St. Maarten Tower, You’re Driving Me Crazy!

It happened again this week. I bring it up so you’ll know you are not alone with this problem.

This was at St. Maarten International–yes, that St. Maarten. The place where everyone hangs onto the fence, and their swim shorts, as the KLM 747 comes screaming overhead at 50 feet.

Yep. The internet needs another photo like this. (via alljengi at

“Didja get it? Didja get the photo?”

“No, I didn’t. I was busy tumbling end over end in the jet blast.”

“Well darn. I’m sorry you missed the shot because there just aren’t enough photos on the internet of a 747 flying over Maho Beach.”

Speed Demon

I digress. The tower controller at St. Maarten has to be one of the busiest in the Caribbean. He plays approach controller, local controller, and ground controller. He does it very well, with one exception.

You might say, so what? How busy can it get at a sleepy, tropical airstrip in the middle of the Caribbean Sea? To which I say, have you seen St. Maarten International at rush hour?

The intensity of operations has turned the controller at St. Maarten into a speed demon on the radio. Who can blame him? I can. But wait. It gets better.

Clearance Delivery on a Separate Frequency, Not

St. Maarten now has a dedicated frequency, and a separate controller, for pre-departure IFR clearances. I know this is a website intended for VFR pilots, but bear with me. The relevance of this situation to VFR pilots is about to become apparent.

You would think having a separate person who issues pre-departure clearances on a discrete frequency would be a good thing. With someone else to handle to this task, the tower controller’s workload is reduced. Here’s how they handle it at St. Maarten.

Me: “St. Maarten Clearance, Airliner 458, IFR to Atlanta, ready to copy clearance.”

The controller on the clearance delivery frequency: “Airliner 458, St. Maarten Clearance, your clearance is on request. Monitor St. Maarten Tower on 118.7 for your clearance.”

What?! That’s it? They have a guy on a separate frequency who’s only job is to type your request for a clearance into a computer? I try to keep this website rated P-G, so that’s all I’ll say about that.

Here it Comes

I switched the radio over Tower’s frequency, knowing full well what was about to happen.

clearedtoland.Airliner883contactSanJuanCenter135.3.” Then, to me, “Airliner458Ihaveyourclearance.Advisewhenreadytocopy.”

As a longtime follower of this website, when asked if I was ready to copy–with this controller’s track record on the radio–what should I have said in response? Here’s a hint: It should not be, “Airliner 458, ready to copy.”

Now imagine the following delivered with a very strong accent that your ear is not attuned to:


Again, with a nod to the the general rating of this website, I believe I responded–out loud–not on the radio, “Arrrrrrrgh!” Or something to that effect.

Same Controller, Different Day

Here’s what makes this worse. This is not my first rodeo at St. Maarten. This is the same controller I talked to the last time I was here. It’s the same controller from 3 years ago, 5 years ago, and maybe even 8 years ago. In fact, here’s a description of nearly the same problem that I wrote about in 2010. Like Charlie Brown who keeps trying to kick the football only to have Lucy pull it away at the last second, I keep falling on my back with this guy.

Here’s what I should have said pre-emptively. “Airliner 458 is ready to copy the clearance, and would you please give it to me slowly?” Instead, I was reduced to saying, “That was way too fast! I didn’t get any of that. Please give it to me again, slowly.” He did, and I got it right the second time.

Have We Learned Anything? You, Probably. Me? The Jury’s Still Out.

Here are the takeaways. If you have been having trouble understanding a controller who talks too fast for your ear or for your level of experience, ask that person to slow down. You are not required to suffer through a fast-talking controller. I would even argue that if you pre-emptively ask a controller to slow down when he speaks to you, you will save everyone time. And for goodness sake, if you don’t understand something because it came at you too fast, ask for a repeat at a slower pace. The AIM even has a phrase for this in the Pilot/Controller Glossary. Here it is in all its glory:

SPEAK SLOWER− Used in verbal communications as a request to reduce speech rate.

Do we really need something that simple defined in the AIM? Apparently, I do.

P.S. What happened to the podcasts, Jeff? The answer is, I’m a day or 2 away from publishing my next book. As soon as that is out the door, I’ll resume podcasting.


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