The Things Pilots Say

The pilot alphabet is more commonly referred to as the phonetic alphabet. Below is the full table of the pilot phonetic alphabet. The first phonetic alphabet was developed in the 1920’s by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in 1941 the U.S. Army and Navy created the Able Baker alphabet, then in the 1950’s the International Air Transport Association (IATA) adopted and modified this alphabet and it is still in use today.

LetterPhonetic AlphabetPronunciation
Pilot Phonetic Alphabet

Why Use A Phonetic Alphabet?

Clarity over any kind of telecommunication is why a phonetic alphabet is important. At times you’ve likely made up your own phonetic alphabet while trying to accurately give letters over a phone conversation. B as in Billy, D as in David.

When you are getting a pilot’s license, memorizing the phonetic alphabet is one of the first things that you will do. You’ll sound just like a pilot if you use the phonetic alphabet when saying a license plate or other plane call letters.

How Do Pilots Say Numbers?

Numbers are mostly the same, the full correct list of variations is listed in the table below. Also intended for more clarity when being broadcasted over telecommunication.

NumberHow Its SaidPronunciation
10one zerowhun-zeer-oh
100one hundredwhun-huhn-drid
1000one thousandwhun-thou-zuhnd
10000one zero thousandwhun-zeer-oh-thou-zuhnd
FL350flight level tree fife zeroflahyt levuhl tree fife zeer-oh
Pilot Numbers

Why Do Pilots Say Squawk

Pilots use the term squawk when referring to the transponder code of the airplane. This is our most basic communication tool both with Air Traffic Control (ATC), and other pilots. Today potential conflicts can be avoided simply by the transponders of the airplanes communicating with other planes in the vicinity, if there is a potential conflict, they can alert the pilot before it’s too late.

Below is a list of the common squawk codes in the USA and Canada, not to be used as an extensive list, but just as a general reference. You should always check with your local aviation authority for the countries rules and regulations.

Squawk CodeCode Meaning
1000Default code when leaving an airport not controlled by ATC with flight referenced by instruments. (IFR)
1200Default code for flying without communication to ATC with flight referenced by visual navigation. (VFR)
1400VFR flights above 12,500 feet Above Sea Level (ASL).
7500Emergency code indicating the aircraft has been hijacked.
7600Emergency code for loss in communication, radio failure.
7700Emergency code for a really big deal. Often called “going to heaven squawk 77”.
Basic Transponder Codes

Why Do Pilots Say Souls On Board

Souls on board is referred to as the total number of passengers and crew. This is requested by Area Traffic Control (ATC) in the event of an emergency so that search and rescue know how many people they need to locate. It can also be volunteered by a pilot while declaring an emergency as part of the company Safe Operating Procedure (SOP) making communication in critical time sensitive situations more efficient.

Why Do Pilots Say Mayday

Saying, “mayday mayday mayday” on the radio while operating an aircraft serves 2 main purposes. The first is to notify Area Traffic Control (ATC) that the plane and it’s passengers are in immediate danger, this also declares an emergency. The second also gives the pilots complete authority over what they need to do in order to minimize loss. The goal here is to save human life at all costs.

ATC is a great help here, they will move traffic out of the way, alert emergency crews on the ground and give vital information to the flight crew so they can focus on the situation at hand. Nothing is off the table for the flight crew as long as it is justifiable as the safest course of action the crew can come up with. The Miracle on the Hudson, US Airways flight 1549, is a great example of all of this.

Below a few great examples of ATC and Pilots working together to quickly get the aircraft in danger back on the ground.

Why Do Pilots Say Heavy

Heavy is used to describe the weight class of an airplane. Weight class is important because as a plane becomes larger and heavier, more lift is needed to be generated by the wings. The more that is generated by the wings, the more air is disturbed causing vortices.

Vortices are extremely violent to smaller planes, they could upset the smaller craft causing uncontrolled flight, or worse structural damage. Therefore, Area Traffic Contorl (ATC) uses weights to separate planes of really great size differences so this doesn’t occur. Below is a great video of what that looks like.

Turbulance From Vortices

The table below is the general weight class breakdown. Please note this list changes in different countries a bit. Always consult your local countries aviation governing body.

Weight Class NameWeights
small12,500 lbs or less
medium12,501 lbs to 41,000 lbs
large41,101 lbs to 255,000 lbs
B757all B757 series planes
heavy255,001 lbs or greater
General Weight Classes (Different Countries Have Different Regulations)

Why Do Pilots Say Rotate

Pilots say rotate when the airspeed is at Vr for the airplane signifying it is ready to begin flight. The crew member operating the controls will start to pull the control back, this moves the elevator at the back of the plane which changes lifts the nose. The change in the angle of the nose also changes the airflow of the angle of attack, the direction of relative airflow to the wing. The result is more lift is created, enough to start flight in the current conditions.

Experience at the controls makes this a very smooth experience as the airplane transition from being on the ground supported by the landing gear, to being supported by the airflow over the wings. The inverse of this is often seen on landing as illustrated in the video below. A slow transition will have the nose wheel slowly come down after the main gear makes contact.

A380 Greaser

What Do Pilots Say When Landing

Most of the times very little is said when landing, unless it’s really great, or really bad, it’s usually just business as usual. In the case of the above video, there was most certainly something said, or an oooohh, or something braggy, that was a very controlled demonstration of flight to runway.

In the case of the bad landing days, we all get them, no matter how much experience you have. The only difference is how often they occur. With more hours and practice as well as time on that specific plane, they become fewer and farther in between. Typically the comment is made by the crew member performing the landing.

Why Do Pilots Say V1

V1 is said when the aircraft reaches a speed where it must continue to fly, even in an emergency. There is now insufficient runway to abort the takeoff. It is an airspeed based on the current temperature, weather, runway friction, weight, and other factors. The plane also has sufficient airspeed to continue into flight even with only 1 engine in operation.

More Things Pilots Say

If you’re still looking for more pilot terminology this link will take you to the FAA pilot / controller glossary.

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