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Aviation Acronyms and Terminology for Drone Pilots
As it the case with any other specialized field of endeavor, a huge body of acronyms, abbreviations, and slang has evolved around aviation.
Some of this terminology applies as much to drone pilots as to any other pilots, and some of it doesn't.
As drone pilots become more accepted by and integrated into the larger family of pilots, however, it's handy to know the lingo even if only so you can understand what's being said in a conversation with other people who love aviation.
This page explains some of the aviation slang that drone pilots are likely to hear when reading FAA documents or aviation-related magazines, consulting general aviation study materials, or just hanging around with other pilots. If you come across a term that I missed, please contact me so I can include and explain it in a future revision.
A&P / AMT. A fully-certificated Aircraft Mechanic (also known as an Aviation Maintenance Technician) will posses two ratings: one for Airframe, and one for Powerplant. A person possessing both ratings is known as an A&P.
ADM / Aeronautical Decision Making. The process of making decisions to further the safe completion of a flight, often in the face of changing conditions.
AGL / Above Ground Level. The distance between the aircraft and the ground immediately under it.
AIM. The Aeronautical Information Manual (formerly called the Airmen's Information Manual). This is the FAA's most basic publication of information for aviators. It includes information about airports, communications procedures and radio frequencies, FAA-provided services such as Air Traffic Control and Flight Service Stations, and a great many other things aviation-related. It's something every pilot operating in U.S. airspace really should have.
Airframe. In conventional aircraft, every part of the aircraft except its engine or means of propulsion, accessories directly associated with the engine (such as magnetos), or avionics. Also the rating issued by the FAA to mechanics who are certificated to work on an aircraft's airframe.
For electrically-powered drones, it's common for the entire aircraft, including its motors, but not including the gimbal or camera, to be referred to as the airframe.
Airman / Airmen. Any person certificated by the FAA to do something related to aviation. This includes both pilots and airmen who work on the ground, such as mechanics, dispatchers, and parachute riggers. Eventually will be replaced with a gender-neutral term. My bet is on "aviators."
Airspace. The navigable area between the ground and outer space. Does not include the insides of buildings or other areas not generally accessible by aircraft while in flight. It's further categorized into operational classes, and in the United States is regulated by the FAA as the National Airspace System.
Airspeed. The speed at which the aircraft is traveling through the air, with reference to the air. In other words, the speed at which the air is passing over the aircraft, irrespective of the aircraft's speed with reference to the ground.
Altimeter. The instrument that measures an aircraft's altitude. When spoken by an Air Traffic Controller or in an ATIS / AWOS recording, it refers to the current barometric pressure. Pilots enter this number into their altimeters to correct for current weather conditions.
Altitude. An aircraft's height above the surface of the earth, measured with respect to either mean sea level or to the ground below it, depending on the nature of the flight and the purpose of the measurement.
Altitude Hold Function. A feature on some drones that keeps the drone flying at the same altitude, while allowing the pilot to control the other aspects of the drone's flight.
AMU / Aviation Maintenance Unit. Pilot slang for a thousand U.S. dollars. When a pilot says he paid five AMU's for something, he means five thousand dollars. It's a reference to the high cost of maintaining an airplane.
ARF / Almost Ready to Fly. A drone that requires minimal assembly or preparation before you can fly it.
ASL / Above MSL / Above Mean Sea Level. The distance between the aircraft and the average level of the sea, even while flying over land.
Ascend / Ascent. Increasing the aircraft's altitude (going up).
ATC / Air Traffic Control. The FAA service that coordinates air traffic and maintains flight safety by monitoring and directing air traffic within an assigned area. Drone pilots flying under Part 107 typically do not interact directly with ATC except in emergencies.
ATIS / Automated Terminal Information Services. An automated, continuous broadcast of information regarding conditions at a specific airport that can be tuned in on an aviation radio transceiver. Typically includes the active runway, wind speed, altimeter settings, and any unusual procedures or conditions at the airport such as a right-hand pattern, a closed taxiway, or the presence of large numbers of birds.
Pilots requesting clearances typically check ATIS first, and then report that they have done so by quoting the letter assigned to the current message when requesting the clearance. For example, a pilot who has checked Information Romeo will say, "Have information Romeo" or "with Romeo" when requesting the clearance.
