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Who’s doing the talking?

Updated: Jan 11

Let’s use a real flight as an example. US Airways flight 1939 is a daily non-stop from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. We’ll follow the progress of 1939 on Dec 27, 2013. When you listen to aircraft radio chatter, it’s important to know who’s doing the talking. Everyone on the radio has a call sign. We need to listen for our US Airways call sign: “Cactus 1939.” Why “Cactus?” America West Airlines merged with US Airways in 2005. America West (based in Arizona) used the call sign “Cactus.” The new US Airways moved its headquarters to Arizona so they kept “Cactus” – and it sounds pretty cool.

We’ll hear a few different controllers on our flight. The first are the controllers in the control tower. Large airports can have over a dozen people working in the tower; they handle airplanes from engine start to just after take off. There are several types of controllers in the tower; we’ll talk about the two biggies: they use the call signs [Ground] and [Tower].

[Ground]: Ground controllers issue taxi instructions. Most of their instructions are given using phonetic alphabet letters like: alpha, bravo, charlie, etc. Airport taxiways are named by alphabet letter. A clearance to taxi on taxiways ‘J’ then ‘Z’ then ’S’ would sound like: Taxi via juliet, zulu, sierra.

Here are more things you’ll hear Ground say:

  • Taxi to runway three four (The pilot is cleared to taxi to runway 34)

  • Hold short of Delta (don’t go past taxiway “D”)

[Tower]: Tower controllers own the runways. Any airplane taking off, landing, or crossing a runway must have permission from Tower.

Runway numbers: You’ll hear controllers and pilots talking about runway numbers like Runway two five or Runway two seven Left. Runways are numbered according to their alignment on a magnetic compass. Philly’s westbound runways point to about 270º, so

Runway numbers
Runway numbers

they are labeled “27.” When an airport has parallel runways (like Philadelphia), one will be designated “Left,” the other “Right.”

Phrases tower controllers say:

  • “Line up and wait” (taxi onto the runway and wait for a takeoff clearance)

  • “Cleared to cross runway two seven” (taxi across runway 27)

  • “Fly heading two three zero, Runway two seven Left, Cleared for takeoff” (After takeoff, fly a magnetic heading of 230º. Cleared to takeoff on Runway 27 Left)

  • “Cleared for the ILS, runway three four” (follow the Instrument Landing System, an electronic guidance system, to runway 34)

  • “Cleared for the visual, runway one seven” (look out the window, find runway 17, and fly to it)

  • “Cleared to land, runway two seven Right” (The pilot has permission to land on Runway 27 Right)

The next set of controllers handle traffic flow into and out of the airport.

Approach controllers
Approach controllers

[Departure] and [Approach]: Just after takeoff we switch to Departure. The Approach & Departure controllers watch radar displays in a large room, usually in a building near the base of the tower. They manage the aircraft that are within a 10-20 mile radius of the airport. Approach controllers funnel traffic towards the airport and get them lined up with the runway for landing. Departure controllers guide departing traffic away from the airport and towards the destination.

Departure phrases you’re likely to hear:

  • “Radar Contact” (I see you on my radar, I’ll keep an eye on you)

  • “Climb and maintain one two thousand” (climb up to and level off at 12,000 feet)

  • “Cleared direct to Ft. Wayne” (fly direct to a specific navigation fix or airport)

  • “Contact New York Center, one two four decimal six two” (This is a “hand-off.” The pilot changes to the new frequency of 124.62 and checks in with the new controller)

Approach phrases:

  • “Cleared for the ILS runway two four left” (you’re cleared to follow the Instrument Landing System guidance to runway 24 Left).

  • “Maintain one seven zero knots” (fly a speed of 170 knots)

  • “Descend and maintain eight thousand feet” (Descend then level off at an altitude of 8000 ft)

  • “Turn left heading two three zero” (turn the aircraft to a magnetic heading of 230º)

[Center]: The last type of control facility we will hear on our flight is the Air Route Traffic Control Center, or ARTCC. Better yet, let’s just call them “Center.” The US is divided into 22 Centers that manage air traffic during the cruise phase of flight. When a flight is more than 10-20 miles from the departure or arrival airport, the pilots will be in contact with a Center controller. Flight 1939 will fly over New York, Cleveland, Indy (Indianapolis), Kansas City, Denver, Salt Lake, and Los Angeles Centers.

Center controllers work in nondescript buildings, sometimes located miles from an airport. Like the Approach and Departure controllers, they work in large rooms filled with radar displays. I only have audio for Cactus 1938’s initial check-in with New York Center, but that’s ok. Center chatter is really boring! Once a flight settles into the cruise phase, Center will call the flight every 20-30 minutes and say something like: “Cactus 1939, contact Denver Center on nineteen thirty two.” That means we need to change our radio frequency to 119.32 and check in with Denver. On the new frequency we would then say: “Denver Center, Cactus 1939 at flight level three four zero” which means we are at 34,000 feet and we’re fat, dumb and happy. Easy!

If this is your first time listening to aviation communications, feel free to back it up and listen to parts you might have missed. Enough lecturing, let’s listen to some authentic pilot chatter!