What's so important about communication? Here's what you can do with your plane's communication system:
- Get up-to-date weather information during your flight
- Ask Air Traffic Control (ATC) to watch over you (called a flight watch) while you're flying through its area
- Open, change, or close an existing flight plan
- Talk with other pilots in the area
- Ask for help or declare an emergency
Contrary to popular opinion, VFR pilots are not required to file a flight plan with the FAA. Only IFR pilots must do so. However, you may if you wish, and it makes good sense if you expect to fly somewhere where getting lost can be a problem.
To communicate with other aircraft and the area ATC you'll need equipment and information. Many aircraft have comm (short for “communication”) radios installed. If not, you can buy hand-held comm radios (technically, they are called transceivers) for $300 to $800. The better ones actually are nav-com transceivers that allow you to use VOR navigation aids as well as communicate with ATC and pilots. You can buy them through your local flight school, pilot shop or online sources.
If you haven't been flying yet or much you might not be aware of how loud an aircraft engine can be, especially when a smaller aircraft is climbing. For this reason, many pilots invest in a headset. It's similar to a headset used to listen to music except that it also includes a microphone and a "talk-no talk" button. Better models can be used to talk with passengers through their headsets, and with a flick of a switch, to ATC or other pilots. Cost is $300 to $1,000 per set. Tell Santa! He's a pilot!
How will you communicate with ATC and other pilots? It's just like talking on the telephone (remembering that it's a party line). "Bob, this is Dan. I'm about five miles from your house and want to stop by for a soda." However, your flying conversation will go more like this: "Covington Airport, Zodiac four two seven bravo charlie downwind for landing runway two-six Covington." The common communication elements are ...
- Who you are calling ("Santa Rosa tower").
- Who you are ("Cessna 5-5-6-6-Echo").
- Where you are ("10 miles north at 3-thousand 500 feet").
- What you want to do ("inbound for landing").
- What you know ("with information Alpha" -- the tower's latest recorded information)
If you're talking witha tower they will acknowledge your call (as soon as they have time) and confirm, deny, or give further directions. If you're in uncontrolled airspace and you're simply announcing your intentions to any other pilots monitoring that frequency ("Petaluma traffic"), they typically won't respond. Nor will they snicker, so don't be afraid to communicate.
Must you communicate with a controller? Only if you're going into radio-controlled airspace. If you're in Class E or uncontrolled (Class G) airspace you don't have to talk with anyone — though it's a good idea to let everyone in the area know that you're there.
Another important radio you might have in your plane is actually a transmitter only, called a transponder. It helps radar controllers "see" your plane on the radar. ATC radar can pick up airplanes without a transponder but with one, they get a positive identification from your plane. It sends out a signal that identifies you on their radar screen. If you ask for radar service, the controller will say something like "squawk four-two-one-one," which means dial in 4221 (or any number they assign to you) on your transponder. The info will then appear on the ATC radar screen and traffic control can watch over you. If you have a transponder but are not using radar services the standard "squawk" is 1200. This code means you are flying VFR and don't require radar separation, just an angel on your shoulder.
Other squawk codes include 7700 (emergency), 7600 (you've lost other communication radios), and 7500 (you're being hijacked!). Don't let anyone play with the transponder or you might find that you suddenly have a jet fighter escort!
In communicating with traffic controllers and other pilots you will need to know the phonic alphabet for aviation (such as Echo for the letter E), used because some letters and numbers sound similar over a radio. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) includes more information on the phonic alphabet.