Auger. Pilot slang for crashing an airplane, referring to the propeller augering a hole in the ground.
Avionics. Collectively, all electronics devices that are used in aircraft.
AWOS / Automated Weather Observing System. An automated system that provides localized, real-time weather information to aviators.
Base / Base Leg. The part of an airport traffic pattern immediately before final. An aircraft on base is traveling in a direction perpendicular to the runway from the downwind leg to final.
BNF / Bind and Fly. A bind and fly drone is sold without a controller. You must bind to your own compatible controller in order to fly it.
Bust / Busting / Busted. Unauthorized entry into controlled airspace. For example, "They got me for busting Bravo."
CAVU / Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited. Describes flying conditions in which the visibility is at least 10 statute miles and the ceiling is at least 10,000 feet. Often used by pilots as slang for "good to go" or as an expression of best wishes.
Certificate / Certificated. What most people call a license, the FAA calls a certificate. Pilots, therefore, are technically certificated rather than licensed. The two terms are used interchangeably by all but the most pedantic and annoying pilots.
Most certificates are issued with ratings that define the specific privileges of the certificate holder.
CFI / Certified Flight Instructor. A person certificated by the FAA to provide in-flight instruction in flying, to grant certain endorsements, and to conduct flight reviews. CFIs are also allowed to provide ground instruction.
CGI / Certified Ground Instructor. A person certificated by the FAA to provide ground instruction, but not in-flight instruction.
Chart. An aeronautical chart is basically a map of the airspace showing airports, airspace classes, radio frequencies, obstructions, and other items of importance to aviators while in flight. The National Airspace System is divided into sections, each of which has its own Sectional Chart.
Charts are available in paper or digital form. I prefer the paper sectional charts because they can be used even where there is no mobile data. Either is acceptable to the FAA, however.
Pilot Institute offers a course in Airspace and Charts if you need some help understanding charts. You can also download or purchase the FAA's Aeronautical Chart User's Guide. One way or the other, you'll need to understand charts to pass your Part 107 exam.
Checkride / Check Ride. The practical flight tests that Part 61 pilots take to earn their pilot certificates or to add ratings.
Cinematic Drone. A cinematic drone is designed for high-quality video recording and is equipped with a precision stabilized gimbal and a high-end camera.
Controlled Airspace. Airspace within which aircraft are subject to direct control by ATC and other restrictions. Pilot Institute offers a course in Airspace and Charts if you're having a hard time understanding airspace classes and operational rules.
Clearance. Permission from ATC to carry out some action, such as taking off or landing.
Crosswind. Wind coming from a direction left or right of the aircraft that tends to push it to the left or right.
Crosswind Leg. When doing pattern practice or after aborting a landing and going around, this is the leg of the pattern following takeoff at which the pilot will turn perpendicular to the runway and re-enter the downwind leg.
CTAF / Common Traffic Advisory Frequency. The frequency assigned to an airport on which pilots can communicate with each other if the airport is non-towered, or during hours when the tower is not in operation at a towered airport.
It's good practice for drone pilots operating near airports to monitor the CTAF frequency using an aviation transceiver or an aviation-band scanner. Other than in emergency situations (for example, a flyaway drone), drone pilots typically don't (and shouldn't) transmit on the aviation band.
Use of an aviation transceiver to transmit, other than while in a crewed aircraft, requires that the pilot obtain a Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit from the FCC. As of the time of this revision, flying a properly-registered sUAV does not relieve a pilot of the FCC licensing requirements.
No FCC license is needed to use a scanner, or to use a transceiver to listen.
DA / Density Altitude. The air density at a given place calculated from the pressure altitude, adjusted for non-standard temperature, and expressed in feet above MSL.
One easy way for drone pilots to conceptualize density altitude is that it's what the altitude "feels like" to the drone. The drone's flight performance is based on density altitude, not actual altitude. At high density altitudes, you can expect generally sluggish performance, more difficulty ascending, and shorter battery life.
Descend / Descent. Decreasing the aircraft's altitude (going down).
Downwind Leg. The part of an airport traffic pattern during which an aircraft is traveling parallel to and off to the side of the runway, in the direction opposite that of the intended landing direction. Normally this will mean the aircraft is traveling downwind, that is, with the wind coming from behind it.
Dual / Dual Instruction / Dual Time. Time logged by a student pilot while flying with a Certified Flight Instructor.
