If you’re becoming a pilot, it’s important that you understand the lingo so you know what ATC is telling you. What are the basic terms of aviation?
Learning to talk like a pilot requires you to pay attention, pick up on things other pilots say, and practice. The most important things to know as a beginner pilot include the phonetic alphabet, general aviation terms, and the most common phrases between yourself, your crew, and ATC.
If you’ve ever heard any communication over a pilot’s radio, it might sound like a totally foreign language to you. I mean sure, they’re speaking English. But do you really know what they’re saying? In this article, we’ll go over some of the beginner terms and phrases about flight and aviation so that you can better understand any conversations you have with other pilots as well as Air Traffic Control (ATC).
We understand that learning the language of talking like a pilot can be difficult and even stressful, so we want to be sure that you have the most accurate information available. That’s why to come up with this guide on the most basic terms of flight, we’ve combined our own knowledge and experience with the lingo and terms that others in the industry suggested as well.
Learning To Talk Like A Pilot
Stepping into your new role as a pilot, whether professionally or recreationally, is a stressful experience from top to bottom. Learning how to fly aircraft, being in control of equipment and machinery worth a lot of money, and just simply being up there tens of thousands of feet in the air. All these new things and experiences for you to deal with.
But something that many people don’t really think about until they start hearing new lingo that they don’t understand is that seemingly special language that pilots and Air Traffic Control (ATC) use. All these different terms, words, and phrases sound like a foreign language from the outside. But they all make perfect sense to a seasoned pilot.
The only real way to truly learn how to talk like a pilot so that it becomes as natural as possible is just through time and experience. But it’s important that you have at least some base of understanding so that you can have useful communication with ATC and other pilots in the industry. So while you’re going to get better and better at talking like a pilot naturally, here’s a crash course into the basics of learning to talk like a pilot.
So strap in and let’s go.
The Basics: The Phonetic Alphabet
One of the very first things that you need to learn as a pilot is the phonetic alphabet. Of course you know the alphabet back from likely even before kindergarten. But one of the biggest issues with the English alphabet is how many of the letters sound similar to one another. Think of just the letters B, C, D, E, T, and V. All six of those letters sound similar to one another, right?
And that’s just with the voice in your head or saying them out loud to yourself. Now imagine those letters coming through the radio of an airplane. Through the crackle and static that’s involved in radio communications, differentiating between these letters (and other ones that sound like each other) can be nearly impossible.
When communicating with other pilots and ATC, pilots will typically need to state their callsign, which is usually a series of numbers of letters. Just saying letters like normal, as we just mentioned, can make that incredibly difficult to understand. Thus, the phonetic alphabet was born.
The key to the phonetic alphabet is that each word is easily distinguishable so they can’t be confused. The first letter of each word is the corresponding letter that it represents. For example, Alpha is the phonetic version of A.
Without further ado, here is the entire phonetic alphabet as it’s used in aviation:
A — Alpha
B — Bravo
C — Charlie
D — Delta
E — Echo
F — Foxtrot
G — Golf
H — Hotel
I — India
J — Juliet
K — Kilo
L — Lima
M — Mike
N — November
O — Oscar
P — Papa
Q — Quebec
R — Romeo
S — Sierra
T — Tango
U — Uniform
V — Victor
W — Whiskey
X — X-Ray
Y — Yankee
Z — Zulu
The phonetic alphabet is without a doubt one of the cornerstones of learning to talk like a pilot. You need to have this down for effective communication. That said, you’ll naturally get better at using these words in place of letters over time through general radio use, but we recommend you come back to this page every once in a while to quiz yourself. Or even make some flashcards and have someone help you.
It’s fairly simple to pick up and learn, and after enough practice, you’ll just naturally start using all of these terms any time that you’re on the radio. You might even find yourself saying these terms by accident while you’re talking on the phone with friends or family. But that’s a different problem for another day!
Let’s move on.
General Aviation Terms All Pilots Need To Know
Now that you at least have an idea of what the phonetic alphabet is and you understand why it’s so important, we can move onto the general terms that all pilots need to know. These will include things such as parts of the plane, general pilot-ATC communication, and more.
Aileron — the hinged flaps that you see go up and down on the wings; flight surfaces that are used to control that aircraft’s roll.
Altitude — the vertical distance from the ground to the aircraft, e.g. how high you’re flying.
Base (in Traffic Pattern) — flying perpendicular to the runway with the beginning of the runway on your left; opposite of crosswind position.
Call Sign — a group of letters and numbers that uniquely identifies an aircraft during communications.
Crosswind (the wind) — wind that’s blowing perpendicular to the plane against its broadside; one of the hardest winds to land in.
Crosswind (in Traffic Pattern) — opposite of the base position, this is when you’re flying perpendicular to the runway with the end of the runway on your left.
Downwind (in Traffic Pattern) — opposite of upwind; this is when you’re flying parallel to the runway, but in the opposite direction that it goes.
Expedite — if you hear ATC telling you to expedite something, that means you should follow the instructions immediately, without delay.
