As I understand it (I'm not a pilot), radio communications are a more-or-less first come first served proposition. If I'm in busy airspace with near constant communication between ATC & aircraft, how do I break in to make contact with the ATC for whatever purpose necessary (establishing comms to enter airspace, or whatever the situation may be)?

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    $\begingroup$ Listen for a gap, or try to anticipate it, jump in, be quick, and get back off. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Mar 28, 2016 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ Start shouting that there is an emergency. $\endgroup$
    – Phantomazi
    Mar 31, 2016 at 13:19

3 Answers 3


As Ron commented, the basic answer is that you try to anticipate when a short gap is going to be, and jump on before someone else does. It sounds a bit daunting, but it actually works out pretty well in practice.

That being said, it's not exactly first come first serve. ATC tends to prioritize talking to the aircraft which need the most immediate instructions. So, an aircraft on final is going to get more priority than one which hasn't even entered the airspace yet. Even if you manage to get your request in, if the controller has a more immediate issue to address, you may get completely ignored. Sometimes they'll come back with "calling approach, say again" or sometimes you just have to try again later.

Either way, it's usually not too difficult to stay out of trouble long enough to get someone's attention. If you're IFR or have already made initial contact, you can probably just continue on your path and you'll eventually become a big enough priority for them that they'll call you if you still haven't a chance to get a word in. If you're VFR and haven't made initial contact, you can probably just avoid the airspace for a few minutes.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, all! I give Bret the nod for the awesome first name, and for garnering the most upvotes. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Mar 29, 2016 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ @FreeMan what's so special about my name? $\endgroup$ Mar 29, 2016 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ @BretCopeland I'd wager FreeMan's real name is Bret. ;-P $\endgroup$
    – SnakeDoc
    Mar 29, 2016 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ @SnakeDoc - winner, winner, chicken dinner! :) With 2 "t"s though. :) $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Mar 29, 2016 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ Sometimes if it's really crazy and you're VFR, you end up circling just outside the airspace waiting to make the call. :-) $\endgroup$ Mar 29, 2016 at 16:19

Key up the mic and state:

  1. Who you're contacting (e.g. Seattle Approach)
  2. Who you are (e.g. Skyhawk 1234)
  3. Where you are (e.g. 5 west of Bremerton)
  4. Your altitude (e.g. 5500)
  5. Your request (e.g. VFR flight following to Renton)

If the frequency is really busy, some people will substitute #3, 4, 5 with "request" (e.g. "Seattle Approach, Skyhawk 1234, VFR request"). Once the controller responds the remaining details can be filled in.

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    $\begingroup$ I think its important to mention that you should say "VFR request" in these circumstances in order to reduce ATC's workload. When you first call up and say your tail number and 'request', the first thing the controller has to do is decide if he is required to provide separation services for you. By saying "VFR request", you are letting him know that you are maintaining visual separation, and he will appreciate it. $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Mar 29, 2016 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ The trick is to let them know that you want to talk to them as efficiently as possible. That way, they can ask you when they're ready for you. $\endgroup$ Mar 30, 2016 at 0:32

The first thing to get clear is: who are we talking to here? a tower? an ARTCC? what?

In my experience the biggest problem can be trying to reach a busy tower for a small or medium-sized airport. In other situations, usually ATC calls you, not the other way around. For example, if you request vectoring, you only have to do it once; after that they call you.

If you are trying to reach a tower and they are tied up, it can be a real problem because as you get closer to the airport you need an answer. In one or two cases I have actually had to circle to wait for some chat head to shut up so I could talk to the tower and get instructions for an approach.

Commercial flights have this problem less because they are operating on filed flight plans, so the tower is ready and waiting for them.

Another serious problem is when you are in the pattern on downwind and the tower is too busy to give you a landing clearance. In this situation all you can do is to keep flying downwind. Sometimes it gets ridiculous. I have flown literally miles downwind waiting for clearance to turn onto final, which then turns into this loooooong 5 mile final.

If you fly downwind too far, you might even have to leave the pattern completely and start the whole process all over again, although this has never happened to me.


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