Before takeoff, during flight, before landing and for taxiing, pilots are given several instructions by ATC.

Do they mentally remember all instructions? Or do they note them down somewhere such as in a notebook so that they do not forget?

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    $\begingroup$ I write them on my knee board. Sometimes the instructions are long enough or complex enough that I literally have to just shut off my brain and WRITE what I'm hearing (as opposed to processing it while I listen). Then of course we have to read them back, so that's a double check that we got it down correctly. I'm still a relatively low time pilot, so maybe at some point I'll be proficient enough to do it without writing it down, but not yet. I've also started developing my own "shorthand" I guess. I have symbols (like arrows and things) that represent common phrases. $\endgroup$
    – Calphool
    Feb 24, 2015 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Calphool -- expand that into an answer, and I'll upvote you for it :) $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2015 at 2:46
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    $\begingroup$ What pilots do depends greatly on the circumstances. For example, if you're flying 6 to 8 legs a day for a commuter airline, you'll find yourself doing it from memory as you pretty much get the same clearance every time. Even flying internationally back in the 1990s, we had what had been filed for us on our paper flight plans. When we got the clearance, we'd just note any differences, which back then at least there usually weren't. Of course, always have paper handy in case they throw something strange at you. See aviationchatter.com/2009/09/…. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Feb 25, 2015 at 3:54
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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, sometimes pilots really do get priorities wrong (not trying to hate on you here, @Calphool), and forget to fly the aircraft while listening or talking to ATC. One of the most imporant rules of flying is aviate, navigat, communicate, in that order! It pisses ATC of when you don't get it right the first time, and that is unfortunate, but I try to not forget to fly the aircraft when writing stuff down, and most of the time I dont write it down, because writing an ILS approach clearance when you are about to intercept the localizer (high workload) just makes you forget other stuff! $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2015 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ I don't feel like it's ignoring "aviate, navigate, communicate" to use a knee board and write things down. What I'm saying is that between splitting time watching out the window and dealing with a clearance or new vector on the radio, sometimes I don't have time to "process" what I just wrote down until after I've written it -- as I'm reading it back... anyway, Martha and John King use a knee board, so all you knee board haters can stick that in your pipe and smoke it. :-) $\endgroup$
    – Calphool
    Feb 25, 2015 at 20:59

2 Answers 2


It depends. Some instructions are really simple and with a little practice, are very easy to remember.

Runway 27 right, line-up and wait
Turn left heading 250, descend flight level 120.

Other ones will be so common, they are just remembered:

Taxi to Gate 1 via Alpha, Alpha 1, Lima 3, cross runway 24, hold short Delta.

But this is where the danger creeps in. It is possible, and has happened, that the crew think they heard something but actually, the instruction was different today.

Taxi to Gate 1 via Alpha, Alpha 3, cross runway 24, hold short Delta.

The prudent crew will write it down. Large aircraft have tables, or boards clipped to the control column on which to write taxi clearances, complex airways clearances and so on.

In some large aircraft, many light aircraft and in helicopters, pilots might wear a kneeboard to write instructions on. It is a minor advantage to me that I am left handed and as a helicopter pilot, this means that my kneeboard is on my left leg where I can easily write without taking my hand off the cyclic and having it right next to the collective.

TSGT LANCE CHEUNG, USAF. - This Image was released by the United States Air Force with the ID DF-SD-01-07429

TSGT LANCE CHEUNG, USAF. - This Image was released by the United States Air Force with the ID DF-SD-01-07429

Most instructions come in the same order, every flight. For example, here is a simplified list. This happens every time so the crew know what's coming next, what it will likely contain, and how to respond:

  1. Clearance for the flight plan.
  2. Permission to start and push back.
  3. Taxi instructions.
  4. Departure instructions.
  5. Take off clearance.
  6. Hand-off from departure controller to area controller. etc etc.

Note that any instruction which will cause the aircraft to change it's configuration or location must be repeated. The controller then also gets to check they've got it right. This includes things like speed, direction or altitude changes, taxi and departure instructions, frequency and squawk changes etc.

There are also some words which are only ever used at certain times, e.g. "takeoff" is only ever said when an aircraft is cleared to take off. For example, "ready for departure" tells the controller that the aircraft is prepared to take off immediately. The crew should not say "ready for takeoff".

You can sometimes hear a pilot receiving a long instruction, start to read it back, pause, then ask for a repeat. Very frustrating when you are sitting there waiting to get your request in. You just know they thought they could remember it, but didn't. Write it down if it's anything except a simple instruction or clearance.

Here's an example of a complex one.

SuperAir 123, cleared to Barcelona via vector departure, fly runway track, climb altitude 5000ft, after passing 2000ft turn right direct Hamm VOR, route as filed, squawk 1234, information Alpha current, startup approved

The crew might write it down like this. Each pilot develops their own preferred shorthand:

VD RWY TRK 5000 / 2000+ RT HMM / SQ1234 ALPHA / SU

Very brief since they know what each part is and the order they come in.

Since it contains instructions, the crew will then read it back.

Cleared Barcelona via vector departure, runway track 5000ft, after passing 2000ft right direct Hamm, squawk 1234, Alpha on-board, startup approved. SuperAir 123.

Finally, a good reason to write stuff down is because sometimes (and we've all been there), you think you remember, then turn round to your co-pilot 2 minutes later and ask "what was that altitude?".

Here's a great example of someone who didn't have a pen and an approach to writing down clearances.

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    $\begingroup$ Why can't they just email or sms that kind of stuff... or bring it up in a screen like a GPS guide in the car. is it asking too much? $\endgroup$
    – Firee
    Feb 25, 2015 at 6:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Firee Because using emails or SMS is too static, these items can change at short notice. You can receive some clearances through CPLDC, but quick changes are done over the frequency again. $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2015 at 7:07
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    $\begingroup$ I don't get it. If the pilots have to write them down anyway, it would be much more efficient to just digitally wire and display them… $\endgroup$
    – o0'.
    Feb 25, 2015 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Lohoris This is already being done, but only where the instructions do not require immediate action and readback. Check out CPLDC or Pre-Departure Clearances (PDC). This is essentially a digital system which relays information, but does not require immediate action. A clearance you can issue this way, but imagine you would want to instruct a go-around with such a system. This would be too time-critical. $\endgroup$ Feb 25, 2015 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Lohoris It's not that simple. Radio works really well (so why replace it?) and one of the really important benefits is that it's not just you who hears the instruction and responds. Everyone else hears it too which is important to maintain "situational awareness". I once spent a lot of time looking for an aircraft I knew was (wrongly) heading straight for me at about the same altitude because they ignored the fact that the controller had already told them that the airfield I was at had no "deadside". $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Feb 25, 2015 at 11:41

The lengthiest instruction is a clearance. A common mnemonic for that is CRAFT for clearance limit, route of flight, initial altitude, departure frequency, and transponder code. If I'm not getting a clearance via ACARS I'd jot CRAFT (vertically) down on a the dispatch paperwork (or a kneeboard if I'm flying recreationaly) and write the relevant parts of the clearance next to the letters.

For many other instructions if not very short I'll use the FMS as a scratchpad for shorthand notation. For example for an instruction like "Taxi runway 27 via W, M, S, K hold short B" I'd write 27 WMSK/B. Similarly for an instruction like "Cross SWEET at 7000" I'd write SWEET/7 or /7000 (the latter of which I could then put in the FMS for VNAV guidance).

  • $\begingroup$ I write CRAFT, too, and leave a few lines for Route of flight $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Mar 15, 2015 at 18:03

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