ETA. Estimated time of arrival. When you expect to arrive.
ETD. Estimated time of departure. When you expect to leave.
ETE. Estimated time enroute. How long you expect the trip or leg of the trip to take.
FAA / Federal Aviation Administration. In the United States, the federal agency that regulates most aspects of aviation.
FARs / Federal Aviation Regulations. In the United States, the total body of rules in the Code of Federal Regulations that relate to aviation are commonly referred to as the FARs. They're usually published together in one book as part of the Aeronautical Information Manual.
FBO / Fixed Base of Operations A location on the ground where an airman or an aviation-related business exists or can officially be found or contacted. In more common use, it refers to the business at an airport where pilots can park their planes, buy fuel, drink tepid coffee, eat stale snacks, and sometimes get repairs made to their aircraft.
Final / Final Approach. The last part of an airport's traffic pattern, when the aircraft is lined up with and flying toward the runway and descending to land.
Five by Five. "The radio is working great and I can hear you like you're right next to me." Think of it like the bars on a phone.
Flight. For logging purposes, a flight begins when the aircraft taxis with the intent of flight, and ends when it is parked after the flight. For drones, motors on to motors off is a good approximation.
Flyaway. When a remote pilot is unable to effect control of the unmanned aircraft and, as a result, the unmanned aircraft is not operating in a predictable or planned manner. This term was added to the FAA Pilot / Controller Glossary in June of 2021 and may be used in official communications with ATC, other pilots, or the FAA.
FPV / First-Person View. An FPV drone is equipped with cameras that give you the ability to fly it as if you were sitting in it manipulating the controls, usually using goggles to create a virtual-reality experience. Also refers to the act of flying an FPV drone.
FSDO / Flight Standards District Office. A local office of the FAA that provides enforcement and other services to the aviation community. These are the folks who will answer all your questions about the regulations, and will come looking for you if you break them. Pronounced "FIZZ-doe."
FSS / Flight Service Station. Special ATC stations that provide weather information and other services to pilots. Typically addressed by the name of the station and the word "radio."
GA / General Aviation. In a nutshell, all of air travel other than scheduled airlines.
George. Slang for the autopilot. If a pilot says "George is flying," that means the aircraft is on autopilot.
Go-around, Going-around. Aborting a landing attempt, usually before touching the ground, and getting back in the pattern for another try. When spoken by an Air Traffic Controller, it's an instruction to the pilot to go around, usually because the runway is obstructed. When spoken by a pilot, it's a notice to ATC and everyone else in the area that he or she is aborting the landing and will be re-entering the pattern.
Ground speed. The speed of the aircraft with respect to the ground.
Heavy. An aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight of 300,000 pounds or more, except for the Airbus A380 and the Antonov AN-225, which are designated as "Super". Pilots of heavy or super aircraft are required to use those designations in their call signs (for example, "United 123 Heavy"). That's because larger aircraft generate more wake turbulence, which requires increased separation. The Boeing 757 is also designated as "heavy" even though its MTOW is less than 300,000 pounds because it generates an unusual amount of wake turbulence for its size.
IFR / Instrument Flight Rules. Flying with reference to instruments in actual or simulated poor visibility conditions. This is not allowed for Part 107 sUAS pilots.
IMC / Instrument Meteorological Conditions. Weather conditions under the minimums allowed for operation under Visual Flight Rules. Both the pilot and the aircraft must be rated to fly in IMC, permission from ATC obtained, and radar service and radio contact maintained for the duration of the flight.
Joystick. A drone controller that can be moved in ways that control flight along more than one axis is often referred to as a joystick.
Knots. A measurement of speed in nautical miles rather than statute miles. A standard nautical mile is 6,076 feet in length.
Lift. The aerodynamic force that pushes an aircraft upward.
Longitudinal Axis. The axis of an aircraft extending from its nose to its tail.
LOS / Line of Sight. Being able to see and control your drone visually with your unassisted naked eye. (Eyeglasses and contact lenses are allowed, but not binoculars or similar devices.)
METAR / Meteorological Aerodrome Report. A highly-abbreviated, standardized format for expression of weather information at or around an airport. You will have to understand METAR reports and other aviation weather services to pass your Part 107 test.
