How to Teach Effective Radio Communication

By Mordechai Levin

In aviation, radio communication often takes the place of the first impression you form of a stranger during a face-to-face encounter. In fact, the same rules apply. One can identify a proficiently trained pilot from his or her very first transmission. Air traffic control and everyone else on the frequency is listening. The better the radio technique, the better the respect (and service) that a pilot will receive from controllers and fellow pilots. To that end, teaching effective radio communication is imperative and maintaining standards of excellence even more so. 

Don’t wait until late in the training program to instill correct techniques in your clients. Their understanding and mastering effective radio communication helps them to become better pilots, leads to safer skies, and, at the same time, confirms the success of your teaching.

To begin with, temper your client’s anxiety about learning a new language by explaining the basics:

  • Being a pilot is just about the coolest thing going, and so is sounding like one. 
  • The better the technique, the better the respect and service they’ll get. 
  • The better the technique, the safer the flight. Remember your parents giving you the a-car-is-not-a-toy speech when you first learned to drive? Exemplary skills mean cooperation from those you’ll need while entering the traffic pattern, greater situational awareness, and a heck of a lot more fun.

Once they are relaxed and ready to learn, teach your clients these specific radio techniques:

  • Listen before transmitting. If someone else is talking, keying the transmitter will be futile. If the pilot-in-training has just changed frequencies, he should pause, listen, and ensure the frequency is clear before speaking. 
  • Think before keying the transmitter. Know what you want to say. Use a written script if that helps. 
  • Practice aloud until the words come smoothly in one breath. 
  • Take a deep breath, smile, and place the microphone very close to your lips. Press the push-to-talk switch and wait a moment before beginning to speak. 
  • Speak in your natural pitch. Be aware that nerves often contribute to voices shooting up an octave or two. 
  • With those basics under control, you can help your client improve the quality of his or her radio communications with the following methods: 
  • Encourage the client to purchase a radio simulator program. I use Comm1 VFR for my clients. (For more information, go to the Web site [].) It is enormously helpful, especially for aspiring pilots who are not native English speakers. With a radio simulator program, the pilot gets used to the sound of his own transmissions and is able to compare them to the transmissions of experienced pilots. 
  • Listen with the Client to the different frequencies—clearance delivery, ground, tower, departure, and approach control—from the comfort of the flight school using Review and critique the transmissions, and invite the client to do the same. 
  • Suggest that the client practice while driving by reading aloud the license plates and street signs using the phonetic alphabet. 
  • Encourage your clients to use the pilot/controller glossary in the Aeronautical Information Manual as a study aid to learn the meaning of certain words and phrases. Dissuade student pilots from resorting to jargon, chatter, and CB slang when they don’t know the necessary phraseology. Learning, memorizing, and practicing with the correct words is key. Remind your clients that even the most experienced pilots review the glossary from time to time to sharpen their communication skills. 
  • Visit the control tower as part of the training program. Besides familiarizing student pilots with the air traffic control system as a whole, aspiring pilots can assuage their fears about speaking to by seeing for themselves that authoritative voice is a real person. Intimidation melts away when the pilot meets the folks whose job is to assist and serve. 

In the air, don’t hesitate to have your client identify himself as a student pilot. The FAA’s goal is to help those in training to acquire sufficient practical experience in the environment in which they will be required to operate. For example, to receive additional assistance in areas of concentrated air traffic, student pilots need only to identify themselves: Dayton tower, this is Diamond Star One-Two-Three-Four, student pilot. This will alert ATC personnel who, in turn, will work with the student with extra care and consideration, avoiding machine-gun-style communication. Encourage student pilots to identify themselves as such on initial contact with clearance delivery, ground control, tower, approach, departure control, and flight service.

As a CFI, Orientation Pilot or CAP Stan/Eval Officer, why should any of this matter to you? Plain and simple, proficient, safe pilots are a reflection of their instructors and the Squadrons at which those Pilots teach. How gratifying for an instructor who trains a pilot who proves to be excellent. What a smile it brings when that instructor hears a former student over the radio and hears the respect that pilot gets from ATC and from peers. And a confident, conscientious pilot will be thrilled will his flight training experience.

What’s more, proficient radio communications by your pilots-in-training is free broadcast advertising for your Squadron, Group, Wing, and Corporation. When using the CAP-flight Moniker and identifying him/herself as a student pilot, your client shows ATC, other pilots, and other students what a good job you are doing instructing your students. As a result, your Wing can develop a better relationship with ATC; gain prospects from among pilots-in-training who may be dissatisfied with their current instructors; and get other pilots to recommend your school to friends looking for flight training. Besides, FAA designated examiners certainly recognize quality training. They, too, will recommend your flight school to those who inquire about the most reputable program around. 

Why compromise when implementing a program to teach a high level of radio communication through your Wing? Training excellent pilots benefits everyone. Inspire your CFIs, Orientation Pilots and, in turn, your clients: Make a first impression that counts