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Diary of an aircraft owner
By Paul Jansen
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
– Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
But would it sound as sweet? That is the question a pilot who buys a plane has to consider. The registration markings on a General Aviation aircraft used for recreation are also usually used as its call sign. Pilots on unscheduled flights read out the letters using the phonetic alphabet when talking to air traffic controllers.
Singapore aircraft start with the number 9 and the letter V followed by three letters. Malaysia’s prefix is 9M followed by three letters. With minor variations, all countries follow these combinations of numbers and letters, with the goal of ensuring each aircraft is easily identifiable.
Such a system can generate some odd results if you are not careful.
If you don’t want to sound like an alcoholic undergoing de-toxification, avoid “WWW” (“whiskey, whiskey, whiskey”). Or unless you want to be cast as a prankster, don’t pick “EEE” (“echo, echo, echo”). A friend, Roger Lee, bought an azure Piper Cherokee named “DIQ”, which his buddies now irreverently refer to as his blue diq.
Many people try to pick a combination with a particular meaning to them. For instance, the charming Dr June Chan, a good friend, has registered her latest acquisition, a second Piper plane, “DRJ”. Johor Flying Club president William Lee has selected the eponymous “LEE” for his Piper Warrior II (I would have given him “SOS” for the unstinting help he gave to member Shane Lim and me during our own purchase of Piper Warriors from the same source, the Singapore Youth Flying Club).
Call signs are 100 years old. They have their beginnings in a radiotelegraphic convention in London in 1912. With broadcast stations growing by leaps and bounds, first as telegraph offices and later radio transmission locations, there was a need to identify the source of where the transmissions were coming from as well as to single out who they were addressed to.
Call letters were distributed among nations at the convention and the system was modified over the years. Over time, the system expanded from covering railroad telegraph stations to ships which needed to use radios and then to aircraft which began to carry radios and the ground stations which needed to transmit to them.
Along the way, the registration marks of aircraft and their call signs merged, simplifying the process of identifying a plane, as it merrily makes it way to its destination.
It became a requirement for aircraft owners to paint their call signs on the back part of the fuselages, which gave rise to the description of the call signs as “tail numbers”.
In picking my own tail number for the formerly Singapore-registered 9V-BOE, I mulled several options. You have to have a few in hand in case the one you apply for is already allocated. After discussing my choices with my wife, I requested the initials of my name, Paul Robert Jansen.
To my delight, this was available and when the Malaysia Department of Civil Aviation kindly approved the registration of my aircraft, I was allocated the call sign “PRJ”. Shakespeare asked in his play Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name?” Now, each time I fly, I will inform the airport: “Papa, Romeo, Juliet.”
When I received the good news about the name, my yellow and blue Piper Warrior PA28-161 was sitting in Senai Airport. William, Shane and I had flown our three Pipers from Singapore’s Seletar airport to Senai. They had since been sitting on the tarmac undergoing a detailed examination by the Malaysian aircraft leasing and maintenance company aDmal Sdn Bhd, in preparation for the Certificate of Airworthiness check by the Department of Civil Aviation.
Our 1989 Piper Warriors II, venerable workhorses of the Singapore Youth Flying Club for 22 years, and remembered by all who flew them by their Singapore registrations, had been nameless while undergoing checks for their new Malaysian identities. This was the Certificate of Registration (C of R) process, one of several critical steps along the way to getting a Certificate of Airworthiness (C 0f A) and the privilege of operating the aircraft in the country.
Finally, they had passed muster and were given their C of R.
9V-BOE was now ready for a new name and a new life. Instead of a steady stream of SYFC students at the controls, she would have just me. This would also slow down the rate her body was chalking up hours, 8,200-plus before she came to me. She had been put through her paces at an average of 390 hours a year. The average recreational aircraft owner can barely log 100 in his plane each year.
While her airframe was getting older, her heart had gotten younger. The Singapore club had recently overhauled her Avco Lycoming 0-320-D3G 160HP flat-four engine. And she had clocked up only about 300-odd hours since then. With a recommended Time Between Overhauls (TBO) of 2,000 hours for the engine, the Piper’s heart now had another 1,700 hours to go.
The lady has quite a bit of life in her yet. And, so, when I cut out the letters for the call sign, I felt as though I was marking a particularly poignant moment: She was not ready to be put out to pasture.
What she needed was someone who appreciated her for what she was.
PRJ’s instrument panel won’t turn heads. She does not have the fancy new “glass” bells and whistles adorning the new models. But she does not need this in her new role where each journey is not about securing a passing mark on a training exercise, but about adding to this pilot’s aggregated memory of a flight well flown, a trip much enjoyed.
One of only four Piper Warriors in the Singapore club’s disposed fleet fully equipped for flying by instruments, PRJ is capable of much in the years ahead. I look forward to spending them with her.
As the poet Robert Frost said in “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”:
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”