Dogfight: Say it right

Standardized terms or laughable language?

July 1, 2011

Editor at Large Tom Horne and Senior Editor Dave Hirschman have a lot of things in common: lots of ratings, lots of experience in lots of airplane models—and lots of opinions (as well as similar haircuts). We last turned them loose on the topic of engine management (see “ Dogfight: Running Lean of Peak?” May 2011 AOPA Pilot ) and the response to two different schools of thought on this topic garnered some of our most interesting opinions from a large number of readers (see “ Letters: Dogfight”). So we launch them into another “Dogfight”—we hope you’ll enjoy these two takes on a topic, and keep those cards and letters coming. —Ed.

Say what you mean!

Say "fife," and try not to think of Barney

Editor at Large Thomas A. Horne By Thomas A. Horne >

I’m all for standardized phraseology. Really, I am. For example, when we made the switch from those “old school” surface reports (SAs) and terminal forecasts (TFs) to today’s METAR and TAF formats. Beautiful. Anywhere in the world, any pilot from any nation can read an airport’s current and forecast conditions—and understand them. Now that’s the spirit and practice of standardization. Ditto the switch from statute miles per hour to knots.

But while aviation authorities may pray at the altar of standardization in terms of weather and speed terminology, they fall flat on their faces when it comes to other areas. And maybe that’s a good thing. Why? Carried overboard, standardization can wreck both common sense and long-established practice in the process, and in some cases, potentially compromise safety. Different cultures and nations still exert tremendous influence on the way we fly and think about measures, volumes, and weights. Go ahead, ignore that in the name of standardization and see what happens.

Want some examples where “nonstandard” practices are in successful full swing? Here goes.

Ever fly to Quebec or France? English may be the “official” language of aviation, but to make absolutely sure French-speakers understand ATC clearances and other vital information, certain frequencies are established for using French in Quebec. Do you want someone with rusty English flying in the airspace system—especially under IFR? I don’t think so. That’s why Quebec has discrete frequencies for both French and English. The result? Everyone understands what’s going on in that exemplary bilingual province of Canada. In France, you can certainly fly using English (and are supposed to). But call up a controller in French, and you’ll be answered in French. Speak English, and the controller will do likewise, but you may have to put up with an accent. (Side note: Germans are just the opposite. They follow rules! German ATC speaks English only, by God. I’ve even seen native-speaking Germans speak only English with each other—especially if that conversation takes place outside Europe.)

Then there are altimeter settings in inches of mercury (inHg) and millibars (also called hectopascals). In the United States, inHg rules, but elsewhere, millibars rule. You got a problem? Better have a dual-window altimeter, one that shows both inHg and millibars. That, or carry a conversion chart. Either way, nonstandard can work.

Don’t forget gallons versus liters, pounds versus kilograms, and feet versus meters. Fly in foreign airspace and you’d better familiarize yourself—but making those conversions isn’t rocket science. Just make sure you do them correctly.

In July 1983 an Air Canada Boeing 767 airliner ran out of fuel and made a dead-stick landing on a drag strip in Gimli, Manitoba. It had been fueled using liters and kilograms as measures—a new procedure at the time—and the result was that the crew shortchanged themselves at the pump. So maybe we should standardize on fuel measures.

The examples go on—the world can’t agree on a single type of electrical plug; there are 120-volt and 220-volt electrical power systems; there’s Fahrenheit and Celsius (although Celsius is gaining the upper hand); and still we seem to survive quite nicely.

But this recent push for standard phraseology sets a new low when it comes to bureaucratic foolishness. Now we’re supposed to say “tree” when we mean “three,” “fife” when we want to say “five,” and “niner” when we mean “nine.” OK, “nine” can sound like “five,” so I’ll go along with “niner.”

But “tree” and “fife”? Gimme a break. A tree is something that grows in the forest. And in my mind the only “fife” in the world—hands down—is Barney, Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and Andy Griffith’s hapless sidekick. The striving, nervous wreck who’s made to carry an empty pistol and keep his only round in his shirt pocket. That’s your “fife.”

To say “tree” and “fife” is to sound odd without making yourself clear. Maybe that’s why most pilots and controllers simply don’t use those words. Make a bad rule and no one will follow it. Well, maybe Hirschman will. He’s a real “niner to fife” kind of guy.

E-mail the author at tom.horne@aopa.org.

Do the right thing

Don't be a mush-mouth

Senior Editor Dave HirschmanBy Dave Hirschman

One of my flight instructors was also an air traffic controller, and he brought home this point that’s stuck ever since: If a pilot really wants to be helpful and courteous and make the entire ATC system work better, the best thing he or she can do is use proper radio phraseology.

And yes, that means phonetic numbers, too.

Sure, you’ll sound like a lisping Spaniard and feel self-conscious the first few thousand times you transmit the numbers “tree,” “fife,” and “niner” on the aircraft radio. No one will mistake your dweebish utterances for the laconic Chuck Yeager. Listeners might even feel sympathy for your perceived speech impediment.

But controllers will appreciate your clarity, effort to do things right, and perhaps even reward you with preferential routing. If you think that’s a stretch, it’s not.

That same flight instructor/controller used to tell how ATC sizes up pilots and their abilities as soon as they check in on frequency. Pilots who are clear, concise, and use proper phraseology give controllers confidence that they will understand and reliably execute their instructions. On the other hand, pilots who fumble, sound distracted, or say things like “sugar” (instead of “sierra”) or “nickel” (instead of “fife”) can go directly to the aerial penalty box.

Granted, it’s unfair to equate a pilot’s radio transmissions with flying skill. But when ATC is busy and controllers must make snap judgments, pilots who communicate well aren’t just appreciated. They’re cleared for approaches and granted navigational shortcuts because controllers believe they can count on them to perform such tasks with minimal oversight. That simplifies controllers’ lives and avoids airborne traffic snarls.

By contrast, a drawling mush-mouth who spews aviation slang (or worse, CB lingo) reveals himself as an unreliable airwave clutterer who hasn’t bothered to learn the fundamentals and doesn’t mind wasting other people’s time.

We all benefit from clear communication, and there's a potentially very heavy price to pay for errors.

Roger that?

Some may argue that today’s digital aviation radios and noise-cancelling headsets make transmissions so clear that trees, fifes, and niners are silly colloquialisms. Perhaps the vocabulary in the Pilot/Controller Glossary tramples our freedoms of speech or expression and is too restrictive for our permissive times.

Negative.

My esteemed colleague Tom Horne rightly points out that air traffic controllers themselves have largely abandoned tree and fife (yet still use niner), so perhaps we GA pilots should follow suit. Airline pilots are serial offenders, too—a bit ironic, since the AIM advises proper phraseology “is the mark of a professional pilot.”

The phonetic alphabet and standard phraseology were developed to promote understanding between pilots and controllers (and between pilots and pilots), and that goal is as vital now as ever. We all benefit from clear communication, and there’s a potentially very heavy price to pay for errors.

So take my old instructor’s advice. Use brevity and proper phraseology—and feel free to go beyond it when extraordinary situations arise. Otherwise, keep your thumb off the push-to-talk switch and leave the frequency open to your fellow pilots.

You never know when someone—maybe you—will have an urgent need for it.

E-mail the author at dave.hirschman@aopa.org.


AOPA Aviation Summit

Join editors Dave Hirschman and Tom Horne at AOPA Aviation Summit in Hartford, Connecticut, September 22 through 24, and hear them discuss "Dogfight" and other stories the veteran writers/pilots prepare for AOPA Pilot.