MLW / Maximum Landing Weight. The maximum gross weight at which an aircraft is certified to land. This is often lower than the Maximum Takeoff Weight (MTOW) because more stress is exerted on the airframe during landing than during takeoff, and because more weight increases the distance needed to stop the airplane once it has landed.
During a normal flight, fuel consumed during during the flight would lighten the aircraft and bring it within the MLW. But if the flight has to turn back early due to an emergency, they may have to dump fuel to lighten the aircraft prior to landing.
MSL / Mean Sea Level. The average level of the surface of the sea. Used as a reference point for altitudes and elevations.
MTOW / MTOM / Maximum Takeoff Weight / Maximum Takeoff Mass. The maximum gross weight at which an aircraft is certified to take off. It may be higher than the same aircraft's maximum landing weight (MLW) because more stress is exerted on the airframe during landing than during takeoff, and because more weight increases the distance needed to stop the airplane once it has landed. Fuel consumed during a normal flight will lighten the aircraft to bring it within its MLW.
NOTAM / NOTAMs / Notices to Air Missions. Formerly Notices to Airmen. NOTAMs are written notices intended to provide information to pilots operating in given geographic areas. They may include flight restrictions, or notices of things like fireworks shows, sky-diving activities, or sUAS activities.
Drone pilots are allowed to file NOTAMs and should do so if they have the slightest reason to believe their planned operations in an area may be of importance to or affect the operations of other pilots. In some cases, drone pilots are required to file NOTAMs.
NOTAMs may be read or filed online at 1800wxbrief.com, through many drone apps, or by telephone. Filing online either directly or by using an app is the easiest and preferred way.
Operating Limitation. A limitation placed upon a pilot by the FAA, or upon an aircraft by its manufacturer. For example, a drone manufacturer may state that the drone should not be flown in the rain. Doing so would be a violation of that operating limitation and would be enforceable by FAA. It also would increase your liability if you were to cause injury or property damage as a result of an accident that was partly or wholly due to flying your drone in the rain.
Part 61. The part of the United States Code of Federal Regulations governing the certification of crewed aircraft pilots.
Part 107. The part of the United States Code of Federal Regulations governing the certification of remote pilots of small unmanned aircraft systems and the operation of those aircraft.
Payload. The combined weight of everything an aircraft is carrying. Also used as a rating of how much an aircraft (including a drone) is allowed to carry.
PIC / Pilot in Command. The individual who is responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft while it is in flight.
PIREP / Pilot Report. Information related by a pilot through ATC or FSS for the purpose of giving other pilots a head's up about some situation. Also used informally between pilots to rate various things, for example, "Do you have a PIREP about the food at that diner near the airport?"
POH / Pilot Operating Handbook. The flight manual of a crewed aircraft is usually called the Pilot Operating Handbook. That's also the case for many sUAS, but sometimes they have other names. By whatever name it's called, the POH is considered legally authoritative by the FAA.
Powerplant. The engine of a powered aircraft. Also the rating the FAA issues to mechanics who are certificated to work on aircraft engines and closely-related accessories.
Quad / Quadcopter / Quadracopter. A type of helicopter with four rotors or propellers exerting lift perpendicular to their axes, and providing attitudinal and directional control through variations in the speed and/or blade pitch of the rotors. Most commonly, only differential speed of the rotors is used to control the aircraft.
Rating. An additional qualifier issued in conjunction with an airman certificate that further defines the privileges that the holder is allowed to exercise. In the case of drone pilots, the certificate is Remote Pilot, and the rating is Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
Remote Pilot. The official name for the certificate the FAA issues to an individual found qualified to operate a remotely-piloted aircraft. In the case of Part 107, a rating for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems is also issued.
RPIC / Remote Pilot in Command. The individual responsible for the safe operation of a sUAS during a mission. Usually (but not necessarily) the person operating the controls, but always the person responsible for the safe operation of the unmanned aircraft.
Remotely-Piloted Aircraft. An unmanned aircraft system that is remotely controlled by a human pilot.
Roll. Rotating or banking an aircraft around its longitudinal axis.
RTF / Ready-to-Fly. A ready-to-fly drone requires no assembly and can be flown as soon as you charge its batteries.
Rudder. The vertical control surface of a fixed-wing aircraft that creates yaw, which turns the aircraft around its vertical axis. In simple turns, it points the nose of the plane left or right.
