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How do the pilot and copilot of a large commercial jet operate the radio when talking to ATC? Is there a push-to-talk button, or some voice-triggered mechanism?

Also, how do they coordinate it? How do they decide which pilot should be talking to ATC?

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  • $\begingroup$ There is less radio work than you might expect. It's only really significant in the busy phases of the flight when the will be a clear agreement, acknowledged by both crew, who is PF and who is PNF and who will work the radio traffic. $\endgroup$ – Simon Jul 27 '15 at 21:44
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Both yokes have PTT buttons. Generally one person is in charge of the communications. In military aircraft that is often the task of the navigator in twin crew airplanes. I would think it generally falls on the pilot not flying the aircraft although both should be listening to the instructions.

The switch is on the front of the yoke (reverse side from what the pilot sees) and is generally triggered with the left index finger. Here is a pic from a yoke for reference. Note the button on the left upper part labeled "mic".
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source

I have never seen it (but then again there are many radios I have not seen) but some radios may have a VOX (voice-operated transmit) option which would bypass the PTT. This however would be very irritating on the channels since there are lots of planes on a single frequency talking to the tower.

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  • $\begingroup$ Okay but how do they designate who that one person is? $\endgroup$ – DrZ214 Jul 27 '15 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ They talk before the flight. They decide who will be pilot flying and who will be pilot monitoring, which often does radio operation as well. If they wanted to toss coins to determine who does what, they could! :) $\endgroup$ – SentryRaven Jul 27 '15 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ AFAIK, there are no voice activated PTTs. The problem is, how would the system distinguish between inter-crew comms as those meant for the facility you're working? A button is also a very positive thing. It's hard to get it wrong. I did once fly as talking ballast in a small helicopter which although it had PTTs, both milkes were live when either was pressed. I found that out when I swore quite loudly as a plank driver just missed us in the circuit, as the PF called "downwind". It was a "tea and no biscuits" chat with the ATCO when we landed :) $\endgroup$ – Simon Jul 27 '15 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ Im not sure of any VOX systems. The only one I can think of is the VOX system on the Apollo rocket that was installed due to pilot work load. $\endgroup$ – Dave Jul 28 '15 at 2:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Dave See here. $\endgroup$ – SentryRaven Jul 28 '15 at 7:15
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The headsets worn by each flight crew member typically feed into an integrated comms/cockpit voice recorder system, where whoever is wearing a headset (and the CVR) will always hear:

  • anyone else wearing a headset,
  • the frequency(cies) being monitored on the comm stack, and
  • the flight attendant handsets (if active and patched to the flight deck).

There is then a PTT button for each headset (usually on the yoke for pilots, back when there was a flight engineer his was a button on his desk or clipped to his uniform) allowing transmission on the selected COM frequency. In simpler systems the entire "cockpit loop" is transmitted, while more complex radio systems provide degrees of isolation so other members of the flight crew can talk while the radio is open.

As far as who talks to ATC, that's usually worked out between the members of the flight crew, so it can vary between flight crews and also depends on the phase of flight, which one is the pilot flying etc. In some crews the pilot flying is also the pilot talking, while in other crews the pilot not flying (if not on "in-seat rest") will handle secondary tasks including navigation and radio.

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On Boeing airplanes, flight duties are divided in PF (Pilot Flying) and PM (Pilot Monitoring). This duties are defined at the beginning of the flight because it determine the "area of responsibility" for each pilot during all the flight or for phases of flight (for example: Captain can be PF during taxi and PM during the rest of the phases of flight).

In general, the area of responsibility for the PM, include the duty of COMMUNICATIONS, so this pilot is the one responsible for talking on the radio.

During the cockpit preparation the Captain determine which pilot will be the PF and the PM for the flight (or for the each phase of flight), so in that way every crewmember knows what are their duties, and who is going to be in charge of the radio.

I don't know the exact terms for PF and PM for other type of aircraft (I think that for AIRBUS is Pilot Flying and Pilot Not Flying) but I think this flight duty division works for all types...

Hope this helps...

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Many airplanes, large & small, have 2 (or more) radios that can be used individually via intercom settings. Thus the pilot may be talking to or monitoring Center/Approach/Tower, while the Copilot monitors ATIS/AWOS/ASOS and gathering the weather, altimeter, runway in use, or talking to the FBO for parking arrangements after landing, or talking to Company for parking gate assignment/changes, etc. So it's not strictly one pilot on one radio only.

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