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(For Pilots & ATC)

(For Pilots & ATC)
aircrew and air traffic controllers, its
contents and broad principles are
equally applicable to all users of RT
in the aviation industry.


When RT discipline is relaxed, for

example by the use of non-standard
procedures or phraseology,
misunderstandings can arise. There
are many examples in the UK and
throughout the world where these
misunderstandings have directly
contributed to fatal accidents,
AIRPROX events, and other safety
related incidents.

The need for clear and unambiguous 3 WHAT CAN BE THE RESULT OF
communication of level change and POOR RT DISCIPLINE?
heading instructions, including the
correct use of callsigns and readback There are many instances of
requirements between Air Traffic accidents, AIRPROX events, and
Control (ATC) and the Flight Deck, incidents available for reference. Let
has long been recognised as an us identify some actual examples of
important factor in assisting the safe poor RT discipline and examine the
and expeditious operation of effect they had.
aircraft. It is therefore vital that the
RT discipline practised by both pilots INCIDENT 1
and controllers alike reflects this To provide a more fuel-efficient
philosophy. The importance of using profile for an aircraft, ATC asked the
correct and precise standard RT pilot of aircraft ‘A’ whether he wished
phraseology and techniques cannot to climb to a higher level. The pilot of
be over-emphasised. another aircraft ‘B’ replied in the
Whilst this Safety Sense Leaflet is affirmative but did not use his
primarily aimed at professional callsign. ATC then cleared aircraft ‘A’
to climb but pilot ‘B’ took the RT Causal Factors
instruction to climb even although it
• When taking action to resolve the
was clearly addressed to aircraft ‘A’. situation, ATC did not use
The callsign of Aircraft ‘A’ consisted of standard phraseology that would
a different operator designator and a immediately alert pilots to take
different flight number. However pilot immediate avoiding action.
‘B’ read back the clearance using his
own designator but with the same INCIDENT 3
flight number as that used by aircraft
‘A’. ATC did not detect this error and A foreign ATC unit cleared an
an AIRPROX occurred when the aircraft for descent and a procedural
aircraft commenced climb through the approach using the phrase ‘Descend
level of a third aircraft ‘C’ almost two four zero zero, cleared for NDB
approach’. It was night, there was no
directly overhead.
radar available, and the flight was
following a procedural approach
RT Causal Factors
which commenced at the NDB at
• Pilot ‘B’ did not listen out properly 2400 feet amsl. The pilot read back
• Pilot ‘B’ did not use his callsign ‘OK, four zero zero’. Playback of the
initially leading ATC to assume cockpit voice recorder indicated that
that the correct aircraft was the pilots received a momentary
responding. GPWS warning 20 seconds before
• Pilot ‘B’ used an incorrect callsign impact as it passed through 700 feet
subsequently. amsl during the descent. A further
• ATC did not pick up the incorrect continuous GPWS alert continued
callsign when pilot ‘B’ responded. from 8 seconds before impact until
the aircraft crashed into a wooded
hillside at 437 feet amsl. It is evident
that no action was taken on either
An ATC error placed two aircraft in GPWS warning and the aircraft was
confliction with each other and the destroyed, killing all on board. The
controller was late in recognising the impact point was 1 nm before the
developing situation. When the NDB and 8 nm from touchdown.
controller became aware of the
confliction he gave prompt heading RT Causal Factors
and level instructions to resolve it but • The pilot misheard this as a
in a manner of delivery which would clearance to descend ‘to’ 400 feet
be used for routine communications. amsl.
This resulted in the aircraft’s • The pilot’s readback was non-
manoeuvre rate being insufficient to standard.
provide adequate separation and an • ATC did not hear the incorrect
AIRPROX occurred. Use of the phrase readback and so failed to correct
‘Avoiding Action’ plus the provision the error.
of ‘Traffic Information’ would have Note: In the UK, to prevent such
allowed the pilots to react occurrences, clearances to climb and
expeditiously and may have assisted descend are to include the expression
in early visual contact being ‘Flight Level’, ‘Altitude’ or ‘Height’. The
word ‘to’ after the verb must be used
established. Visual acquisition can when clearing an aircraft to an altitude or
help provide the crew with the means height; it should not be used when a flight
to ensure that separation is sufficient level is involved. Thus the above example
to prevent a mid-air collision. would be passed as ‘Descend to Altitude
two thousand four hundred feet ...’.
INCIDENT 4 generally poor with regular
omissions of key phrases such as ‘to
Aircraft ‘A’ was climbing on a
Altitude XXXX’ when passing level
Standard Instrument Departure (SID)
instructions, e.g. he said ‘Descend
within busy TMA airspace, initially to
one thousand feet’ and ‘Climb six
6000 feet amsl. Aircraft ‘B’ was
thousand feet’. Phrases such as these
descending to FL90 inbound to a
could be open to misinterpretation,
TMA airfield and conflicted in plan
particularly where English may not
with the departing aircraft. To
be the pilot’s first language. The
establish separation which would
pilot could interpret that ATC require
allow continuous climb and descent
him to change his height or altitude
for the subject aircraft, ATC cleared
by an amount rather than fly to a
aircraft ‘A’ to ‘Head one hundred
cleared height or altitude.
degrees and climb Flight Level eight
zero’. The pilot read back ‘One zero
RT Causal Factors
zero and Flight Level eight zero’.
Subsequently aircraft ‘A’ was noted • ATC used the phrase ‘One
on radar by ATC climbing through hundred’ when passing a heading
FL80 and confirmation of his level instruction. (‘One hundred’ must
was sought by the controller. The only be used for Flight Level
pilot reported ‘We were cleared instructions.)
climb one zero zero’. Aircraft ‘A’ was • Although the pilot of aircraft ‘A’
instructed to stop its climb read back the clearance in the
immediately at FL90 and aircraft ‘B’ correct format, the second pilot on
was instructed to stop descent at board erroneously set the
FL100. However due to the late call autopilot’s Flight Level/Altitude
and the fact that radar updates lag selector to FL100, probably due to
behind an aircraft’s true vertical the association of Flight Level one
position, aircraft ‘B’ was unable to hundred with the incorrect
arrest its descent until FL93. Specific phraseology used by ATC to give
avoiding action was then given and vectoring instructions.
the aircraft passed with less than 1 • When taking action to resolve the
nm horizontal and only 300 feet situation, ATC did not use
vertical separation. The subsequent standard phraseology that would
AIRPROX investigation also revealed immediately alert pilots to a
that the ATC controller’s RT discipline deteriorating situation.
leading up to the incident was
A foreign ATC unit cleared an
aircraft for descent using the phrase
By adhering to standard phraseology
‘Re-clear to three thousand
and technique, pilots and ATC can
feet...(pause).... expect an ILS
play a very important part in
approach report level at three
preventing accidents and incidents.
thousand feet’. There was no radar
The following tangible benefits are
available and the pilot was flying in
readily apparent:
intermittent IMC. The pilot read back
‘re-cleared to two thousand feet’ • Standard phraseology prevents
however this transmission misunderstandings or language
commenced during the pause in the difficulties, particularly where
ATC transmission and was missed by English may not be the pilot’s first
the controller. ATC did not query the language.
lack of a readback from the pilot. In • Standard phraseology can assist
addition, although not a RT factor, pilots in building up situational
ATC had also passed an incorrect awareness of the other airspace
QNH value, which placed the aircraft users in their vicinity.
240 feet lower than was indicated on • By making standard reports and
the aircraft altimeter. The playback correctly carrying out readbacks,
of the cockpit voice recorder the need for further confirmation
indicated that the crew took action by ATC from pilots can be reduced,
to level at an indicated 2000 feet leading to workload reductions
amsl and almost instantaneously the and a decrease in frequency
aircraft received a GPWS warning. congestion.
This was 7 seconds before impact as • Potential errors by either ATC or
the aircraft passed through an actual aircrew can be detected and
altitude of 1800 feet amsl. No action corrected, thus preventing
was taken on the GPWS warning and potential accidents, AIRPROX
the aircraft crashed into a events, and incidents.
mountainside at 1795 feet amsl, only
100 feet below the summit. All 144
persons on board were killed. 5 WHAT CAN I DO TO IMPROVE MY
(Note: ‘Re-clear’ is not permitted
phraseology in the UK.)
The following points will help you to
RT Causal Factors improve your RT discipline.

