ATIS, preprogram radio frequencies, brief the traffic pattern, have your taxi diagram out, and get through all your other preparations so you’re not doing it while in contact with the tower when you’re having to think harder about what you’re saying. It’s a lot easier to work out radio calls when your attention isn’t being pulled towards things you could’ve taken care of earlier. Incidentally, the same strategy applies to anything you’re struggling with. Get the easy stuff out of the way early on so you can focus on other things later.


This is a very common issue for new pilots. I recommend going to and listening to the ATC feeds there. Or, you could buy a handheld radio and go out to the local airport and listen. Typically though, this is a skill that builds with time. You are essentially learning a whole new language, cut yourself some slack.


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I agree with everything above and have just one more suggestion. While I appreciate you may be nervous as this is a new skill you’re hoping to acquire, be sure you SPEAK UP. To this day (even at the Majors) there are pilots who never got comfy with comms and they speak low and mumble. That’s not going to help you or anyone else. If ATC can’t hear or understand you they’ll either ask you to repeat or ignore you completely, neither of which is good. As said the speed will come but you need to be clear and have some volume as well.


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Lastly, as you get better at comms, remember not to repeat instructions from ATC unless you truly understand them. A lot of new pilots are so worried about repeating the instructions back correctly that they forget to think about what is being said. Ask yourself if any of what they just said makes sense and is something you can comply with before repeating the call.

A lot of new pilots struggle with comms. It’s hard at first because it’s like learning a new language. Plus, your brain isn’t used to flying, navigating, and talking at the same time yet. As things start to become second nature, you’ll realize that you have more time to receive and process more information. Just keep practicing. Role play with your instructor or fellow students.