Pilots use their own peculiar radio vocabulary that many nonpilots find difficult to interpret. Part of the confusion comes from technical jargon, and part of it comes from the strange sound of the phonetic alphabet.

To overcome the poor transmission quality of early aviation radios, pilots and air-traffic controllers all over the world constructed the phonetic alphabet in which a word represents each letter of the alphabet, thereby sidestepping the similarity in sounds between letters like “b” and “v,” for example. Also, because aviation is an international enterprise, the variety of foreign accents and dialects could be confusing without some unifying language rules.

The international phonetic alphabet features some familiar English words, though their proper pronunciations under the international rules are, in a couple of cases such as the numeral 5 and the word “Oscar,” slightly different from how we might say them.

The alphabet is simple to learn and easy to remember. Once you know it, you’ll find yourself using it to spell out all sorts of words, names, and street names that a listener doesn’t understand.

Here’s the phonetic alphabet, numbers, and a few key words used by pilots and air-traffic controllers.

Phonetic Alphabet


Alpha (AL-fuh)


Bravo (BRAH-voh)


Charlie (CHAR-lee)


Delta (DEL-tuh)


Echo (ECK-koh)

Foxtrot (FAHKS-traht)

Подпись:Golf (Gahlf)

Hotel (hoh-TELL)

India (IN-dee-yuh)

Juliet (DZEW-lee-ett)

Kilo (KEE-loh)

Lima (LEE-muh)

Mike (Miyk)

November (noh-VEM – bur)

Oscar (OSS-kuh)

Papa (Puh-PAH)

Quebec (kay-BEK)

Romeo (ROH-mee-yoh)

Sierra (see-YEHR-ruh)

Tango (TANG-goh)

Uniform (YEW-nee – form)

Victor (VIK-tah) Whiskey (WISS-kee) X-Ray (EKS-ray) Yankee (YANG-kee) Zulu (ZOO-loo)

Zero (ZEE-roh)

One (wun)

Two (too)

Three (tree)

Four (foh-wuhr)

Five (fife)

Six (siks)

Seven (SEH-vin)

Eight (ait)



Nine (niner)


Words and Phrases

Here are some of the words and phrases pilots and controllers commonly use in their radio communications—and sometimes even in ordinary conversation or in the airport tavern:

abort To terminate a preplanned aircraft maneuver, for example, an aborted takeoff, aerodrome See airport. affirmative “Yes.”

airport The word most people use instead of aerodrome.

air taxi Used to describe the movement of a helicopter above the surface, but usually not more than 100 feet above the ground.

air traffic Sometimes called simply “traffic”; aircraft operating in the air or on an airport surface, not counting loading or parking areas.

air traffic control A service operated by appropriate authority to promote the safe, orderly, and expeditious flow of air traffic. Also called ATC.

altitude The height of a place or an object measured in feet above ground level (AGL), or above mean sea level (MSL).

ceiling The height above the ground of the lowest layer of clouds or obscuring phenomena; ceiling can be reported as “broken” “overcast,” or “obscured.” clearance Authorization of an aircraft to proceed under conditions speficied by air-traffic controllers. For example, “cleared for takeoff’ and “cleared to taxi.” distress The condition of being threatened by serious or imminent danger. emergency A distress or an urgency condition.

expedite A word used by ATC when prompt compliance is required to avoid the development of an imminent situation. In other words, “Get a move on!” final approach The part of a landing pattern that is aligned with the landing area. flameout An emergency condition caused by a loss of engine power.

“go ahead” Proceed with your message. Not to be used for any other purpose.

“go around” An instruction for a pilot to abandon his approach to landing, usually because of an obstruction or emergency on the runway, or because a distressed aircraft is making an approach to the runway.

handoff An action taken to transfer the radar indentification of an aircraft from one controller to another if the aircraft enters the receiving controller’s airspace and radio communications with the aircraft are transferred.

“how do you hear me?” A question relating to the quality of the transmission or intended to determine how well the transmission is being received.

“immediately” Used by ATC when such action compliance is required to avoid an imminent situation.

“I say again” The message will be repeated.

known traffic Aircraft whose altitude, position, and intentions are known to ATC.

light gun A handheld directional light-signaling device which emits a brilliant narrow beam of white, green, or red light as selected by the tower controller. The color and type of light transmitted can be used to approve or disapprove of anticipated pilot actions where radio communications are not available.

lost communications Loss of the ability to communicate by radio. Aircraft are sometimes referred to as NORDO (no radio).

“make short approach” A command used by ATC to inform a pilot to alter his traffic pattern so as to make a short final approach.

“mayday” The international radio distress signal. When repeated three times, it indicates imminent and grave danger and that immediate assistance is requested.

minimum fuel Indicates that an aircraft’s fuel supply has reached a state where, upon reaching the destination, it can accept little or no delay in refueling. This is not an emergency situation but merely a possibility of such situation should any undue delay occur.

“negative” “No,” or “permission not granted,” or “that is not correct.”

“out” The conversation is ended and no response is expected.

“over” “My transmission is ended”; “I expect a response.”

“pan-pan” The international radio urgency signal. When repeated three times, indicates uncertainty or alert followed by the explanation of the urgency.

“radar contact” Informs pilots that controllers have received position information on radar read-outs.

“radar contact lost” Informs pilots that controllers no longer receive position information on their screens.

“read back” Means “repeat my message back to me.”

“roger” “I have received all of your last transmission.” It should not be used to answer a question requiring a “yes” or “no” answer.

“say again” Used to request a repeat of the last transmission.

“speak slower” It’s as simple as that. A recommended request for student pilots to make to controllers who speak too fast.

“stand by” Means the pilot or controller must pause for a few seconds, usually to attend to other duties of a higher priority.

“taxi into position and hold” An instruction to a pilot to roll on to the departure runway and hold until takeoff clearance is received.

“traffic in sight” Used by pilots to inform a controller that previously issued traffic is in sight.

“traffic no factor” Indicates that the traffic described in a previously issued traffic advisory is no longer a factor.

“transmitting in the blind” A transmission from one station to other stations in circumstances where two-way communication cannot be established, but where the transmitting party thinks his transmitter is functioning properly.

“verify” Request confirmation of information.

“wilco” The contraction of the words “will comply,” meaning “I have received your message, understand it, and will comply with it.”

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