Freaking on the Frequency

May 14, 2008 by Bruce Landsberg

It’s a beautiful day, the weekend is here, and the world’s aloft. Collisions should be top of mind. Besides looking out the window, the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency (CTAF) is one of the best tools we have to listen and broadcast positions when entering, leaving or staying in the pattern.

Unfortunately, the CTAFs at many nontowered airports are a mess. If just two airports share the frequency that’s workable. But when several occupy the spectrum, especially when one on the party line is a busy, the radio loses much of it’s lifesaving potential.

What worked 20 years ago may not work today. If you’re flying at a radio-saturated location, how about working with the authorities to make the frequencies usable? Pilots, corporate operators, flight schools, instructors, and the insurance community all have a vested interest. Perhaps the CTAF operator, FBO, or municipality whines about needing new ground radios since the old ones cannot be converted or about how the local pilots will be confused because Podunk Municipal has always been on 122.8. These concerns pale in comparison to what a maidair collision will do to the airport’s reputation.

If your CTAF is overcrowded, do something about it! AOPA has guidance on how to this at Be sure to put your concerns in writing/email so that a paper trail is evident. It’s amazing how accountability encourages responsibility in public officials.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Richard A. Strong

    I’m thinking that a CCTV with the eye on the nose and a display on the panel might be helpful for the case of the mid-air on final. Also for navigation, etc..

  • David Reinhart

    I don’t think the audio feed button is working.

  • David M. Khanoyan

    Mr. Landsberg,

    Have you considered writing an article concerning Remote Airport Advisory Services (RAA)? I presently work for Lockheed Martin as a Flight Service Specialist at the “Washington Hub” in Ashburn, Virginia. As one of my duties, I provide Remote Airport Advisories for Millville, New Jersey Airport (MIV).
    I would like to discuss my safety concerns with you at your earliest convenience.


    David M. Khanoyan

  • David M. Khanoyan

    Mr. Landsberg,

    My Area of Resposibility (AOR) is the Northeastern United States. MIV needs an Air Traffic Control Tower. I have an extensive aviation background. Four years U. S. Navy ATC. Twenty-six years FAA ATC. Ten years Flight Service with both the FAA/LM.
    Sitting in what appears to be a warehouse, working MIV RAA is akin to being in a Control Tower, not allowed to look out the windows, issuing runway/wind/altimeter/favored runway/known traffic……and, oh,by the way..
    NO CONTROL! The situation at MIV is an accident waiting to happen.
    All non-towered airports should immediately revert to CTAF. I will be more than happy to elaborate, should you be interested in helping to develop a solution to this problem. I would like to go on record that the attempt is being made to be proactive, rather than reactive to an aircraft accident that could have been prevented, had the Federal Aviation Administration invested the funds required to costruct a Tower and staff the facility.


    David M. Khanoyan

  • John Mahony

    Last year we changed the frequency at Columbia Co, (1B1),NY from the very common 122.8. This was done from a safety standpoint since the extensive use of 122.8 in the dense northeast makes that frequency hard to decipher and difficult from a training standpoint. The result is remarkable, our new frequency is quiet, allowing good quality transmission and reception. All pilots are able to understand what the traffic at our airport is doing, the students learn good radio procedures and instructor can convey meaningful comments without an intrusive stream of radio babble. I urge other airport communities to also consider changing to a less busy frequency.

  • Paul B

    The answer is so simple. More discreet frequencies!
    In the interest of safety, federal help from the FCC and FAA maybe be needed to achieve this but it is long over due, very long. Many CTAF sound more like CB Channel 19 than an absolutely essential aviation safey medium.

