Air traffic control is responsible for providing crucial information to pilots around the most congested airports. They communicate with pilots on certain radio frequencies to keep airport operations safe. Your communications are also accessible to the public. Whether you are a student pilot, retired pilot, or just want to know what's going on in the sky, you can listen to the work of the controllers at any time.
Method 1 of 3: Find an Aviation Frequency
Step 1. Search for live frequencies
Get a radio scanner that is capable of receiving frequencies between 118.0 and 136.975 MHz. You can also listen to air traffic services around the world on websites like www.liveatc.com, www.globalair.com, www.airnav.com and www. radioreference.com.
- Keep in mind that in radio electronics, you get what you pay for. A scanner from one of the brands listed above will outperform a non-brand one that claims to have coverage from an airline. Most scanners cover the entire air band.
- You can also listen to air traffic control installations around the world on websites like liveatc.net, globalair.com, airnav.com, and radioreference.com.
Step 2. Memorize some of the basic frequencies
- 121.5 is the emergency frequency. If there is some kind of emergency, the pilots will transmit on that frequency. You can also hear an emergency locator beacon on this frequency if a plane crashes.
- 122.750 MHz is the frequency for air-to-air communications in general aviation.
- 123.025 MHz is the frequency for air-to-air communications between helicopters.
- 123.450 MHz it is the “unofficial” frequency for air-to-air communications.
- Search between 122.0 and 123.65 to find Unicom (uncontrolled airports) and air-to-air communications.
- Search between 128.825 and 132.00 to find ARINC frequencies (airlines, corporate aviation and general aviation that call for fuel, parking and other requests).
Method 2 of 3: Aeronautical Section Charts
Step 1. Find an aeronautical section chart
You will most likely want to find a letter from your area to the nearest airport. Older versions of these cards work too. You can find sectional charts online at www.skyvector.com.
Step 2. Find the nearest airport on the chart
Airports are shown with blue or magenta circles, with lines inside representing runways. Next to the circle there will be a text block with the name of the airport and its information. The control tower frequency is shown with "CT - 000.0". The following numbers are the frequency used by ATC. For example, the frequency for Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, WI is "CT - 118.5".
Step 3. If the airport is not controlled (there is no tower) or the tower operates at certain times, a C will be displayed in a circle after the frequency number to denote the CTAF (Common Traffic Frequency)
There will be a star next to the frequency of the tower to show that it is a tower that operates at certain times. In these types of airports, the pilots communicate with each other directly and say their positions and intentions.
Step 4. All controlled airports will be shown with blue circles, while uncontrolled airports are colored magenta
Airports that have runways longer than 8,000 feet are not circled and simply have a diagram showing the direction of the runway, which is a blue (controlled) or magenta (uncontrolled) stripe.
Step 5. Some airports have AWOS (Automated Weather Observation System), ASOS (Automated Surface Observation System) or ATIS (Automated Terminal Information Service) frequencies displayed on the chart
They operate automatically and repeat broadcasts that provide the pilot with weather and airport information as they prepare to take off or land.
Step 6. If you have access to an airport directory, you can search for more frequencies than are available on the chart
At larger airports, pilots receive their flight clearances on an “clearance” frequency, communicate on the taxiways with a “surface” frequency, and receive take-off and landing clearances on the control tower frequency.. Once the pilots have taken off, they will speak on a “departure” or “approach” frequency and finally, when they are already en route, they will most likely speak on a “center” frequency. If you are lucky, or you live close enough to an airport, you may be able to hear several of these frequencies.
Method 3 of 3: Pilot Language
Step 1. If the controller gives an instruction to the pilot, he or she should prefix it with the aircraft identification
For commercial flights, this will be the flight number as “United 2311”. Smaller aircraft are identified by their registration.
Step 2. After the flight number, the controller will give you an instruction such as “enter the stretch with the wind”
This instructs the pilot to continue in the traffic pattern at a specific position. The pilot will then collate the instruction, so that the controller can verify that it has understood correctly.
Step 3. Sometimes the controllers will “pass” the pilot to another frequency
For example, when a controller says "November-12345, contact approximation at 124.32, good morning." Once again, the pilot must collate the instructions.
Step 4. Operations at uncontrolled airports are much less formal
Most of the time, pilots will broadcast blind communications to anyone on the frequency, announcing their position and intentions. Phrases such as "upwind", "cross wind", "stretch with the wind", "base" and "end" denote specific positions in the traffic pattern.
Step 5. Learn the phonetic alphabet
Pilots and controllers use it to communicate letters, as they can often be confused. You may also hear someone say "niner" instead of "nine", "faif" to say "five" or "tree" to say "three".
- Reading the sectional legend can help you find interesting frequencies.
- Don't be surprised if you can only hear one side of the conversation. Most likely, you are only listening to the plane and not the controller. If you are near the airport, you will be able to hear both.
- In the Roku radio app for iPod, you can tune in to frequencies for major airports (San Francisco, Washington, Miami, New York, etc.) as well as other local airports.
- Some scanners are actually transceivers, allowing two-way communication. NEVER communicate on aviation frequencies, the penalties are quite severe.
- In case you hear an emergency situation on a local frequency about a plane that is about to crash, call the emergency services immediately.