This online exercise on 'aviation English' looks at and explains the vocabulary used between air traffic control and pilots when planes are both approaching and landing at airports. The main focus here is on the instructions which are used in these situations.

Although the vocabulary used in this exercise is standard for instructions and communication between pilots and controllers, it may differ from what is sometimes used by some controllers/pilots. But even if it does, once you the know the vocabulary here, you should have no problem understanding what a pilot or controller is saying.

Click here to see our other exercises on 'Aviation English vocabulary'.


Exercise: Landing a plane

Read the following conversation between Juan (a Spanish trainee pilot) and Peter (a professional pilot), while Juan is practicing to fly a plane on a simulator. Peter is explaining to Juan the meaning of the aviation English vocabulary used for instructions when landing a plane.

From the context, try to guess what the meaning of the words/phrases in bold are. Then do the quiz at the end to check if you are right.

Peter:'So now you are approaching the airport. You'll be given instructions by the air traffic control on the simulator what you need to do to successfully land the plane. Ok?'

Juan:'Fine. It says that 'United 2667, turn left heading two eight zero'. So I suppose I have to move the plane left until I reach 280 degrees on the compass/heading indicator?'

Peter:'That's right, 'United 2667' is your plane's call sign (the name of your plane) and heading is used to say what exact compass direction you need to fly in. There's another instruction as well, slow to 200 knots. You know what that means?'

Juan:'Yes, decrease speed to 200 knots. The opposite of this is increase speed to when you are instructed to fly faster.'

Peter:'That's right. Now carry out the instructions.'

20 seconds later

Juan:'Done. Can I change the plane's altitude? We're getting close to the airport.'

Peter:'No. Maintain altitude until you are instructed to do change your altitude by the air traffic control. There may be planes above or below you. Maintain the same speed and heading as well. Don't change anything until instructed to do so.'

Juan:'There's another message from air traffic control (ATC), 'United 2667, descend to 3000, maintain heading two eight zero'. So, I go down to 3000 feet and nothing else, right?'

Peter:'Yes.'

2 minutes later

Juan:'Now, ATC are saying 'cleared for the approach'. What do I have to do?'

Peter:'It just means that you are at the correct altitude, speed and direction (heading) to land at the airport and we should start to follow the landing instructions for this airport. I have them here.'

Juan:'Ok. It also says 'contact Heathrow tower change frequency to 121.45'.'

Peter:'It basically means that you are being switched to another air traffic controller at a different air traffic control centre (at the actual airport). They will guide you to actually land the plane. Change frequency means that you have to change the radio frequency so you can actually talk to them. So, change your radio's frequency to 121.45.'

Juan:'Done.'

2 minutes later

Peter:'I think you are flying too low. You need to climb to 1500 feet.'

Juan:'Will do.'

3 minutes later

Peter:'Now you've got the message 'cleared to land'. You know what that means?'

Juan:'Of course, the ATC has given me permission to land.'

Peter:'When you are in an actual plane, you might tell the ATC first that you are ready to land the plane by saying 'United 2667, ready to land'. Then wait for their permission (by them telling you 'cleared to land').'

3 minutes later

Peter:'Perfect landing Juan. Now apply the brakes and wait for the instructions from ATC on which taxiway you need to take to leave the runway from.'

Juan:'Taxiway is the name for an exit from a runway?'

Peter:'Basically, yes. Now you have the instruction of where to go, 'United 2667, turn left on taxiway 4 left, taxi to runway 2 via Lima and Echo'.'

Juan:'So, taxi means to move the plane on the wheels?'

Peter:'Yes.'

Juan:'So, when I reach taxiway number 4 I turn left on to it. I then go to runway 2 following the markers/signs L and E?'

Peter:'Yes. Also at the end of the instructions it says 'maintain this frequency'. This means that you don't change the frequency of the radio you are communicating on.'

Juan:'That makes sense.'


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Quiz: Aviation English vocabulary - Instructions when landing

Below is a definition/description of each of the words/phrases in bold from the above text. Now choose the word/phrase from the question's selection box which you believe answers each question. Only use one word/phrase once. Click on the "Check Answers" button at the bottom of the quiz to check your answers.

When the answer is correct, two icons will appear next to the question. The first is an Additional Information Icon "". Click on this for extra information on the word/phrase and for a translation. The second is a Pronunciation Icon "". Click on this to listen to the pronunciation of the word/phrase and to do a pronunciation speaking test.