  • ron reese

    The answer is NOT more frequencies.. but BETTER use of what we have now.. How many times have you heard a pilot announce on Unicom that he’s taxiing to or from a runway? Or how many times have you heard someone shooting touch and go’s that he’s on crosswind, downwind, base, and final? I once heard a pilot ask for traffic advisories from his home airport when he was 27 miles away, and he was in a C-152!!!! I once heard a pilot announce he was 13 miles from the airport, and make another call every mile thereafter. He was flying a C-210 which means he was making 3 calls a minutes.. You/we can do a better job if we just use the frequency to LISTEN to what is out there.. One call when entering the pattern is all it takes.. Nothing more.. If there’s no one else in the pattern, then why say anything more? After all, there’s no one there to hear it that cares. On departure, one call that says something like, “At ‘Airpark Airport’, Piper 12345 departing 36 eastbound.”
    If we could just follow some common sense advice, we could cut down on 90% of the ‘noise’ that’s out there and be much safer in the process…

  • DonLegge

    Proper training and proper use of the assigned frequencies would help greatly. We still hear pilots asking “anyone in the pattern advise”. This only complicates the use of the CTAF. Use the “LISTEN, THINK, TALK, LISTEN” rule. And most of all keep a constant visual particularly crosswind to downwind and base to final. Examiners should insist that applicants employ good techniques in these areas.

  • Jim Thomas

    I live in Central California where frequency congestion is a problem, especially on the weekends. My plane has a hand held radio wired into my intercom and connected to an external antenna. It works extremely well even though it has low power output. You don’t need a lot of broadcast power to communicate within 10 miles of an airport.

    My feeling is that the avionics manufacturers should build “dual power” avionics so that the broadcast power on Unicom frequencies is much lower than on enroute frequencies. Much lower broadcast power will go a long way to reduce frequency congestion and reduce transmissions being “walked on” by an aircraft calling his arrival at an airport 75 miles away.

  • Bobby Doyle

    I fly here in the Northeast and in my short time flying(8 years) I have seen improvement with several airports changing frequencies to those less congested. However, the thing that frustrates me more than anything else are the morons who use the radios like a cellphone and tie up the frequencies with idle chat. How ya doin… Where ya been.. Hows your aunt, uncle cus… How about those SOX… Enough already!!!

  • Chris Strube

    As a retired FSS, I’m disgusted with what passes for correct phraseology. Every pilot, from student to old-timer, seems to want to sound super important. Apparently, this is done by using unnecessary words and phrases. It sounds like Smoky and the Bandit out there. If I hear “currently”, “at this time”, or “conflicting traffic please advise”, one more time, I may be forced to retaliate with “breaker breaker good buddy”. I blame the instructors, who were poorly taught themselves. A position report should be concise and complete, and not a short story. Example: “Podunk traffic, Mooney XXX downwind 32, landing”. If everyone practiced radio discipline, then frequency congestion would be greatly reduced.

  • Larry Wedel

    The one call per departure or arrival idea sounds like a bad one. The time from taking the active or entering downwind until out of the area or clear of the runway is too great, especially if the aircraft is a typical slow trainer.
    This is especially true for situations where arriving aircraft may be much faster, arriving on IFR flights and switching from ATC frequency to CTAF frequency when close to the airport.
    I’ll stick with a call before entering the pattern (or runway) and at least two position calls in the pattern, and I wish everyone else would too.

    Another congestion contributor is folks who chit-chat about personal matters on CTAF. Just because it’s been quiet doesn’t mean there aren’t several aircraft approaching the pattern with a need to announce. Please save personal chatter for face to face on the ramp or later on a phone.

  • Jeff Cooper

    No matter what we do on our side of Lake Ontario to minimize gratuitous chatter on CTAFs we pilots are subjected to the frequency-clogging oratories of Canadian pilots who feel they must give a minutely detailed ongoing flight log of their progress from point A to point B. Maybe its the training because they all seem to do it. Maybe next time Philly B is up there he could ask them to cut it oot and keep it simple,eh?

  • robert devaney

    More frequencies would help in some situations. BUT more help would be less unimportant chatter.
    I have counted as many as10 transmissions for one landing. And who cares what your N number is, or the color and model of your aircraft. Make it short and to the point. For instance, “Podunk traffic cessna left downwind 29.

