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In the U.S., general aviation aircraft use the airplane type with the callsign when talking to ATC, such as "Skyhawk 123CS" or "Citation 321CT". ATC likes to know what type of airplane you're flying so they know how what its performance is.

It gets complicated with airplanes like the Cessna Corvalis, which is a Cessna (formerly Columbia) but it is faster than a Cirrus and can fly an approach at 200 kts if required. So what would the callsign of a Corvalis be? "Corvalis 123TT" or "Columbia 123TT"? I doubt it would be "Cessna 123TT".

Is there an official (or unofficial) list of airplane types to use when talking to controllers?

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    $\begingroup$ FWIW, it's not only for ATC, it's useful information for other pilots on frequency too. In a C182 I once landed at an uncontrolled airport behind a Citabria, announcing myself as "Cessna". I met the Citabria pilot in the FBO and he said "I thought you said twin Cessna, that's why I kept my pattern so tight". Since then I've said "Skylane" :-) $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Mar 17 '18 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Pondlife -- no kidding: imagine being in a Citation and going "Cessna Two Echo Bravo" only to find out everyone was thinking you were a C172, not a jet! $\endgroup$ – UnrecognizedFallingObject Mar 17 '18 at 19:37
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I couldn't find any specific guidance on this, the AIM 4-2-4(a)(3) just says (emphasis mine):

Civil aircraft pilots should state the aircraft type, model or manufacturer’s name, followed by the digits/letters of the registration number. When the aircraft manufacturer’s name or model is stated, the prefix “N” is dropped; e.g., Aztec Two Four Six Four Alpha.

See also the ATC orders 2-4-21 for the controllers' side. It doesn't give any information either on where to find type and model information and the examples suggest that precision isn't very important:

EXAMPLE
“Tri−Pacer.”
“P A Twenty−Two.”
“Cessna Four−Oh−One.”
“Blue and white King Air.”
“Airliner.”
“Sikorsky S−Seventy−Six.”

If "airliner" is an acceptable identifier then anything is :-)

As you said, you can comply with the AIM simply by saying "Cessna", whether you're in a 120 or a 750. But what about experimental aircraft, or a type that the controller just doesn't know?

Personally, I think this is a practical issue rather than a formal one. If it was critical for ATC to know the performance of every aircraft then flight plans would be mandatory. As it is, both controllers and pilots rely on their working knowledge of aircraft types and the system just works. The big, fast aircraft are mostly IFR anyway so the controllers already know what to expect; the small, slow ones can all do 80-100 knots in the pattern and the controllers don't need to worry about them much.

In the unusual cases where a specific aircraft type's performance might be an issue, the pilot can always work it out with the controllers:

  • N12345, Louisville Approach, I need your best forward speed on the approach, can you give me 120 knots?1
  • Bowman Tower, N12345, we're a warbird, I need a minimum 90 knots in the pattern and request an overhead break for runway 242

1Real example, and no I couldn't
2Also a real example, but sadly not me flying

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  • $\begingroup$ I wonder if the author's use of "Airliner" in the AIM was meant to refer to the Beech 99 Airliner, or some generic transport category aircraft (presumably jet powered) operated by an air carrier in scheduled service? $\endgroup$ – J Walters Mar 18 '18 at 11:09
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They can be found in FAA Order JO 7360.1C - Aircraft Type Designators

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    $\begingroup$ Nope. Those are written designators for filing flight plans. This question is about spoken identifiers on the radio. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Mar 17 '18 at 22:57

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