It was 1984, and I was flying from Rhode Island to Israel in a 1960 Cessna 172 with my flight student, Arieh Rona. The trip had recently brought us through the beautiful Rhône Valley in France and over the Mediterranean Sea for 325 nautical miles in instrument conditions en route to Ciampino International, Rome’s secondary airport.
As we checked in with Roma Approach at 9,000 feet requesting vectors to final at Ciampino, we could hear that the controllers were quite busy. We were assigned a holding pattern at 9,000 feet northeast over the ROMA VOR, which is adjacent to the Ciampino airport. We were preparing to land on Runway 14 as advised by the ATIS.
So who do you think were the best air traffic controllers on the entire trip? I can tell you without hesitation, it was the Italians.
The controllers stepped us down a thousand feet at a time from holding pattern to holding pattern, first to 8,000 feet, then to 7,000 feet, all the way down to 1,000 feet, and then vectored us to the final approach to Runway 14. These controllers were smooth and professional. We switched over to 120.5 MHz, Campiano Tower, and were cleared to land and then guided to the runway exit where we switched to ground control and taxied to the FBO for parking. We stayed in Rome for two days to see some of the famous historical sites.
Now it was Sunday. We were ready to continue our trip—next destination Brindisi on the east coast of Italy, just 260 nautical miles to the southeast. We noticed very little air traffic along the way and at the airport. After landing we taxied to the FBO to get fuel and were surprised to find everything was closed at the Brindisi airport. It was Sunday and it had not occurred to us that some places at the airport might be closed. We were lucky enough to meet some pilots from the local Brindisi Flying Club who said they could help us after we told them our plight. Their club did not usually sell fuel to nonmember pilots, but they graciously made an exception. Thank you, Brindisi Flying Club.
We then departed from Brindisi to the east 110 nautical miles across another part of the Mediterranean Sea to Corfu, an island in Greece also known as Kerkyra.
After listening to the Kerkyra ATIS and contacting Kerkyra Approach, we were advised to change to frequency 120.85 and contact Kerkyra Tower. We checked in with the tower on the downwind leg of Runway 35 asking for permission to land.
I heard a clear response that sounded to me something like, “guarke mombit blipton luiter.” I asked the controller, “Say again.” His reply again sounded similar to “guarke mombit blipton luiter.”
I had no idea what this controller was saying to me. I thought it would be best just to broadcast my intentions in slow and clear English and proceed to Runway 35, which was a comforting 7,792 feet long.
As I continued downwind, I again broadcast my intentions, receiving a similar undecipherable reply. I repeated my intentions again as I turned final, received the same response, and landed. After taxiing to parking I decided to visit the tower, see the controller, and find out what he said. Upon entering the tower, as the controller began speaking to me, here was the same-sounding voice—but now that I could see his lips moving I had no problem understanding him. I discovered he understood me just fine and that he was telling me, “Proceed as requested.” So much for English being the international universal aviation language.
A lesson learned. Not understanding the tower controller is as just as bad as lost communications. Stay focused. Be calm. Fly the airplane and continue your approach, broadcasting your intentions slowly in clear English. Look for any light signals from the tower. If no signals, land and clear the runway as soon as possible. AOPA
Carl Dworman is a CFI with more than 9,000 hours.