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Here's How To Make Your Initial Call To ATC, According To Air Traffic Controllers

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You're about to make your initial call to ATC. What exactly should you say?

We worked with Kyle Beamsderfer, a tower controller at Rocky Mountain Metro airport, to help answer that question.

In the process, we got information from tower controllers, approach controllers, center controllers, and flight service as well.

The real answer to the question is this: it depends on what facility you're making your initial call to. Because different types of Air Traffic Controllers provide different types of services, how you make your first call to them can differ.

We've broken ATC's answers down by the type of facility they work in. Here's what they had to say:


How To Call A Tower Controller

As long as we aren't busy, it's preferred to call up with everything all at once "Metro Tower, Cessna 833PB, 10 miles north with Delta inbound for (request)". That way we can avoid asking a lot of follow-up questions.

When we are busy, simply say "Metro Tower, Cessna 833PB". This tells us someone wants something so we can at least write down your callsign. When we address you, then you can give us your location, ATIS, and request.

How can you tell if we're busy? If you're trying to call the tower and you can't get a word in edgewise, we are busy. If you tune in to 118.6 and we are dead silent, go ahead and give us all the information at once.

As a side note related to this question, most of us (tower controllers) have our radar zoomed out to only about 12 miles, so a good distance to call us would be about 8-12 miles out from the airport, and I wouldn't call any earlier than 15 miles out.

Calling us from 40 miles out is too early. That means we have to issue traffic for those 40 miles. When we are busy, that puts us behind very quickly.


How To Call An Approach Controller (TRACON)

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Some people want them to say it all, but I personally want someone to just say "Phoenix approach, N12345 VFR request".

I prefer this because if you make a call and give me all the info initially, I may not be ready to type it in, or more importantly, I have a higher level priority coming up that I need to make sure the radio is clear of.

This is especially important in satellite sectors where you're running multiple approaches to multiple airports. If you give me all that on initial call and block my frequency, chances are I'm just waiting for you to stop talking so I can make my transmission to the higher priority aircraft, and not actually listening to what you're saying.

The biggest difference between approach and tower is paper. At Phoenix at least, we don't have paper and a pen to write things down, so that means I'm limited to what I can type into the computer. And if I'm not able to get your information into the computer right away, I may not remember it.


How To Call A Center Controller (ARTCC)

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We get calls from pilots in many different environments. For VFR flight following, most pilots call up in their first call with everything: call sign, type plane, destination and route of flight along with their position.

Most controllers can't remember all of that, especially on an initial call. We are trying to find that aircraft on our scope, and then realize we aren't currently working the aircraft, so then we'll start typing in the callsign to get a code to start the process. By the time the pilot has finished talking, another plane is calling.

With this scenario, just a call sign and stating they have a VFR request with their position and destination is preferred. The position is extremely helpful to know if we are the right person to provide service.

If an IFR pilot is checking on and destined for an airport within 50 to 100 miles, then an initial call should include altitude, ATIS code they're going to a towered airport, and they're going to a non-towered airport, the weather, NOTAMs, and type of approach requesting.

Many controllers will just assign a visual approach if not stated and as long as its VFR. If it is known to be IFR, then it's extremely helpful to check in with the type of approach you're requesting.

In the enroute portion, a check-in with altitude is all that's needed, super simple.


How To Call Flight Service

FAA.gov

When I am on the radios, all I want on the initial call is the call sign, approximate location, altitude, and, if calling on 122.1, which VOR you're listening over.

If you're at high altitude, it's helpful to address which radio sector you're trying to reach, e.g. when over northwest Nebraska, to say "Columbus Radio", because Denver, Casper, and Huron are all hearing you as well. I'll ask for the rest once I establish contact with you.

If you're calling on the phone, start with your call sign, and whether you are IFR or VFR. You can also include any combination of departure and destination airports, aircraft type, and the departure time and time aloft, because we will need all of that for the briefing.


Making Your Initial Call To ATC

So there you have it - what ATC really wants you to say when you make your initial call to them.

If you're flying into a towered airport, making your first call with all of your information (callsign, ATIS, position, intentions) is great. But for most other facilities, making radio contact first is the preferred option.


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Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at colin@boldmethod.com.

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