Be Concise, but Be Precise
Brevity is important in “aviation-speak,” but precision and understanding is key. Your radio transmissions should be as concise as possible while still ensuring that the controller understands what you want to do. Equally important is for you, the pilot, to understand exactly what ATC wants you to do. This principle also applies to non-towered airfields. Radio calls to the Unicom frequency should be as brief as possible to shorten your time on air, but they must also be accurate to help you and other pilots see and avoid. Here are a few tips:
Write everything down. Get into the habit of writing down ATIS information, taxi instructions, and ATC clearances. This is especially helpful for instructions that are complex. Write down basically everything you’ll need to read back to the controller.
Here’s why. The act of writing information confirms what you think you heard. It reinforces your understanding of what you need to do, and it allows you to plan what to say before you say it. It also helps reduce the possibility that you’ll forget part of the instruction and have to request “Say Again?” to get it right.
Take advantage of the sequence that ATC uses to issue IFR clearances and use the CRAFT acronym to jot down your clearance instructions in the order they’re given — Clearance limit, Route, Altitude, Frequency, and Transponder.
With your notes in front of you, you can speak clearly, confidently, and without pauses (“ums and ahs”) or hesitation. Your notes will also allow you to cut out excess verbiage and shorten up your readbacks to just the facts. “Runway 25” can shorten to “25,” for example.
Don’t get sloppy. Make sure you read back ALL of the facts. Don’t shorten “taxi to runway 25, via taxiway Hotel, hold short 27,” into “taxi to 25 hold short 27!” You have to acknowledge that you know a taxiway route is required to reach your destination.
At non-towered fields, many pilots will use the jargon, “taking the active,” when they’re about to move onto the runway. It may sound cool, but it’s not. Non-towered fields do not have an “active” runway and, more importantly, such transmissions convey no useful information. Transmit “departing 27” instead so your fellow aviators will know which runway is in use.
Taxi diagrams serve a purpose. Use them. You can jot everything down on your taxi diagram, either with traditional pen and ink or by using the annotation features in most popular aviation apps. Get into the habit of drawing out the route you’re instructed to take right onto your taxi diagram. Do this even at your home airport, and for every flight. This best practice verifies your assigned route and confirms accuracy. It will help you think about what you want to say before you key the mic, and it will also help you avoid runway incursions.
Use your call sign. Every time you transmit, identify your aircraft by its call sign — which is your aircraft’s type, model or manufacturer’s name, followed by the digits/letters of the FAA registration number, aka tail number. Call sign aircraft identification is a mandatory requirement by the FCC (the body that governs radio communications). That said, you can certainly add concise information about color or paint scheme in busy, non-towered airspace (or, as requested, at events like air shows) to help other pilots spot you quickly.
Once you have established two-way radio communication, it’s common for ATC to abbreviate call signs on subsequent communications by using just the aircraft prefix and the last three digits/letters of its registration. Once the controller has used such abbreviations, you can follow suit.
Aim for Professionalism
Take all your radio calls seriously. You are a certified, professional pilot, and just like Sgt. Friday, you should take a no nonsense, disciplined approach to your transmissions. Always strive to use standard phraseology.