Runway. The strip of ground dedicated and used as an area from which aircraft, especially fixed-wing aircraft, can take off, and where they can land.
Solo / Solo Time. Time logged by a pilot, including a student pilot, while they are the sole occupant of a manned aircraft.
Spin. A stall that is aggravated by yaw at the time the stall occurs, which results in the aircraft losing altitude in an uncontrolled spin around both its longitudinal and vertical axes.
Squawk. Crewed aircraft and some larger drones contain transponders that identify the aircraft to ATC. The four-digit number assigned to each aircraft by ATC is known as the "squawk code." Pilots may also enter squawk codes to identify the aircraft as flying under Visual Flight rules (1200), being hijacked (7500), having no radio communications (7600), or having an unspecified emergency (7700). UAS equipped with transponders that have lost their control link may squawk 7400.
Stall. A condition in which an aircraft loses lift due to excessive angle of attack.
sUAS / Small Unmanned Aircraft System. In the United States, the FAA's official designation for a UAS weighing less than 55 pounds. It's also the name of the rating given to pilots who earn their Part 107 Remote Pilot Certification.
Super. The Airbus A380 and the Antonov AN-225 are such large aircraft that FAA decided they needed a designation above "heavy." They are designated as "Super," which their pilots must append to their call signs. For example, a British Airways A380 operating as flight number 123 would identify itself as "Speedbird 123 Super."
TAF / Terminal Area Forecast. A weather service that provides a weather forecast for the area near an airport. A TAF differs from a METAR in that it provides a forecast rather than the current conditions. You will need to understand TAFs and other aviation weather services in order to pass your Part 107 examination.
Taxi. To move an aircraft on the ground under its own power.
Taxiway. A corridor at an airport designated for movement of aircraft on the ground under their own power.
Throttle. The control that regulates the power output of an aircraft's engine.
Torque. The rotational force exerted around the axis of a moving part, such as a propeller or rotor. On drones that are quadcopters, hexacopters, or octacopters, the difference in torque resulting from the rotors or propellers turning at different speeds controls the aircraft's yaw.
UAS / Unmanned Aircraft System. The official name for a remotely-piloted, non-crewed aircraft.
UTC. Coordinated Universal Time. Also known as Greenwich Time or Zulu. It's the time in Greenwich, England which is used as a standard for time zones around the world. METAR and TAF reports, among others, use UTC.
VFR / Visual Flight Rules. A set of "see and avoid" standards for operating aircraft with reference to visual landmarks, and maintaining separation through direct visual contact.
VMC / Visual Meteorological Conditions. Weather conditions with sufficient visibility to operate aircraft using visual reference.
VLOS. See LOS / Line of Sight.
VO / Visual Observer. A person working under the command of the RPIC to assist in maintaining visual contact with the drone, helping to avoid obstacles, informing the RPIC of hazards, warning of people or animals in the flight area, and otherwise furthering the safe conduct of the mission.
Wake / Wake Turbulence. The wake of an aircraft consists of counter-rotating vortices generated by the airfoils that trail the wings while they are producing lift. These vortices can be powerful enough to cause a small aircraft following a large aircraft to roll over, requiring extra separation and more caution on the part of the pilot of the trailing aircraft.
When you hear an Air Traffic Controller cautioning a VFR pilot about wake turbulence, it means the aircraft is following a larger aircraft whose wake may cause a hazard to the trailing aircraft. You can learn more about wake turbulence in this FAA Safety Briefing.
Weather Services. Information provided by the National Weather Service and the FAA specifically tailored to the needs of aviators. You will need to know how to use these services to pass your Part 107 test.
XC. Cross-country flight. This doesn't mean flying across the whole country. It means flying from one airport to at least one different airport, over a specified distance that varies with the type of aircraft. The solo cross-country is a rite of passage for student pilots and the most challenging test of their readiness to become licensed pilots. If completed successfully, they are usually scheduled to take their checkrides shortly thereafter.
Yaw. Movement of an aircraft around its vertical axis (that is, pointing the nose to the right or left). Yaw is achieved using the rudder in fixed-wing aircraft, the tail rotor in conventional helicopters, a tail vane in the rotor wash in a few concept helicopters, and differential torque resulting from variable rotor speed in multi-rotor helicopters such as quadcopters.
Zulu Time. See UTC.
Revised January 11, 2023.
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