Can you hear me now: How pilots communicate with ATC while 35,000 feet in the air

When you’re in a sealed, pressurised tube five miles above the ground, being able to communicate effectively is essential. In the early days of aviation, flags and light signals were used before designers were able to fit basic radio equipment into aircraft.

Modern aircraft now have an array of communication devices from the rudimentary HF radios of old to sophisticated satellite-based systems that enable us to talk almost as if we were on a mobile phone.

VHF radios

How it works

The most common form of communication in aviation, very high frequency (VHF) radio calls are what we use for around 95% of our communications with ATC. In simplified terms, the transmitting station sends a signal that travels in a straight line and is picked up by the receiving station.

VHF comms provide clear voice communications. However, as the radio signals travel in straight lines, they are limited by the curvature of the earth and objects that they may come into contact with, such as hills and mountains.

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