Operating in and out of a towered airport, as well as in a good portion of the airspace system, requires that an aircraft have two-way radio communication capability. For this reason, a pilot should be knowledgeable of radio station license requirements and radio communications equipment and procedures.

Radio License

There is no license requirement for a pilot operating in the United States; however, a pilot who operates internationally is required to hold a restricted radiotelephone permit issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There is also no station license requirement for most general aviation aircraft operating in the United States. A station license is required, however, for an aircraft that is operating internationally, that uses other than a VHF radio, and that meets other criteria.

Radio Equipment

In general aviation, the most common types of radios are VHF. A VHF radio operates on frequencies between 118.0 megahertz (MHz) and 136.975 MHz and is classified as 720 or 760 depending on the number of channels it can accommodate. The 720 and 760 use .025 MHz (25 kilohertz (KHz) spacing (118.025, 118.050) with the 720 having a frequency range up to 135.975 MHz and the 760 reaching up to 136.975 MHz. VHF radios are limited to line of sight transmissions; therefore, aircraft at higher altitudes are able to transmit and receive at greater distances.In March of 1997, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) amended its International Standards and Recommended Practices to incorporate a channel plan specifying 8.33 kHz channel spacings in the Aeronautical Mobile Service. The 8.33 kHz channel plan was adopted to alleviate the shortage of VHF ATC channels experienced in western Europe and in the United Kingdom. Seven western European countries and the United Kingdom implemented the 8.33 kHz channel plan on January 1, 1999. Accordingly, aircraft operating in the airspace of these countries must have the capability of transmitting and receiving on the 8.33 kHz spaced channels.

Using Proper Radio Procedures

Using proper radio phraseology and procedures contribute to a pilot’s ability to operate safely and efficiently in the airspace system. A review of the Pilot/Controller Glossary contained in the AIM assists a pilot in the use and understanding of standard terminology. The AIM also contains many examples of radio communications.ICAO has adopted a phonetic alphabet that should be used in radio communications. When communicating with ATC, pilots should use this alphabet to identify their aircraft. [Figure 1]

Radio Communications for airport operation
Figure 1. Phonetic alphabet

Lost Communication Procedures

It is possible that a pilot might experience a malfunction of the radio. This might cause the transmitter, receiver, or both to become inoperative. If a receiver becomes inoperative and a pilot needs to land at a towered airport, it is advisable to remain outside or above Class D airspace until the direction and flow of traffic is determined. A pilot should then advise the tower of the aircraft type, position, altitude, and intention to land. The pilot should continue, enter the pattern, report a position as appropriate, and watch for light signals from the tower. Light signal colors and their meanings are contained in Figure 2.

Radio Communications for airport operation
Figure 2. Light gun signals
If the transmitter becomes inoperative, a pilot should follow the previously stated procedures and also monitor the appropriate ATC frequency. During daylight hours, ATC transmissions may be acknowledged by rocking the wings and at night by blinking the landing light.When both receiver and transmitter are inoperative, the pilot should remain outside of Class D airspace until the flow of traffic has been determined and then enter the pattern and watch for light signals.

Radio malfunctions should be repaired before further flight. If this is not possible, ATC may be contacted by telephone requesting a VFR departure without two-way radio communications. No radio (NORDO) procedure arrivals are not accepted at busy airports. If authorization is given to depart, the pilot is advised to monitor the appropriate frequency and/or watch for light signals as appropriate.

If radio communication is lost, it may be a prudent decision to land at a non-towered airport with lower traffic volume, if practical. When operating at a non-towered airport, no radio communication is necessary. However, pilots should be extra vigilant when not using the radio. Other traffic may not as easily be aware of your presence when they are expecting the standard radio calls.