Standard Phraseology

John Franklin • 6 October 2023
in community Air Operations
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This article is all about the importance of standard phraseology and its role in ensuring effective communication in aviation. Thanks to pilot and consultant Stephen van Houwelingen for this article. As well as the article, watch our Conversation Aviation discussion on this topic (below and on the Together4Safety Youtube or listen to the Podcast). 

Introduction

Just a few years after the Wright Brothers made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, radio was first used for flight communications. It allowed pilots to share information about the weather and flight conditions, their position and much more. The developing aviation community saw radio as a way to improve safety and efficiency in air travel.

It did not take long before they went on experimenting and working on radio technology. The earliest examples of radio in flight communication came from the military. In 1917 morse was replaced by voice, making communication much more effective and quicker. Imagine being able to say what you want instead of translating it into morse, and for the receiver translating it again. A lot of room for error!

Radio

Instead of learning morse code to communicate everyone followed the course radio telephony. This is basically English in an abbreviated format focussed specifically on aviation terms to ensure clear and efficient communication that everyone can understand. As a new pilot you start by feeling nervous talking on the radio but quickly it becomes a basic skill like your native language.

However, as a basic skill it’s important to come back to regularly to make sure we don’t drift into doing things differently that might prevent others from understanding it.  

What we learn about radio telephony skills?

So what compels a student pilot to learn this basic skils? At a basic level, the EASA regulation for Aircrew in FCL.055 says this about language proficiency:

Aeroplane, helicopter, powered-lift and airship pilots required to use the radio telephone shall not exercise the privileges of their licences and ratings unless they have a language proficiency endorsement on their licence in either English or the language used for radio communications involved in the flight.

The applicant for the endorsement shall demonstrate the ability to:

  1. Communicate effectively in voice-only and face to face situations.
  2. Communicate on common and work-related topics with accuracy and clarity. 
  3. Use appropriate communicative strategies to exchange messages and to recognise and resolve misunderstandings in a general or work-related context.
  4. Handle successfully the linguistic challenges presented by a complication or unexpected turn of events which occurs within the context of a routine work situation or communicative task with which they are otherwise familiar; and
  5. Use a dialect or accent which is intelligible to the aeronautical community

The minimum level you need is the operational level (level 4), If you have level 4, it is valid for 4 years, then you need to be endorsed again, for level 5 (extended level), you have 6 years of validity. However when you have level 6 (expert level) you are home free and will be proficient for the rest of your life..

The importance of standard phraseology and how things change

Aviation communication is done using a certain format that has been agreed at global level and everyone who communicates in the air and on the ground learn that format. It is vital so that everyone knows what’s going on. But over time there is often drift from the standard phraseology. Sometimes this can be local and sometimes this can be due to the change in language in the wider world. If we start developing (and accepting) a dialect or slang or however you want to call it, the risk increases for miscommunications. Some examples I have heard include:

  1. When a controller informs there is traffic on final or gives wind information the pilot replies “That is copied”. (I myself made that mistake until a colleague pointed it out, it should have been “ROGER”. Remember you can be unaware of your own errors).
  2. When a controller informs you about traffic and the pilot informs “WE HAVE ON IT ON TCAS”. Although it is a great technological feature, the correct way should be “TRAFFIC IN SIGHT”, which means you have visual contact and this relieves the controller from his responsibility to maintain a certain separation.
  3. At Amsterdam airport “SCHIPHOL GROUND” is called “GROND”. The Dutch word for ground. This raises the question how far do you go at your local airport? I would say a hello or goodbye is the limit. The rest should be in the agreed language.
  4. A controller separating messages between two aircraft by using “BREAK”. This has a different meaning. The correct one is “BREAK BREAK”. It is completely logical that in a busy environment a controller tends to say it only once, and pilots accept it. But what is next to accept?

These are just some examples, but there is much more to consider. Is one of the communicators tired, at the end of their shift, maybe distracted by colleagues when you are transmitting your information. Remember there are numerous ways to interfere with the transmission. This is why the confirmation is so important. This is something I have experienced that controllers or pilots do not always correct a wrong read back.

For example: ATC clears aircraft X to FL 310, Aircraft Y blocks out aircraft X and reads back this clearance. Because ATC can see what FL pilots select, ATC corrects aircraft Y later on. However, this should have been corrected straight away. Another: ATC clears aircraft X on a certain departure with a specific exit point. The pilot does not readback the exit point. ATC does not confirm.

Mistakes are made easily and unintentionally. In pilots and controllers you need to be on top of your game all the time. If we start accepting slang, dialect, wrong or incomplete readbacks safety could be compromised, what is certain is that risk will increase. It is important to keep each other sharp, like my colleague who pointed out my error. There is no shame in making errors, there is shame however if we do not point those errors out when we see them.

The importance of continually thinking about the words we use and how we say it

I discussed already that if you have EXPERT LEVEL 6, you are home free and will never have to do any refresher training on language proficiency. However, as you will see from the earlier article on the challenges that native English speakers can bring into our communications, what we say and how we say it is something everyone needs to think about and continually work on.

Here at Safewings, we have refresher courses available for everyone and we encourage everyone to refresh themselves in this important topic. The same is true also for controllers and people working on the ramp who need to communicate using standard phraseology.

