Pilots say the darndest things on radio
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By Paul Jansen
From the Left Seat
Rib-tickling radio transmission anecdotes are practically standard fare at pilot waterholes.
Erwan Ishak, an instructor in Malaysia, told me how he listened as Tower instructed his student: “Squawk 2100.” This was an order to set the plane’s transponder, a transmission device also referred to as a ‘squawk box’, to the 2100 frequency so that air traffic controllers could track the aircraft’s movements on their radarscopes.
She dutifully dialed the correct frequency into the Transponder, then keyed her Push To Talk (PTT) switch and said in a clear voice: “Squawk. Squawk.”
Horrified, Erwan asked her what she was doing. “Tower told me to squawk,” she replied.
Before I continue, I should admit: Mea culpa.
After my first solo flight from Senai airport (WMKJ) to Malacca (WMKM), I walked over to the Tower and filed my flight plan for the return trip. Not wanting to give away my lack of hours, I suppressed my excitement and tried to convey an air of experience as I sauntered in and cracked jokes with the Controllers.
Walking back to my plane, I congratulated myself on a job well done. After strapping in, I made the normal radio call for permission to start my engine and be on my way.
Me: “Malacca Ground. 9M-TAT request start as per flight plan to Senai.”
No answer. I checked the Ground Control frequency. Correct. Pressed the PTT switch firmly and spoke more emphatically. No sound from Ground. Can’t be radio failure, the circuit breaker was where it should be, resting snugly in its holder rather than sticking out.
I switched the frequency to Tower. Repeated my call. No joy either. No radio, no choice. It looked like I had to walk back under the baking sun to Tower and cancel my flight plan.
I unstrapped my seat belt and reached up to remove my headset from over my head.
That’s when I discovered I had not put it on.
It was sitting right in front of me, atop the dashboard. My calls may have found their way (faintly) to the mic one metre away. But if they did, of course, Ground and Tower replies never reached my ears. To their credit, and my eternal gratitude, they made no fuss when I finally put my headset on and asked for permission to depart their control zone.
Then there is Anthony Cheong, a dear friend, who had just begun his flight one morning when Tower called him.
The Controller thought he recognised Anthony as an old friend and was trying to confirm this when he asked: “You sound familiar. How long have you been flying?”
But Anthony missed the first part of the message and only heard: “How long have you been flying?”
“Twenty minutes,” he answered. There was a pause, then from Tower: “It’s alright.”
Earlier this year, a group of pilots took off from Senai to do some formation flying. As they tried to maneuver into proper position, some of them were less than happy with their counterparts’ flying.
How did the rest of us who were not part of that group know?
They forgot to switch from the main Tower frequency to another less-used one. All their radio calls to each other, including some colourful “#@!*&+%” phrases, were instead heard by everyone else in the air that morning.
Another one I can vouch for personally: We were in a stream of General Aviation aircraft heading from south of Malaysia across the peninsular to Phuket in the south of Thailand for an air carnival. Along the way, we had to avoid some military airspace.
As my co-pilot, Captain Kevin Muk, and I, pass one in a Cessna 152 at a comfortable distance, we hear this:
Air Force pilot: Tower, is there another aircraft airborne in our airspace now?
Muk and I do a check of our location. It’s not us and we’re sure it’s not our friends in their aircraft too.
Air Force pilot: Tower, are you sure?
Air Force pilot: Then we’d like to report a UFO.
Muk and I crack up.
Here are some from the various aviation forums, so I can’t attest to their veracity.
From Canada. Air Traffic Controller to Boeing 727: “Flight XXXX, right hand 360 for spacing behind a Piper Cherokee 3 miles final.”
Upset over having to do a 360 degree orbit so that he will not end up bumping into the much slower Piper Cherokee ahead making its stately way to the threshold, the flustered 727 Captain asks in exasperation: “Do you know it costs $2,000 dollars to do a 360 in this airplane?”
Controller: “Roger, then give me $4,000 dollars worth.”
Another one, from the US: A long string of aircraft have been lined up on the taxiway waiting interminably for Tower to clear them for take off.
Unknown aircraft: “I’m #@!&*$% bored!”
Air Traffic Control: “Last aircraft transmitting, identify yourself immediately!”
Unknown aircraft: “I said I was #@!&*$% bored, not #@!&*$% stupid!”
Then there is this string from Australia, reportedly of actual Qantas’ “gripe sheets” filled by pilots after each flight about problems for the maintenance crew to check and rectify. After fixing the problems, the mechanics write down what they did, for the pilots to review before accepting the aircraft for the next flight.
The person who compiled this noted that Qantas had the best safety record in the industry.
The complaints from the Qantas pilots are marked with a “P” and the fix by the ground crew is marked with an “S”:
P: Left inside main tire almost needs replacement.
S: Almost replaced left inside main tire.
P: Test flight OK, except auto-land very rough.
S: Auto-land not installed on this aircraft.
P: Something loose in the cockpit.
S: Something tightened in the cockpit.
P: Dead bugs on windshield.
S: Live bugs on backorder.
P: Evidence of a leak on the right main landing gear.
S: Evidence removed.
P: Friction locks cause throttle levers to stick.
S: That’s what friction locks are for.
P: IFF inoperative in OFF mode.
S: IFF always inoperative in OFF mode.
P: Suspected crack in windshield.
S: Suspect you’re right.
P: The number 3 engine is missing.
S: Engine found on right wing after a brief search.
P: Aircraft handles funny.
S: Aircraft warned to straighten up, fly right and be serious.
P: Target radar hums.
S: Reprogrammed target radar with lyrics.
P: Mouse in cockpit.
S: Cat installed.
P: Noise coming from under the instrument panel. Sounds like a midget
pounding on something with a hammer.
S: Took hammer away from the midget.
An important take-away from all this is that precise communication is crucial for safe flying. And if you need to use intemperate language, double-check you are on the right frequency.
Copyright: Paul Jansen. All rights reserved.
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Paul Jansen is a media professional with extensive experience in journalism with The Straits Times and Singapore Press Holdings. He is the founding editor of The Straits Times Interactive, now straitstimes.com, conceptualised and led the multiple award-winning search and directory engine Rednano.sg, and played key roles in the start-up of the telco M1 and other companies. He left the editorial and marketing trenches and is currently advising firms on dealing with the press on a daily basis and especially in a crises. He is also co-founder and executive chairman of aSpecial Media Pte Ltd, an award-winning company which specialises in collecting and analysing behavioural data for public and private institutions, policy-makers and marketers. But mostly he flies.