5 Things VFR Pilots should say (more)

Radio communication is always one of the hardest things to learn for many pilots. It actually seems to make flying harder sometimes. You’re already busy flying the plane when ATC gives you a call so fast all you catch is your tail number. Other pilots in CTAF areas can make it even worse. Let me give you the top five things I’ve learned to say over the years that have made flying easier and safer.

“Say Again or Confirm.” Please don’t assume or guess that you got the call correct. If you aren’t 100% sure ask ATC. “XXX approach 41F can you say heading again”. It is much safer to ask “Long beach Tower confirm 41F clear to land runway 30” then to risk a runway incursion. I often tell students the only difference between an airline captain and an amateur on the radio is that the airline captain asks more questions to make sure they got it right.

“Big Bear traffic: Blue & White Cessna 42X is on a 45 entry for left downwind 26:Big Bear.” Always add your color and type of aircraft to radio calls in non-towered areas and airports. Making radio calls with just a tail number is useless. If I’m close enough to read your tail number, I probably don’t need to hear your call! When you tell people what to look for, “red Piper” for example, you make it much easier to see you. It makes the whole are safer.

“Can I get progressive please?” I learned to fly at a very busy airport and taxing at busy airports is pretty easy. That’s not true for all. When you ask for progressive taxi instructions you make the whole airport safer. Ask any controllers and they will always tell you they like to give progressives. All controllers know that it takes less time to give progressive instructions than to fill out the paperwork on a runway incursion if you get lost.

“Negative contact.” is critical to your safety. I won’t fly without flight following because they can see traffic 5 miles away and behind me. They try to call out as much traffic as they can, workload permitting. It is very important that if they call out traffic and you don’t see it within 30-60 seconds that you tell them, “Negative Contact.” If you don’t tell them the may assume that you will see and avoid. IF you tell them you don’t see them they can help you with vectors, a change in altitude, or just a better idea of where to look.

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.” This is the phrase that needs to be said much more often. After reading hundreds of NTSB reports, I have found one universal truth. People who died in aircraft accidents either did not declare an emergency or did so way too late to get help. People who declare an emergency, before it becomes one, are much more likely to have a safe outcome. I know this will generate some controversy, but in my opinion when things start to go wrong I would like people to say Mayday immediately and much more often. I’ve declared an emergency with an alternator failure, VFR at night, and when the EGT temperature on one cylinder was so high it had to be wrong. I’ve declared an emergency so often on SoCal that they respond with, “Hi Gary, what’s up?” There will be a lot of people who say that you should wait, or troubleshoot, or not bother a busy ATC. The NTSB records are full of hundreds of dead pilots who overflew multiple airports with “minor” problems before becoming part of horrible crashes. ATC is never too busy to help a plane land safely before the fire starts or before the engine quits. They would much rather stop for 5 minutes to help you than try to find an ELT signal later.

What did I miss, what else should VFR pilots say more often?  Let me know in the comments.

About the author:

Gary D Reeves, ATP, Master CFI, CFII,MEI has been teaching for over ten years and has over 6000 hours. He is the 2016 FAA Instructor of the Year for the SW Region(CA, AZ, NV, HI).  As a national expert in IFR Training, Garmin Avionics, iPad use, Mountain Flying and aviation safety he is a lead rep for the FAA Safety team and founded the volunteer group PilotSafety.org


11 thoughts on “5 Things VFR Pilots should say (more)

  1. “Unable.” We all want to be mission hackers, and show ATC and all the other pilots how good we are, but sometimes you just have to say “Unable.” ATC: “Can you make a short approach?” “Unable” is far better than rushing, making an unstable, dive bomber approach leading to a landing accident and a diversion for the person you tried to fit in front of, than taking another minute or two in the pattern to do it right. That’s just one example.

  2. Gary, while adding color when identifying yourself in a position report may be helpful, it is more important to know that there is a unique aircraft in a given position. Too many pilots in central Idaho mountain back country have taken to announcing position by type and color only. Identifying yourself as “yellow cub 3 miles south of Johnson Creek” is not at all helpful at a Johnson Creek super cub fly-in with five cubs in or approaching the pattern, and three of them yellow. Our preferred location report is: model (e.g. Skyhawk, Stationair or Husky), tail number (e.g. 2MA), location (e.g. 5 NW of Johnson Creek), altitude (6000 feet) and direction of travel or destination (e.g. eastbound or inbound Johnson creek). Model lets me anticipate possible conflict — am I ahead of or behind a cub approaching a back-country airstrip in a Stationair? I can also identify a model before I can distinguish color. Tail number lets me talk to a specific pilot to help locate them if initially “no joy”. Or to work with them to plan spacing on approach. Or share altimeter setting. Altitude lets me know how high or low to look, and vertical spacing is one of the best ways to avoid conflict. Direction of flight with model again lets me anticipate possible conflict — is a faster aircraft ahead or behind me travelling same direction or already behind me and traveling opposite direction? Idaho back country we fly without flight following all the time so accurate position reports are a most important aid to see and avoid conflict. John Baglien, Chief Pilot, McCall Air Service.

  3. You say Negative Contact is important. There is a sequence here. ATC advises of traffic, there are two options to respond; 1-“Looking” or 2-“Traffic in Sight”. For traffic in sight, if I add “maintaining visual separation” I am telling ATC that conditions permit me (or possibly my passenger is able) to monitor that plane and make sure we see and avoid. That acknowledges my responsibility allowing ATC to relax a bit as they monitor the traffic. I asked them once and he said they appreciated hearing that phrase.

  4. Great suggestions! I will definitely use them. I have not had much success requesting progressives. I seldom receive them in the manner expected. Usually, GC repeats the same long list of taxi instructions – more rapidly than the first time. I repeat back the instructions that I know are correct (“N123AB, will turn left on Alpha, then right on Bravo; will request further taxi instructions on Bravo.”). They seldom hide their frustration (and usually repeat the long list of instructions again). But, I just ask again on Bravo if I am not 100% certain. As you said, it is much better than a runway incursion!

    • Don,

      If you get the same long read back or a perceived “attitude” when asking for progressives, you may want to call the tower manager later by phone and ask for help.

      Either way you are right in asking for clarification.

  5. Everything we see on TV is true right? While watching one of those “Flying cargo, floatplanes in Alaska” shows, the owner of the floatplane company commented, “I haven’t used the phrase Mayday in 40 years of flying, it should be reserved for REAL emergencies…” insinuating that I may be lesser of a pilot because I have?. Those comments are dangerous to new and low time pilots. I think comments like that are damaging to GA, from the inside-out. Thank you for what you do Gary.


  6. This made me smile: “I’ve declared an emergency so often on SoCal that they respond with, ‘Hi Gary, what’s up?’” And though I doubt it’s literally true, it was a good way to make your point, which, by the way, is a good one. Thanks.

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