Standard phraseology

Now is a great time to revisit the key parts of standard phraseology from the ICAO manual on radio telephony. The good thing to know is that there is a standard, but in some cases (non-standard emergency) you need to revert to plain language. Remember you are required to be able to Communicate on common and work-related topics with accuracy and clarity.

Word/Phrase

Meaning

ACKNOWLEDGE

“Let me know that you have received and understood this message.”

AFFIRM

“Yes.”

APPROVED

“Permission for proposed action granted.”

BREAK

“I hereby indicate the separation between portions of the message.”

Note: To be used where there is no clear distinction between the text and other portions of the message.

BREAK BREAK

“I hereby indicate the separation between messages transmitted to different aircraft in a very busy environment.”

CANCEL

“Annul the previous transmitted clearance.”

CHECK

“Examine a system or procedure.”

Note: Not to be used in any other context. No answer is normally expected.

CLEARED

“Authorized to proceed under the conditions specified.”

CONFIRM

Ï request verification of: (clearance, instruction, action, information).

CONTACT

“Establish communication with…”

CORRECT

“True” or “Accurate.”

CORRECTION

“An error has been made in this transmission (or message indicated) The correct version is…”

DISREGARD

“Ignore.”

HOW DO YOU READ

“What is the readability of my transmission?”

I SAY AGAIN

“I repeat for clarity or emphasis.”

MAINTAIN

Continue in accordance with the condition(s) specified in its literal sense, e.g. “maintain VFR”.

MONITOR

“Listen out on (frequency).”

NEGATIVE

“No” or “Permission not granted” or “That is not correct” or “Not capable”.

OUT

“This exchange of transmissions  is ended and no response is expected.”

Note: Not normally used in VHF communications

OVER

“My transmission is ended and I expect a response from you.”

Note: Not normally used in VHF communications

READ BACK

“Repeat all, or the specified part, of this message back to me exactly as received.”

RECLEARED

“A change has been made to your last clearance and this new clearance supersedes your previous clearance or part thereof.”

REPORT

“Pass me the following information…”

REQUEST

“I should like to know… “ or “I wish to obtain…”

ROGER

“I have received all of your transmission.”

SAY AGAIN

“Repeat all, or the following part, of your last transmission.”

SPEAK SLOWER

“Reduce your rate of speech.”

STANDBY

“Wait and I will call you.”

Note: The caller would normally re-establish contact if the delay is lengthy. STANDBY is not an approval or denial.

UNABLE

“I cannot comply with your request, instruction, or clearance. “

Note: UNABLE is normally followed by a reason.

WILCO

(Abbreviation for “will comply”)

WORDS TWICE

  1. As a request

“Communication is difficult. Please send me every word or group of words twice.”

  1. As information:

“Since communication is difficult, every word or group of words in this message will be sent twice.”

 

 

It’s important to note, the phrase “GO AHEAD” has been deleted, in its place the use of the calling aeronautical station’s call sign followed by the answering aeronautical station’s call sign shall be considered the invitation to proceed with transmission by the station calling.

(or in other words, If you want to start a communication without immediately stating your intentions you say “CONTROLLER123, PILOT123” and the controller replies by saying "CONTROLLER 123, PILOT123”.

Threats that come with non-standard phraseology

What is the most probable thing that can happen? It is miscommunication that needs to be corrected. We all know the communication “HAVE THEY CLEARED YOU INTO RAMP”. I think I don’t have to say more, if you don’t know, here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShdkQGGyBWg

This correction is time consuming and may be annoying for the one who is trying to send the message.  Miscommunication happens a lot and normally does not pose an immediate threat. Usually it is solved in less than 10 seconds. Which is not the case with the example above.. Hence the annoyed controller.

Another threat is midair collision. If you think you are cleared to a certain flight level but you are not, you may have increased risk on midair collision.

With runway incursion, there are multiple examples of aircraft that misunderstood their clearance, and miscommunication plays a major role. An example of that is in this case:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oI2rJhdvguc In this case DAL300 did not read back to hold short, they only read back their gate number. So two errors here: DAL300 did not read back the complete clearance and ATC did not correct them after not reading back the complete clearance. Another example is non-standard phraseology. The receiver may misunderstand or not understand at all what you are trying to communicate.

Using different languages

A last threat I want to mention is use of different languages. If the common language is English and controllers and pilots start to speak a local language, the other pilots in that area who do not speak that language will lose part of their mental picture they have of the traffic around them. It may be considered a low risk but it can be annoying to for the ones who do not speak that language. Imagine you are at dinner having a conversation and some of the people start talking in a different language you don’t understand. Not very nice to do, so why do we do it in the air?

Technique: What's the frequency? - AOPA

Key points to take away 

  1. Use/know standard phraseology.
  2. As airline consider refresher courses / material for standard radio communication.
  3. Think about the other one when there is miscommunication, before becoming angry, try to understand why the message does not come across.
  4. Verify the message is understood.
  5. If you hear an error being made, point it out to your colleague. There is no shame in making errors, but there is in accepting them.

“Stephen OUT”

(or “OVER” if you want to give feedback)

 

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