Friday, October 03, 2008

I Want to be an Air Traffic Controller

United Airlines broadcasts communications from the tower and cockpit on channel 9 on the armrest console. I like to listen because it's different from the usual canned music on other channels and it's more interesting than the flight attendants trying to get stupid passengers to load their suitcases wheels first in the overhead bins.

At first I'm not sure what I'm listening to, but slowly get acclimated to the rhythm of the controllers' and pilots' patter. The rhythm is fast, the speech is brief, professional and friendly.

All our passengers are loaded, the doors are closed, and our cellphones are off. In my ears I hear United 356 requests permission to push back. Permission is granted, and I feel the plane move away from the jetway. We are given cryptic instructions for taxiing to runway 16 left. Eventually I hear "United 356, you're cleared for take-off, have a nice flight." As we lift off I can see a line of school buses leaving a school and four empty, lush golf courses. Maybe I'll get to golf over the weekend.

The longer I listen the more I get accustomed to the language and I start to comprehend what I hear. Every communication from the control center starts by the flight number and the instruction, followed by the pilot repeating her/his flight number and confirming the instruction. Often this is followed by friendly bit, like "United 356, you're cleared for take-off, have a nice flight." Sometimes the reply would be very informal with a simple "OK." Othertimes the reply would be like old friends saying good-bye: "Alaska fourteen-fifty-one, roger, I'll be back in a couple days, see ya then."

The airport tower controls the planes on the ground, on approach, and taking off; they control the planes they can see. After leaving the airport airspace the pilots are given another frequency and handed off to another control center.

The tower at SEA-TAC gets us in the air to flight level 15-7, turns us left to a heading of zero-five-zero and sends us to Seattle center. Seattle Center takes us up to flight level three-seven-zero and eventually hands us off to Salt Lake Center. Salt Lake passes us off to Denver, and finally Denver Approach.

Whenever a plane would get handed off to another controller for another sector or at another control center the communication always had the same staccato form.
"United 356 contact Denver center one-two-six-point-five."
"United 356 twenty-six-five, good night."
"Denver control this is United 356 at three-seven-zero."
"United 356, light chop above three-three-zero."
"United 356, thank you."

About a half-hour before we are scheduled to land I hear the controller directing the pilot to start the decent and later the hand-off to Denver approach. The woman at Denver approach quickly rattles off a string of instructions I'd not yet heard and couldn't decipher, but our pilot repeats the instructions verbatim, and we end up at our appointed gate.

For every part of the flight the pilot would always confirm the instruction given, getting a repeat or correction if needed, and the task would be done. I wish children did that.

"Child oh-one, turn left at stairs, maintain heading to level two, bedroom three right."
"Child oh-one, left at stairs to level two, bedroom three-right, good night."
"Child oh-two, turn left at stairs, maintain heading to level two, bedroom two-left."
"Child oh-two, left at stairs to level two, bedroom two-left, good night."

Putting kids to bed would not be easier.


John said...

Wouldn't that be great? My brothers and controller at Leesburg. He's the most laid back person I've ever met. You can't stir him with a stick. I guess that's what it takes. And I like to listen tot heir chatter as well. Makes me feel like if I don't like what I hear I can run up front and tell them to take a different exit.

Lorraine said...


iamnot said...

Military (Navy) communications was the same way.

"Sonar-Con, make preperations for periscope depth."
"Make preperations for periscope depth Con-Sonar aye."

That works out to:
To-From, order.
Repeat order, to-from, acknowledge.

Same pattern, every communication, every stinking time. No doubt about what was said, no doubt about what is to be done.

We don't use that exact pattern at home, but I often do require the boys to repeat to me what I just told them to do.
It cuts down on the "Oh, I didn't know you wanted me to do that!" Nonsense.

Anne said...

I get the eye-roll when I try to get the daughter to repeat requests. darn teenage girls...

Carmi said...

I used to listen to the controllers in Montreal on a radio I had bought at the local Radio Shack. It was an AM-FM pocket radio with an ar traffic band, too. What a novelty, especially for a plane-crazy kid.

Thanks for bringing this memory right back into focus, Anne!