Flying Acronyms and their Meanings

flying acronyms

Here’s a handy guide to many of the acronyms you’ll hear and use while flying. For the learner pilot it can be overwhelming to try and get your head around them, so hopefully this cheat sheet will prove useful.

Many of the flying acronyms used begin with “Q”, known as the Q Codes, and are a hang over from the days of Morse code.

So, here are some of the more common acronyms you’ll hear…



Used to determine the height of the aircraft above ground. Determined in millibars, the tower controller you are talking to will often give you this setting to enter into your altimeter, particularly when approaching to land, or when flying in the circuit.



Like QFE, QNH is a setting for your altimeter which will help you determine your altitude. This time it gives you the altitude above sea level. Setting it on the ground at an airfield will give you that airfield’s altitude above sea level.

Both QFE and QNH change as air pressure changes – the lower the setting, the lower the air pressure is.



Traditionally used when uncertain of position, or of which heading to fly, asking a controller for QDM will return a response telling you which direction to fly to head to that airfield or position.



The alternative to QDM, asking for QDR will respond with the heading from the airfield or position of the controller to your aircraft.

In both cases remember that wind direction and strength are not taken into account.



IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules, or flying with reference to the aircraft’s instruments and not by visual navigation through looking outside the window.

IFR flight is used by commercial airliners, or pilots who have acquired an instrument rating allowing them to fly in this manner. It is helpful to do so when the weather precludes visual flying, or when using the airways typically used by commercial traffic.

[Read our guide: The Benefits of the Instrument Rating]



The standard means of flying for all private pilots. VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules. Unlike IFR, pilots flying in VFR navigate by looking out of the window, and not by using the aircraft’s instruments to determine their position and headings.

Visual Flight Rules differ slightly from country to country. A handy reference for UK pilots is:



When flying in VFR conditions, you’ll often be told to “maintain Victor Mike Charlie”, or VMC.

VMC stands for Visual Meteorological Conditions. It is the conditions through which it is possibly to fly visually, safely. For example, maintaining clearance of cloud, with good forward visibility and in sight of the ground at all times.



Staying safe while flying means keeping abreast of the weather conditions and forecast.

All major airports and airfields produce what is known as a METAR. This is a Meteorological Terminal Aviation Routine Weather Report or Meteorological Aerodrome Report. In most cases they are updated twice per hour during the airport’s opening times.

A METAR typically gives you an overview of the current weather at that airport, including:

  • Temperature
  • Dew point
  • Wind direction and speed
  • Precipitation
  • Cloud cover and heights
  • Visibility
  • Barometric pressure



After having obtained the current weather conditions through the METAR, you may also wish to look at the weather forecast over the rest of the day. This may be especially useful at your destination airfield, too.

With this in mind, you’ll need the current TAF, or Terminal Aerodrome Forecast.

TAFs are typically updated every six hours and cover the remainder of the day and even part of the next day depending on the airport.

Like the METAR, a TAF covers all important weather conditions which are expected, such as temperatures, cloud cover, wind speeds and direction, visibility, precipitation and air pressure.



Another Q code, and one which I was told has officially been retired from RT speak. However, I hear it more and more these days, with both pilots and controllers understanding its meaning and purpose.

QSY typically indicates that you will be changing to another radio frequency as you progress along your route, and you will no longer be talking to the current controller. It’s common to use this after departing from a particular airfield, or while navigating through different airspace.

For example, a controller may say: “G-ABCD, leaving my zone, QSY on route, squawk 7000”

Or you may say to the controller: “G-ABCD, visual with the airfield, happy to QSY to their frequency 123.45”


Are there any other acronyms you’ve heard used while flying? Are there any that you still don’t understand? Leave a comment below and we’ll create another article on it.



Matt Falcus is a private pilot and aviation writer. He has been flying since 2006, taking the opportunity whenever the British weather allows to explore the local area and other airfields. He is author of a number of aviation books.

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