• The pilot misheard this as a • Always aim for accurate, brief, and
clearance to descend to 2000 feet clear transmissions. Listen
amsl. carefully to transmissions and
• A pause during a continuous ATC don’t just ‘hear’ what you expect
transmission meant that the pilot’s to hear.
incorrect readback, which took • Before transmitting, it is important
place simultaneously, was not to listen out first. Ensure that you
heard by ATC. don’t interrupt a dialogue or block
• ATC did not query the lack of a another transmission.
readback from the pilot. • Always use your full callsign,
except where the ground station
has abbreviated it.
• On first contact with an ATC • Pilots should always read back the
Centre (i.e. London, Manchester or ATS messages detailed in CAP413.
Scottish Control), pilots must Controllers should always ensure
report their actual Flight that they receive these readbacks.
Level/Altitude and cleared Flight The mandatory items are:
Level/Altitude if different. On a
Standard Instrument Departure Þ Taxi instructions
(SID) pilots must report the Þ Level instructions
passing altitude, initial cleared Þ Heading instructions
level, and SID identification. These Þ Speed instructions
reports provide ATC with a safety Þ Airways or route clearances
check and level verification and Þ Runway-in-use
allow other airspace users to build Þ Clearances to enter, land on,
up situational awareness. take-off on, backtrack, cross, or
• All instructions and clearances hold short of an active runway.
should be passed in a clear and Þ SSR operating instructions
unambiguous manner using Þ Altimeter settings
standard phraseology. This is Þ VDF information
especially important for heading Þ Frequency changes
and level instructions which Þ Types of radar service
should contain the correct term
(Height, Altitude, Flight Level or • If you are in doubt about any
Heading). transmission received, or do not
• Controllers should endeavour to receive an expected read back,
limit the number of instructions then CHECK.
passed in any one transmission to
a maximum of three - ideally only
two if practicable. Where there are
large amounts of numbers to be
passed, then speak clearly and

The UK RT phraseology, technique, and procedures are based on ICAO SARPS

and can be found in the following documents:
CAP413 CAA Radiotelephony Manual
CAP493 Manual of ATS Part 1
CAP32 UK AIP (ENR Section)
GA Safety Sense Leaflet 22 Radiotelephony

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