Communications with ATC

When operating at a Class C airport, there are movement and non-movement areas. Movement areas, such as runways and taxiways, are restricted and approval must be granted by a controller before an aircraft may enter or maneuver within such an area. Non-movement areas do not require approval.


Initial contact with a controller: Before making initial contact, you need to know the current ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service). The ATIS is updated hourly, unless the current requirements, such as weather changes, dictate a more frequent change. The following a broadcast of the Lexington ATIS.

Ground Control: Airplanes contract Ground Control to get taxi instructions. Helicopter can call ground control as well. However, helicopters will often call Tower directly if departing from a non-movement area, such as the ramp. A few cases where a helicopter will call ground are for when a runway departure is requested, such as at night, or for more complex requests such as to a specific fix for IFR training.

Contacting Tower: When departing from the ramp, or other non-movement area, contract the tower directly. Ensure to include the following:

  • Aircraft Call Sign
  • Location on the field
  • Intentions (i.e. VFR departure to 27K at 1800)
  • ATIS Information

In the following example, the tower asked for additional clarity, so be ready for any additional requests. Eventually, the tower will reply with your clearance. This clearance will include an altitude, departure frequency, and a squawk code.

After lifting off, the tower will hand you off to the departure controller. The initial checkin with the departure controller should include your full call sign, altitude, and if you are climbing or descending.

Depending on your request, you will either be handed off to another controller, such as Center, or radar services will be terminated and you will fly VFR without additional ATC support or communications until you return.


Before entering Class C airspace, the pilot must establish radio communications with ATC. Once communications are established, the aircraft may enter the airspace unless specifically told otherwise. Communications are established when the controller replies with the aircraft call sign. When calling Approach, the initial call should include:

  • Aircraft Call Sign
  • Location (Direction and Altitude)
  • Intentions (i.e. Landing at the WestRamp)
  • ATIS information

To accomplish this, we need to listen to the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) first. This information is updated hourly, unless the current requirements, such as weather changes, dictate a more frequent change. The following a broadcast of the Lexington ATIS.

Below is an example of the initial radio to Lexington Airport, from outside the Class C airspace.

After nearing the airport, Approach Control will hand the aircraft off to the Tower. As noted in the previous call, the helicopter is landing directly at the ramp and not using the runway. As such, the helicopter pilot must agree to the risk of landing at a non-movement area. Below is an example of the radio conversation.

When “Landing at Own Risk” the helicopter pilot is responsible for ensuring that the landing area is clear. Do not overfly aircraft, vehicles, or people on the ground.


Abbreviate Call Signs: A controller may abbreviate your call sign when it is unlikely that there will be any confusion with other aircraft. Example, N725A may be shorted to 25A. You may reply to the controller with the shortened call sign. If the controller uses your full call sign, reply with the full call sign. Call signs should never be abbreviated on an initial contact or at any time when other aircraft call signs have similar numbers/sounds or identical letters/number; e.g., Helicopter 725A, Cessna 825A, Piper 325A, etc.

Acknowledge Frequency Changes: When the controller provides a frequency change, acknowledge the instruction before changing frequencies. acknowledge the instruction ensure that the controls knows that you understood and did not have a radio failure. .