Radio work seems to be a favorite source of hand-wringing for student pilots, ranking up there with crosswind landings on the angst-o-meter.

Talking on the radio should be simple. You push a button and announce your action, or your request. What’s the big deal? My favorite theory has always been my suspicion that the entire listening audience is perched on the edge of their seats, waiting for you to mess up. I know that isn’t the case, but it’s a mental image that’s difficult to shake.

Some of us clench up when we talk on the radio—to any-one—or become so focused on our flying that we miss important traffic callouts. Others are fine at general communications in a nontowered setting but become tongue-tied when it’s time to talk to air traffic control. Flight Training reached out to the pilot community for suggestions, and gathered these tips from seasoned aviators—many of whom have struggled with the same issues—as well as newer pilots.FOR THE MICROPHONE-AVERSE PILOT: Radio communications are such an important and integral part of flying in today’s airspace that it should be part of your training from day one, says Peg Ballou, owner of Ballou Skies Aviation in Bucyrus, Ohio. If you’re beyond day one but still stumbling, it’s important to realize that every pilot started where you are, she says. Even the smoothest-talking, Chuck-Yeagerest-sounding pilot on the airwaves flubbed more than one call in primary training.

Several flight instructors said they write a script to help students understand the basics of communication. Get one from your instructor, and use it to practice key phrases and calls on the ground—and out of earshot of others—until you get comfortable with them. Or, use index cards while chair flying at home.

Listen to other pilots to get a feel for the give and take of radio communication. Bring a handheld radio to the airport, find a bench, and sit and listen. Can’t get to the airport? offers live streaming radio communications from airports around the world (yours might be included!); you can listen free through the website, or purchase an app for $2.99.

Use Flight Training contributor Jamie Beckett’s trick: Think of each call as if you’re ordering pizza for delivery. “Tell them who you are, where you are, and what you want. That gives the student something easy and understandable to relate to. The anxiety goes away pretty quickly from that point.”

Think about what you’re going to say before you key the mic.

If your call starts to go badly, release the push-to-talk switch, take a deep breath, and try again.

Especially in the early stages of training, it’s not uncommon to be overloaded, overwhelmed, and focused on everything but the radio. Your CFI is a second set of eyes and ears, and he or she will help you with your radio calls until they become a part of your flying routine. Honing your stick-and-rudder skills will “free up your brain to process these things now that you don’t have to focus so hard on the basics of flying,” notes Ron Klutts, an independent flight instructor with Advantage Aviation in Palo Alto, California.

FOR THE PILOT WHO IS MISSING RADIO CALLS: Ask your flight instructor to make a video or audio recording of your flight that you can view or listen to later. This can help you to pinpoint when or where you’re missing calls. Klutts uses an Nflightcam and GoPro plus a patch cable that sends audio to the video recorder. He can strip the audio file from the video if the student wants to listen, rather than watch a video.

Invest in a noise-cancelling headset. “I have found these to be a major enhancement for hearing both ATC and CFI communications, and hence a confidence builder,” says Flight Training Contributing Editor Greg Brown. “Every student to whom I’ve ever recommended these to address communications challenges has thanked me for it afterwards.”

THE ATC SHAKES. Then there are those of us who are perfectly fine with using the radio at a nontowered airport, but seem to develop a serious case of the stammers or sweaty palms—or both—when flying in controlled airspace. This affliction mainly affects pilots who train at nontowered airports, but it shouldn’t be ignored or brushed off, lest you find yourself avoiding towered airports in the future.

FOR THE PILOT WHO DOESN’T LIKE TALKING TO ATC: Understand that controllers are people, just like you. Contact your nearest towered airport or terminal radar approach control facility and ask for a tour. Independent flight instructor Jim Cunningham says that when he arranges tower tours for anxious students, he’ll tell the controller the reason for the tour: “The student is scared of talking on the radio and needs a positive experience, friendliness, and encouragement. I’ve found it helps a great deal to put a friendly face with the voice.”

The constant back-and-forth of communications in busy controlled airspace can cause some pilots consternation because they can’t understand everything that’s being said to everyone. “Listening to the radio is a lot like being at a big, noisy party,” says Brown. “You ignore most conversation going on around you until or unless someone calls your name. Your name, of course, is your N-number.”

Consider what ATC’s response is likely to be to your radio call. This will help you to think ahead.

Request VFR traffic advisories—flight following—whenever possible, even if you’re headed to another nontowered airport. You get another set of eyes to watch for traffic, along with practice at communicating with ATC (see “Technique: Flight Following,” August 2012 Flight Training).

Are you avoiding towered airports? Don’t. Start with a not-too-busy airport in Class D airspace and move on to others.

Even if you’re quite comfortable with your radio technique, there might be room for improvement.


Take some time to review the Pilot/ Controller Glossary in the Aeronautical Information Manual. Learn the verbiage as well as the correct meaning of those terms. (“Roger” and “affirmative” are not interchangeable.)

Listen to yourself once in a while, just to check your radio technique. If you’re not in the habit of recording your flights, you can check’s extensive audio archives to see if you’re in one.


Want to sound professional?

Drop these from your lexicon.

We stress about how we sound on the radio, but pilots generally are forgiving and understanding of the stumbler or the stammerer in the cockpit. Ask them to talk about their pet peeves, and it’s a different story. Here are a few that are good for hours (and hours) of discussion.

1. The ATITPPA guy: Even if you don’t recognize the abbreviation, you’ll recognize this pilot when he calls from 15 miles out on the common traffic advisory frequency: «Any traffic in the pattern please advise.»

2. Chatty Kathy: This pilot uses a CTAF or unicom frequency for extended conversations about where he is, where he’s going, and what he plans to have for dinner. And on and on.

3. The CB Good Buddy: This pilot substitutes CB radio lingo («10-4») for proper aviation terminology.

A friend who flies for the airlines says one of his pet peeves is when a pilot at a nontowered airport announces he is «taking the active.» (Where, exactly, are you taking it?) And one air traffic controller told me that she suppresses an eye roll when she hears someone say «With you at…» when checking in. «You’re not with me,» she says. «You’re up there and I’m down here.»

Like this post? Please share to your friends: