Pilotage

The party line

June 1, 2010

Yesterday was a two-leg, four-hour, 590-miles-of-flying day. A good day, I’d say. The first leg was a short, deadhead repositioning flight to pick up one passenger. He took seat number six in the way back, and for the next 3.6 hours on the Hobbs read and listened to music. I had the cockpit all to myself. Just me and the 20 clearance, ground, tower, departure, approach, and center controllers at the three airports, six approach control facilities, and three air route traffic control centers whose airspace I visited.

When you fly mostly at tower-controlled airports on IFR flight plans, controllers are as much a presence in the cockpit as the drone of engine and propeller. When you can’t see all those people you try to fashion mental images of them based on nothing more than the sound and tone of their voices. What kind of day are they having? What do they look like? Who’s a pilot? (The FAA doesn’t know how many controllers are certificated pilots.) Making a judgment on a controller’s personality can be difficult because, like Sgt. Joe Friday on the old Dragnet radio and TV shows, air traffic controllers probably aren’t supposed to have one when on air. Just the clearances, ma’am.

My day got hectic early. The first leg was only 19 minutes flying time, but I talked to seven different controllers and made 10 frequency changes including checking ATIS and giving the FBO a headsup on my impending arrival.

The first destination was Naples, the Palm Beach of Florida’s Gulf Coast. The airport hosts a lot of business jet traffic, especially in winter when seasonal residents are in town. Mixed in with the dry, practiced delivery of the jet pilots on the tower frequency are urbane British accents of flight school students from across the pond. No language problem there for Naples controllers. It’s not just Brits providing the international flavor, however. A Chinese student was shooting touch and goes, and when I taxied to the run-up area a pilot with a heavy Russian accent called for takeoff clearance.

I heard plenty of foreign accents on the frequency that day, as I do every day I fly in Florida. Controllers in the Sunshine State get a lot of practice—and display a lot of patience—deciphering the radio work of student pilots who come from around the world for the great flying weather, the many general aviation airports, and the comparatively low cost of flight training. I admire foreigners’ gumption and grit in simultaneously taking on the tough challenges of learning to fly an airplane, and learning radio communications in what to them is a foreign language.

It sounded like a routine day for ATC on the long leg north to Asheville, North Carolina. The midday traffic was relatively light and there was no weather to muck up the works. It was the kind of day when anything the least bit out of the ordinary draws the attention of everyone on the frequency. Like when the pilot of a Piper Malibu called approach control to say he had just taken off and was requesting radar advisories on his journey east. “Why didn’t you ask for radar service before taking off?” the controller responded in an accusatory tone. The pilot did not answer the controller’s repeated calls.

The controller eventually gave up, and then handed me off to the next sector controller. Shortly after I checked in the Malibu pilot popped up again. Approach controller number two told the offending pilot that he had climbed deep into Class Charlie airspace before he attempted his first contact with approach. That explained the annoyed tone from controller number one. The pilot got lucky this time—after a brief scolding, controller number two told him he was now beyond the Class C boundary, so go away and leave us alone. But no, the clueless guy kept pestering for a frequency to get radar advisories. With admirable restraint the controller gave him one for Miami center. (Too bad for them.) I flew on, embarrassed by the Malibu pilot’s poor representation of general aviation.

On up the road, an older gentleman apologized profusely to an Atlanta center controller for having to ask for a hand-off frequency a second time because, apparently, he forgot it the first time. “No problem,” the controller responded brightly. He provided it and signed off with, “Have a great flight.” It was a small thing, but I’m certain his cheerfulness made as positive an impression on the older gentleman pilot as it did on me.

Approaching Asheville I was number two for landing. The Cherokee ahead touched down and the controller instructed the pilot to exit on Taxiway Mike, contact ground. Another voice, obviously a supervisor, broke in. “Cherokee, exit Taxiway Juliet.” A moment later the first controller handed off a departing aircraft with, “Right turnout, contact departure.” The supervisor immediately spoke up again, this time more forcefully: “November Six-Zero-Five turn left! Left turn!”

“Whew, rough day for the new guy,” I thought. It’s bad enough when the boss has to step in and correct your mistakes; it’s worse when it’s done publicly. But, when you do your work over a party line, it comes with the territory.

The trainee then cleared me to land with not the slightest hint of contrition in his voice. Nothing was said about where to exit the runway. I waited for the super to weigh in, but the frequency was silent. No changes, no corrections, no overrules. Have a nice day.

Mark R. Twombly flies a Piper Aztec for a small company in Southwest Florida. E-mail the author at mrtwombly@gmail.com.