1. When air traffic control wants a pilot to decrease their speed, they will say
         

Slow to:
(verb) This is the common way used to instruct pilots to decrease/reduce the speed they are flying at. After 'slow to', the controller will say the new speed the pilot should be traveling at. For example, 'Iberia 3427, slow to 230 knots'.

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Slow to:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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2. A command given to a pilot which means they are now lined up for landing and can start to follow the procedures for landing their plane at the airport, is
         

Cleared for the approach:
(phrase) The airspace around each airport is looked after by two distinct air traffic control centres, the airport's control tower (normally called the 'tower') and the 'Terminal Radar Approach Control' (normally called 'TRACON'). Each is responsible for both different airspace (the 'tower' for the airspace within 10 miles or so around the airport and 'TRACON' from 10 miles up to 80 or so miles) and different roles when a plane is arriving at an airport (the 'tower' for landing planes and 'TRACON' for organising/lining up the planes so they can both safely and quickly be landed at the airport).

Once the air traffic controller at TRACON has lined up the plane towards the airport at the correct speed and altitude, the plane is ready to enter the stage before actually landing, which is called 'approach'. When this happens, the controller at TRACON informs the pilot that they are 'cleared for the approach'.

At this point, the controller at TRACON hands the airplane over to the responsibility of a controller at the 'tower' (they inform the pilot to change the frequency of their radio, so they are in contact with a controller at the 'tower'). After this, in combination with direct instructions with a controller in the 'tower', the pilot will follow the approach and landing instructions (which are normally set and on a document they have with them).

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Cleared for the approach:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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3. When a plane moves on its wheels around the airport (after landing and before take-offs), this movement is called
         

Taxi:
(verb) 'taxi' is the name for the movement that a plane makes by itself on its wheels whilst on the ground. Normally, 'taxi' is used in instructions given by the air traffic control to a pilot to tell them where they should go whilst on the ground. For example 'United 2667, taxi to terminal 1 via foxtrot(F)'.

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Taxi:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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4. What a pilot says to air traffic control when they want final permission to actually land the plane on the runway they have been assigned, is
         

Ready to land:
(phrase) This phrase is used when a pilot informs air traffic control that they are both ready and want to receive permission to actually land their plane. If permission is given, air traffic control would respond by saying 'cleared to land'.

Often before a pilot has the need to say 'ready to land', air traffic control will inform them that they are 'cleared to land'. So there is no need to say 'ready to land' (because they already have clearance to do so).

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Ready to land:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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5. The name both air traffic controllers and pilots call/refer to planes (e.g. Iberia 7329) when communicating between each other, is called the
         

Call sign:
(noun) The 'call sign' is a naming convention used for planes which air traffic control and pilots use when communicating (to make sure instructions are given to the right plane etc...). The 'call sign' is often the first thing said when any communication is made between a plane and air traffic control (e.g. 'Iberia 7329, turn right to heading 145').

The 'call sign' is made up of a combination of letters and numbers (with letters starting first). Normally for commercial airlines the 'call sign' begins with the company name (e.g. United) or an abbreviation (e.g. 'AWI' for 'Air Wisconsin'). For non-commercial planes, the call sign will probably start with the type of plane it is (e.g. 'cessna' ). After this for both, it is followed by four or five numbers (e.g. 'United 7749').

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Call sign:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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6. The instruction used to tell a pilot to stay on the same radio channel they are using to communicate with air traffic control, is
         

Maintain this frequency:
(phrase) During a flight, a plane will be looked after by various different air traffic control centres (the airports' control towers (normally called the 'tower'), the 'Terminal Radar Approach Control' (normally called 'TRACON') associated to the airports and various different Area Control Centres (ACC) during the main part of the flight). As a result, a pilot will be in radio contact with numerous different air traffic controllers.

When the monitoring of a flight is transferred to a new air traffic controller, the pilot will be instructed to 'change frequency to'. The pilot will then change the frequency of their communication radio to the one they have been given (for example, 'United 4531, change frequency to 121.45').

If no change is necessary, air traffic control may tell the pilot 'maintain this frequency'. This command is commonly used when a plane is on the ground at an airport (where different controllers often perform different roles, e.g. one for moving the planes along the ground and another for take-offs and landings).