    Not “Podunk traffic blue and white cessna 182 N1234U left downwind at 1200′ for runway 29 landing . I think it’s safe to assume on a clear day that a plane downwind at pattern altitude is going to land, If he doesn’t, no harm!

    I also have complained for many years about the situation at MIV. Scary!

  • Bill Tharp

    I’ve always wondered why some pilots at my airport announce “crossing runway X” when they are TAXIING across the runway. If I’m approaching the airport and hear this, I will scan for possible in flight traffic over the runway. Of course, I’m constantly scanning for traffic — everywhere, but wouldn’t it be more accurate to annouce that you are “taxiing across runway X’ if you feel the need to do so. I agree with some of the other commenters that pilots need to learn the proper phrasology to better use the current CTAF’s and just shutup and listen a whole lot more. This includes telling your passengers to be quiet as you approach the airport as well.

  • John Prescott

    Two Comments:
    1. A major cause of frequency congestion is the all-too-common use of the CTAF for unnecessary ‘chit-chat’. Greater efforts should be made at the local airport level educating pilots to avoid this practice, and frequent offenders should be admonished by the unicom operator — on the frequency for all to hear, if necessary. At my airport recently, several (young male) flight instructors were abusing the CTAF as if it were their personal CB radio. Annoyed, I grabbed my mic and broadcast, “Would you LADIES please cut the gossip on the frequency?” You could have heard the proverbial pin drop for the next thirty minutes as only crisp position reports were broadcast.
    2. I have the latest comm radio, but using the new 25 KHZ frequencyies you suggest could be impossible for pilots with old radios — and without the means to replace or upgrade them.

  • John Wilson

    Our CTAF is Multicom (122.9) which fortunately is only moderately congested in this area. However, the two biggest improvements would be on the polar opposite ends of the spectrum: Pilots who make too many calls and those who don’t call in at all. I am amazed at the multitasking skills of those who can fly the plane while making almost continuous reports from five muiles out to runway turnoff. Then we have the occasional doofuses who make straight-ins wile presumably transmitting on some other randomly selected frequency.

  • John Prescott

    I’d like to ‘second’ an excellent comment made above by Jim Thomas. Although this obviously represents a long-term solution because of the need for new radios (which should be FM, by the way), it would eliminate long-distance transmission isssue AND it is current practice with Marine VHF. Certain frequencies (channels) automatically transmit at FCC-mandated very low wattage, and the operator can manually select low power for any other frequency.

    QUOTE: “…[M]anufacturers should build ‘dual power’ avionics so that the broadcast power on Unicom frequencies is…lower than on enroute frequencies…this…will go a long way to reduce…transmissions [from] an aircraft…at an airport 75 miles away.”

  • Dave Stewart

    A few years back we here at VPZ (Porter County Airport in Valparaiso, IN) had the same problem–could not use the radio to the numerous other airports using the same frequency. I approached the Airport Board members (after some resistance from the airport manager) and informed them there were 32 airports within 50 miles using our same frequency. I further explained that if we went to 122.725 instead our present 122.8, we would have competition with one other airport. This would improve safety, especially with the increased flow of business jets that were now using our airport.

    The manager felt there was too much work involved, changing the information in the FAA’s system of maps, etc. but agreed to go along with it. This was over three years ago and it has done wonders at our airport. No one ever complains now of congested communication here.

  • Laura B

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with the one call in the pattern theory. Sometimes it takes more than one transmission to decipher where some mumble-mouths are calling from. Read the article about the Cessna 152 & 172 collision at Cincinnati West if you think only one transmission is enough. I also like to hear the airport name repeated at the end of the transmission — too often we hear only half of the first word in any transmission. Our local frequency is very congested with lots of little airports. Knowing what airport is the most important and most easily missed information.

