If You Don’t Joke Around on the Aviation Radio, Are You a Stick in the Mud?

Disciplined Flying: Your United States Navy Blue Angels.

We’ve all been to websites that feature funny conversations between pilots and air traffic controllers:

ATC: “123YZ, say altitude.”
123YZ: “ALTITUDE!”
ATC: “123YZ, say airspeed.”
123YZ: “AIRSPEED!”
ATC: “123YZ, say cancel IFR.”
123YZ: “Eight thousand feet, one hundred fifty knots indicated.”

Most of the time, these exchanges are fictitious—the product of a good imagination. Occasionally, in real life, someone grabs the aircraft mic and pretends he’s the featured act at Caesar’s Palace: “Just flew in from the coast, and boy are my arms tired.” When you let one rip on an aviation frequency, are you lightening everyone’s day, or are you gumming up the works?

Radio Haze

Let’s talk about radio discipline, and then you can decide for yourself. I’m not going to sit here and tell you joking around on the radio is dangerous. I don’t have the facts to back it up. No one has done a definitive study on the subject. I am going to say, based on my own experience, that as the radios go, so goes the flight.

Radio Blues

Here’s what I mean. When your radio work is sharp and to the point, air traffic controllers respond in kind. Your radio transmissions set the tone, and almost always, everything else follows that tone. In the military, we placed such a high emphasis on razor sharp radio work that it was thoroughly discussed in every preflight briefing. Woe unto the sloppy wingman who did not check in on the radio promptly and crisply. You’ve heard this at airshows:

“Blue Angels, check-Two-Three-Four-Five-Six!”

Why so fast and sharp? It sets the tone for the precision flying that is about to come.

Gumming Up the Works

I propose the following, and you might not agree. When you try to be entertaining on the radio, you may get a chuckle from others sharing the frequency.

  • You may also disrupt a busy air traffic controller’s train of thought.
  • You may tie up the radio frequency longer than necessary.
  • You may create a moment of confusion in which a critical piece of information is either lost or misinterpreted.

Slip Sliding Away

None of that may happen, but here is what I know will happen. The conduct of your own flight will be taken down a notch. The long slide down a slippery slope begins with a mis-step.

Am I being a stick in the mud about this? You tell me.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Smed April 19, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Jeff,

I agree that yukking it up on the frequency can be a nuisance and I usually refrain from such silliness but sometimes humor can be effective. I have to share something that happened last summer.
(I’ve changed the airport name and tail numbers to avoid any issues for anyone involved.)

It was the first VFR day in about 3 weeks so the skies were busy as I was flying the club’s trainer back to my home field after a Saturday hamburger run. I was a few miles from a class Delta airfield that lay across my route. The field elevation at Friendly Airport is 1395 and the Delta rises to 3800 feet where the Delta meets the floor of a section of Bravo. After waiting for a lull in the chatter with the all the planes doing touch and goes, I asked the tower for a transition. I’ve done it so many times the tower personnel probably recognize my voice.

“Friendly tower, Cessna 6622-Lima is 5 miles northwest, request southwest bound transition.”

“Cessna 22Lima, transition approved as requested at, or above, 3,500. Report overhead.”

I read it back and proceeded. Soon I heard another call.

“Friendly Field Tower, Bonanza 767-Golf-Golf. I’m 7 miles south of you and would like a northbound transition your Delta, please.”

To which, the tower replied, “Bonanza 7-Golf Golf, northbound transition approved at, or above 3,500. Report overhead”

Then, within seconds of his read back I heard: “Friendly tower, Skylane 8264-Romeo is 5 miles east at 3000 feet, request westbound transition.”

At this point I was craning my neck looking for the other two aircraft that seemed destined to occupy the same bit of the heavens to which I was committed. I expected to hear the tower tell the Skylane to stay clear, but no. Instead the controller said, “Skylane 64-Romeo, cleared as requested at or above (you guessed it) 3500 feet. Report overhead.”

By now my C-152 was inside the boundaries of the airport property, just a mile from midfield. I was negative contact for either of the other aircraft. The controller didn’t seem at all concerned that 3 planes were at the same altitude and about to converge over his tower! Maybe he knew something I didn’t.

Still, I wasn’t comfortable with the situation but neither was I particularly comfortable with questioning ATC’s instructions, especially when given to other aircraft. So, with my eyes still peeled for traffic I keyed the mic and in my best Blue Angels commander voice said, “Smoke… ON!”

It’s true nobody laughed but I did get a reaction from the tower. It sounded something like this:

“Cessna22Lima,descend-immediately-to-3000,turn-right-to-heading-one-eight-zero-Bonanza7GolfGolf-traffic-at-your-2-o’clock-2-miles- southbound-Cessna152,report-traffic-in-sight,Skylane64Romeo,right-threesixty-for-traffic!”

I turned to a southerly heading, crossed midfield at 3000 feet and continued on at 92 knots indicated. I only resumed breathing once I heard the other traffic’s responses as they proceeded safely through the Delta. Approaching the southern edge of Friendly’s airspace I dialed into the standby the ATIS frequency for my home field and I was just about to flip the frequency to active when I heard Friendly’s tower make one more call.

“Smoke,” the controller said… “OFF!”

I think it was the Bonanza that answered. “Roger that!”

Reply

Smed April 19, 2012 at 10:59 pm

Correction: I miss-typed my radio call for the transition. It should have read:

“Friendly tower, Cessna 6622-Lima is 5 miles northwest, request southEAST bound transition.”

Reply

JeffKanarish April 21, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Hey Smed,

Thank you for the story. You bring up a good point. Sometimes controllers need to have their errors pointed out to them. When a controller does something that could lead to a safety issue, we pilots have an obligation to point out the error.

I’m glad the tower controller in your story got the hint when you said, “Smoke on.” I might have taken a different, more direct approach, such as, “Tower, I understand you have 3 different aircraft passing over the top of the airfield at about the same altitude. Is that correct?”

Granted, under VFR, pilots are obligated to see and avoid, but that doesn’t mean a controller should compound the problem with sloppy clearances. Controllers aren’t gods, so I’d suggest not taking everything they do as the gospel. Speak up and be as direct as a controller would be when he needs to untangle a bad situation.

Thank you again for commenting. I think your story is great. I’ve got a similar story about a potential catastrophe that was prevented with a few direct words. Look for it at this website soon.

Jeff

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