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Maintain this frequency:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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7. When you are given permission to actually land your plane at an airport, air traffic control will tell you
         

Cleared to land:
(phrase) This instruction is used by air traffic control to tell the pilot of a plane that they have been given clearance/permission to land it on the assigned runway. Once a pilot has received this permission, they follow the final procedures for landing the plane from where they are (like reducing speed and altitude, lining up with the runway, lowering landing gear etc...).

Although this instruction is normally given when the plane is very close to the airport, it can be given at any time during the approach to the airport.

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Cleared to land:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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8. When air traffic control wants a pilot to increase the altitude their plane is flying at, they will say
         

Climb to:
(verb) This is the commonly used way to instruct a pilot to increase the altitude that they are flying at. After 'climb to', the air traffic controller will say the new altitude the pilot should be traveling at. For example, 'Iberia 3427, climb to 8,000'.

Close

Climb to:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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9. The instruction used to tell a pilot to change the radio channel they are using to communicate with air traffic control, is
         

Change frequency to:
(phrase) During a flight, a plane will be looked after by various different air traffic control centres (the airports' control towers (normally called the 'tower'), the 'Terminal Radar Approach Control' (normally called 'TRACON') associated to the airports and various different Area Control Centres (ACC) during the main part of the flight). As a result, a pilot will be in radio contact with numerous different air traffic controllers.

The instruction 'change frequency to' is used to inform a pilot that they are being transferred to another air traffic controller. The pilot will then change the frequency of their communication radio to the one they have been given (for example, 'United 4531, change frequency to 121.45'). They will continue on that radio frequency until instructed to change by the new air traffic controller.

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Change frequency to:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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10. In an airport, the name for the roads for planes which connect the runways and terminals together, is
         

Taxiway:
(noun) A 'taxiway' is the name for the roads/paths used by planes in an airport to move between the runways, ramps, hangars, terminals and other facilities. To help pilots move their planes around the airport, 'taxiways' have different marking (e.g. a yellow line) from other parts of the airport (e.g. runways). They also have signs to indicate both what 'taxiway' it is and to help with directions (e.g. to go to a specific terminal or gate).

To find out more about 'taxiways', click here.

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Taxiway:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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11. When air traffic control wants a pilot to raise their speed (travel quicker), they will say
         

Increase speed to:
(phrase) This is the commonly used way to instruct a pilot to increase/raise the speed they are flying at. After 'increase speed to', the air traffic controller will say the new speed the pilot should be traveling at. For example, 'Iberia 3427, increase speed to 230 knots'.

'increase your speed to' is often used by air traffic control instead.

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Increase speed to:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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12. The direction in which a plane is flying in, is called the
         

Heading:
(noun) 'heading' is the term used for the compass direction which a plane is flying in. When air traffic control wants a plane to change direction, it will first say what direction it wants the plane to turn (e.g. 'turn left'), then say 'heading' followed by the numerical compass direction (e.g. 180 for south, 090 for east etc...) that it wants the plane to fly on. For example, 'Iberia 3427, turn right heading 260'.

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Heading:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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13. When air traffic control wants a pilot to decrease the altitude their plane is flying at, they will say
         

Descend to:
(verb) This is the commonly used way to instruct a pilot to decrease the altitude that they are flying at. After 'descend to', the air traffic controller will say the new altitude the pilot should be traveling at. For example, 'Iberia 3427, descend to 10,000'.

Close

Descend to:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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14. When air traffic control wants a pilot to continue to fly at the same altitude they currently are, they will say
         

Maintain altitude:
(phrase) 'maintain' is the command used by air traffic control to tell a pilot not change something (i.e. do something the same as they are currently doing). 'maintain' is commonly used with 'altitude', 'speed' and 'heading'. For example, 'United 7749, maintain heading'.

Sometimes, air traffic control will clarify at what speed, altitude or heading they want the pilot to continue on at the end of sentence. For example, 'United 7749, maintain heading at 260'.

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Maintain altitude:

Pronunciation Speaking Test:
To check your pronunciation of this word/phrase, first click on the microphone icon () below. Then allow the browser to record your voice and then say the above word/phrase. Although this test is good, it sometimes does not recognise some of the words/phrases.

       

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Practice

Now that you understand the English aviation vocabulary for landing a plane, practise it yourself. You could also watch a youtube video of air traffic controllers talking to pilots during a landing or an approach.

Useful Links

Apart from the other aviation English exercises on my website, there are some other (but not many) useful free online resources for improving your aviation English vocabulary. Below are links to these web pages:


Blair English online classes