  • Duane Wood

    When communicating on CTAF, make it short, clear and precise. No one wants to hear your life story.

  • AJ Folger

    Following up on Paul B and others comments. How about approaching
    the problem from a reporting/enforcement position. If not the FAA, then
    the FCC.

  • Henry Joyner

    I fly almost everyday as an DPE and corporate pilot. I call 122.8 the learning channel. The major problem is not chit chat, as I hear very little of that. The real problem is frequency polution. Why does every student, private pilot, and/or flight instructor get in the pattern for an hour and make a position report on every segment of the pattern. If you are going to stay in the pattern a report on downwind should be sufficent unless someone else calls in approaching the airport. So a less expensive solution to the problem is to teach pilots to talk less (not total silence) and listen more. While my applicants make all the radio calls seldon are they able to tell me the last transmission on the frequecy. It’s only aviation not rocket science, and a little common sense goes a long ways to safety.

  • Tony Johnstone

    Agree with the “cut down the calls” crowd. I teach my students to make a call 5 miles out, downwind, and final, then clear of runway. Short, concise, announce WHO you are talking to, i.e. Podunk traffic, Who you are, Cessna 83G, WHERE, 5 West, WHAT you are doing, entering downwind 22, and give the field name at the end as, indeed, most folks may not catch it the first time. Also, another pet peeve (second only to the “All traffic, please advise” operators), speak clearly and precisely, believe me, no one is going to think you are Chuck Yeager just because you rattle off your transmission so fast nobody can understand it!

  • Joe Owens

    Announcing that one is a Cessna does NOTHING to help with situational awareness. Was that a Cessna Citation or a C152? When flying a 182 I am a Skylane, a 172 I am a Skyhawk… This is much more informative about what speed I may be flying either during approach or in the pattern and would indicate to others what to expect. A call such as… “podunk airport, Skyhawk 72H, 5 miles North landing X runway” is much better than “Cessna”

  • Marilyn Emery

    When approaching a non-towered airport with an instrument approach, you must be alert for incoming IFR traffic. They may have just switched to the CTAF. They have not heard previous traffic reports. Thus, concise position reports by VFR traffic at downwind, base and final are important.

    When approaching a non-towered airport VFR, just listening is not enough. What if several planes are approaching, all listening? Not hearing anyone report, all assume they are the only ones in the pattern. Again, concise reports of downwind, base and final are important. In this case, even the report at the 45 degree entry could be extremely important.

  • john toledo

    Gee : I’m one of those pro’s that use to make those “all traffic please advise calls. Boy am I embarrassed.

    I think we should call 5 miles out and and entering the pattern, be it downwind, crosswind, base entry, and or straight in. On straight ins I think you should call a mimnimum of 2miles out depending on your type aircraft. You should always announce your type aircraft but your N number is unnecessary.

    Thanks John T

  • donald Miller

    With new, better radios (430/530) the range is now a problem at KVDF, where I’m based, Aircraft from several other airports within 75 miles are easily heard with position in the pattern clearly reported but not which airport they are located. It leads to a lot of tense moments to hear someone MAY be in the same position you are in to then find out they are many miles away or never knowing where they are . I repeatedly announce position when approaching an airport and ALWAYS report Centurion/midfield/right or left downwind/runway#/airport when in the pattern, plus normal reporting points in the pattern. The airplane I own was in a midair in that position before I bought it, both pilots survived but mine has a new wing, the other aircraft was totaled.

  • Dave MC

    The only time I’ve had a problem is when some body does NOT talk.
    Some is better than none!

  • John M. Lloyd

    Keep it short….AND Listen-up!!

  • young gun

    Does anyone know….? Is it true that towered airports are suppose to have a different unicom freq? I.e. Unicom being 122.95 (unicom for towered airports)My home base airport is still using 122.725 despite having an open control tower. We have several surounding airports that use 122.725 as there CTAF/unicom. Anybody know the answer?