Monday, November 29, 2004

Eavesdropping on the Cockpit Isn't Always a Good Thing

One of the unique things about United airlines is that they allow passengers to listen in on the cockpit radio through the plane's audio system, allowing people to hear the conversation between air traffic controllers and their pilots, as well as any other planes that are on the same frequency.

While maybe not a big deal to people who fly for leisure, for most of us this is the only time we hear actual air traffic controllers (not counting the ones on TV who whined that they were fired by Reagan in '81).

I usually find listening in a good form of entertainment. On my trip over Thanksgiving, I made the following observations:
o The movie Pushing Tin wasn't great, but Thorton and Cusack must have watched real controllers in action since they had their rhythm down cold. It's not just the jargon they use, but how they say it, the speed they say it, and the inflection they say it. All of the controllers seem to talk in the same way.

o Despite the similarity in rhythm, a few controllers seem to have their own signature "sign-off" as they pass a plane off to another controller. One guy out of Ft. Worth control passed planes off with a SEE YA! A few others had a standard greeting whenever a new plane was passed into their control.

o Part of the entertainment value of listening in is to figure out graphically in your head where everyone is by altitude and position. In addition, for us novices, it was intriguing to figure out the jargon.
Pilot: Anyone seen Charlie?
I wondered why he would ask about another pilot or controller, but a few moments into the conversation I figured out he was asking about "chop".
That being said, there were a few things that weren't so fun to listen in on:
o The pilot of my plane literally took a wrong turn at the airport. He and the ground controller went back and forth several times about where he was supposed to go for take-off, but he still missed his turn. He had to taxi all the way to the end of the airport and turn around, and then taxi back and do a u-turn in the middle of the runway. This didn't exactly increase my confidence in his ability to fly.

o I got real nervous as we were flying into Denver, where we were connecting. Denver is one of United's hubs, so there are a lot of United planes coming in, and some genius in operations gave two planes coming in at the same time a flight number that differed by a single digit. I got to hear a conversation that went something like this:
Pilot: United 247 contacting control
Controller: Gooday United 247. Note that United 347 is also on the same frequency.
Controller: United 247 change speed to 220.
Another Pilot: United 347?
Controller: That was United 247.
Pilot: Speed 220. United 247.
Controller: United 247 change to approach on frequency xxx.
(garbled radio)
Pilot: United 347 just took my frequency!
Another Pilot: United 347 is still here.
Pilot: Frequency xxx, United 247.
o Another time it didn't take a similar number to screw up a pilot. I was listening to a controller talking to three planes when another pilot rang on, but never got a response from the controller, and there was suddenly some confusion.
Controller: Flights 247, 384 Heavy, 7763 clear your radios. Who is this?
Another Pilot: Flight zzz checking in.
Controller: YOU ARE ON THE WRONG FREQUENCY! Dial into xxx.x!
Another Pilot: xxx.x, Flight zzz
Note that these events were all pilot errors, so I have to give credit to the air traffic controllers, who have an incredibly stressful job.

So while flight control might be interesting to listen to, small errors like these are inevitable in the system we have, so maybe listening to the radio might be the way to go.

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