aviation lingo

Like any specialty, aviation has it’s own vocabulary that rolls off the tongue for those who are in-the-know but is like a foreign language to those who aren’t. That can make it difficult for someone new to aviation to understand what’s being said until up-to-speed on the lingo. You’ll also find that aviators really like abbreviations. That word you hear a pilot saying that doesn’t sound like a word may actually be an abbreviation.

In order to help those who don’t speak the language, this post is a dictionary of aviation lingo. As posts use aviation-specific words, I’ll link them here for the definition. This post will also be a living document of sorts – as I use lingo that isn’t here, I’ll come back an add it.

So here it is, your aviation translator.

AGL (above ground level): Altitudes are aviation are given two ways “above ground level” and “mean sea level”. AGL altitudes are exactly what they sound like, feet above the actual surface. If your airport elevation is 1,000 above sea level and you want to fly at a standard traffic pattern altitude of 1,000 AGL, you’ll be flying 1,000 feet above the ground and your altimeter will read 2,000 feet.

ATC (Air Traffic Control): Our favorite people. Air traffic controllers include people who are keeping an eye out for us on the ground, giving us clearance to take off or land, and providing us with separation and traffic reports while in the air. We communicate with them via radio on pre-defined frequencies. This group of people if vital to our ability to navigate busy air space. The can see our airplane and all of the others on radar and are keeping an eye on us.

ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service): This is a broadcast recording of information for a specific air space. When you listen to the ATIS you will hear the TAF and any NOTAMs for the airspace. You will also hear any additional ephemeral information that you need to know about the airport. The ATIS is updated regularly. Every time an updated ATIS is issued it will be defined by a letter in alphabetically order. When flying to or from an airport that has an ATIS, listen to the ATIS to get important information for you flight. When talking to ATC they will want to know that you have listened to this important information. You will let them know you have by telling them the letter of the ATIS you have listened to. If there is an updated ATIS since the one you listened to, ATC will often provide you with the differences that are in the most recent.

FAA (Federal Aviation Administration): The FAA is the government agency in the United States that regulates all civil aviation. These are the people who set the rules that we follow.

FBO (fixed-base operator): If you land at an airport and you are headed to the FBO, you are going to the place where you can tie-down the airplane, get fuel, use the restroom, etc. This facility is on the airport grounds and is often run and managed by a company that is independent from the airport.

METAR: The weather and meteorological conditions at the airport. The METAR will include wind speed and direction, visibility distance, cloud altitude(s), air temperature (in Celsius), dew point (in Celsius), atmospheric pressure (in inches Hg), and any other relevant weather information. Something to remember is that the cloud altitude in the METAR are given in AGL.

Squawk Code: This code is a four digit numeric code assigned to an aircraft by air traffic control. The pilot inputs the assigned code into a small instrument on the dashboard of the airplane, that instrument transmits the code, and (secondary) radar picks up the code. This allows the four digit code to show up next to the airplane’s little dot on the radar back at ATC. Having a squawk code next to each dot on the radar allows ATC to quickly identify who they need to talk to.

TAF (terminal area forecast): Like the METAR, the TAF gives you weather and meteorological conditions at the airport but the TAF is the future forecast, not the current weather.

TFR (temporary flight restriction): The FAA issues flight restrictions that prevent pilots from entering certain air spaces for various reasons. Temporary flight restrictions can be issues over sporting events, when there are dangers below that could affect pilots (I’ve seen a TFR issued for controlled explosion that a local agency had planned on the ground), when dignitaries (like POTUS) are in the area. They are for any reason that the FAA does not want you flying in the area. TFRs are temporary are for specific time periods. Make sure you check for TFRs along your route. You do not want to fly into or through a TFR when it is active. You’ll need to answer to the FAA if you do fly into that air space.

TPA (traffic pattern altitude): When flying in the traffic pattern at an airport, you typically fly at 1,000 feet AGL. Therefore traffic pattern altitude is typically the airport field elevation plus 1,000. Not all airports follow this rule. Some airports have a specifically defined altitude for flying the traffic pattern. Make sure you verify the traffic pattern airport for any airport you are flying at.


Didn’t find the term you were looking for? Please leave me a comment below and I’ll add it to the list.

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