Final (in Traffic Pattern) — the last stage of the traffic pattern when you’re actually making your final approach and will be coming in for a landing.
Flight level — the altitude which you’re flying at or which ATC will direct you to fly at. Flight levels start being used at altitudes above 18,000 feet.
Fuselage — the main body of the aircraft, often referred to in layman’s terms as the tube. This is where the pilot, crew, passengers, and cargo go.
Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) — rules about flying an aircraft using instrumentation and systems rather than visual cues.
Flight Deck — often interchanged with cockpit, the flight deck is the front of the aircraft where the pilots sit and control the plane.
Service ceiling — the highest that an aircraft can fly while still operating at its normal capacity and conditions.
Stall — a phenomenon that occurs when the wings’ angle of attack causes the plane to no longer produce lift. These can be potentially very dangerous.
Wilco — Short for the phrase “will comply”, and is typically said by the pilot to inform ATC that they will be complying with whatever instructions that ATC just gave them.
Thrust — the force produced by jet engines that overcomes drag and propels an aircraft through the skies
Yaw — the tendency of the airplane to turn along its vertical axis. From inside the plane, this would be a left/right motion.
Visual Flight Rules (VFR) — rules about flying an aircraft using your own vision and visual cues rather than the plane’s instrumentation.
Roll — the tendency of the aircraft to turn along its longitudinal axis. From inside the plane, this would feel like you’re rolling over left or right.
Drag — the force that acts against thrust and is typically caused by air resistance, holding a plane back.
Descend — what you are doing as you are going down and your altitude is dropping. You will need to descend during the final approach to make a landing.
Climb — what you’re doing when you are going up and altitude is rising. After takeoff, you’ll enter the initial climb until you reach cruising altitude.
Cockpit — the front of the plane where the pilots sit and control the aircraft, also called the flight deck.
Pitch — the tendency of the aircraft to roll along its horizontal lateral axis. From inside the plane, this would feel like an up/down movement.
Air Traffic Control (ATC) — ATC communicates with pilots and airlines to coordinate air and ground traffic in controlled airspace.
Airfoil — the cross-section of an aircraft’s wing, the design that produces lift.
Controlled Airspace — airspace that is overseen by Air Traffic Control who provides guidance on ground and air traffic coordination
Uncontrolled Airspace — any airspace that is not overseen by any Air Traffic Control service
Traffic Pattern — counter-clockwise pattern of flight around an airport and/or runway that pilots will be directed to partake in during busy and congested times.
Upwind (in Traffic Pattern) — opposite of downwind; this is when you’re flying parallel to the runway and in the same direction that it goes.
Common Phrases All New Pilots Need To Understand
While the above were common terms you should know, they tended to lean a bit more towards the technical side of things. Knowing the terms above is essential, no doubt, but much of pilot speak is done in phrases that don’t really use too many of those technical terms. In this section, we’ll go over some of the most common phrases that you should know as a pilot, phrases that might come in handy during your very first flight.
Cleared for or cleared to
As a pilot, you’ll hear “cleared to” or “cleared for” all kinds of different things during your communications with ATC. This phrase can be followed by a lot, but most commonly it’s followed by a landing or takeoff clearance which means you’re cleared to, well, land or take off.
Climb (or Descend) and maintain flight level
ATC will often instruct a pilot to climb or descend in order to reach a certain flight level (altitude starting at 18,000 feet or higher) and then maintain that altitude, for one reason or another. The flight levels used in this phrase will typically be shortened, so you might hear something like “flight level 210”, which means an altitude of 21,000 feet.
If an air traffic controller lets a pilot know that they’ve made “radar contact”, it simply means that the controller sees you on their radar and they’ll be keeping an eye on you from here on out.
Line up and wait
This phrase is especially common at busy airports that have a lot of runways and air traffic. If you hear this phrase from ATC, it means that you should head to the runway and get ready to take off, but wait to get the all-clear from them before doing so.
Make a short approach
ATC will ask pilots to make a short approach when the airport is busy and they need to get some planes on the ground. In a short approach, ATC is asking the pilot to land as quickly as they can while of course remaining safe.
Mayday is the internationally recognized distress signal used over radio communications. This same term is used by boats, aircraft, and more. It’s used when a plane is having an emergency and they’re in need of immediate help.
Request to transition airspace
A pilot will say this to ATC if they’re wanting to just fly through an airport’s airspace. As a pilot, you never want to fly through any airport’s airspace without communicating your intentions! It’s vital that you always let ATC know what you’re doing so they can let you know where and where to go to keep everyone safe.
The term “squawk” lets pilots know that ATC is going to be giving them the code that they need to program into their in-cockpit transponder for communication and identification.
Souls on board
When a pilot or member of the crew says how many souls are on board, they’re referring to the total number of living people on the plane. This includes all members of the flight crew as well as all passengers.
Cleared for the visual, runway (runway number)
This is a common phrase that you’ll hear as a pilot from ATC when you’re coming in for a landing. This phrase means that you are cleared to visually look for whichever runway they say. So you should start looking out the window for the correct runway and fly towards it.
About THE AUTHOR
After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.Read More About Joe Haygood