Imagine living in a world where everyone communicated with as few words as possible. In this world it is expected of you to be precise and concise in everything you say. William Blake, W.B Yeats, Rumi, Voltaire, and Samuel Clemens could not exist here. In this world only one person can talk at any given time. If two people tried to talk at the same time everyone’s words would break down into static and garbled unintelligible words. On the flight decks of modern airliners it is no different when it comes to radio communication.
It all started in 1847 when a child named Heinrich Rudolf Hertz was born. He would eventually produce what has become one of the most important works of science ever written. Hertz was the first person to send and receive radio waves. He did this in 1888. After 118 years and all the amazing milestones in aviation and space, we still talk one person at a time, no matter if it is the International Space Station, a commercial airliner over the Pacific Ocean, or the tower controller at Cruzeiro de Sul on the Jurua River in remote eastern Brazil. Yeah, we might be restricted by the laws of sine wave propagation, but hey, we weren’t supposed to fly to begin with. This situation can lead to some frustrating, stressful, and humorous situations.
Sometimes it gets busy in a bad way. Great example was the time I was on the ground at JFK taxiing out for takeoff. As soon as we switched over to ground control to leave our parking area, I realized it was going to be one of those days. I estimated we were about number 30 or so for takeoff. The taxiways were jammed, every intersection was being used or being blocked and the ground controller could only talk to one of us at a time. Due to this restriction the ground controller often talks to us simultaneously, the following example is based on the airfield runways and taxiways at JFK. If you want to follow it, go to Google and search for JFK airfield diagram. “United 316 turn left onto alpha hold short of hotel, American 1222 follow the regional jet to your right, Comair 467 straight ahead to hotel right alpha, hold short of whiskey alpha. Virgin 925 transition to Juliet, cross 4 left and contact tower on 123.9. All you would hear in response is “United 316, American 1222, Comair 467, Virgin 925. The controller would continue in this way for a while. All it takes to screw things up is for two people to transmit at the same time, and then all you get is “BLZZIGHOOLMASFIT”. To inform the controller that his transmission was disrupted someone normally says the word, “blocked”. The controller can rattle off a clearance and be told “blocked”, he will try again and hear “blocked”, and try again and hear “blocked”. This situation is very frustrating to a controller. Once I had a ground controller say to all of us, “Alright everybody shut the hell up, don’t speak until you’re spoken to.” I have also heard, “The next aircraft that does that gets pulled out of sequence.” While trying to get into Frankfurt Germany on a day that blessed us with a blizzard, we pilots were stepping on each others transmissions constantly. The controller was trying his best to get us all in the right positions to maximize the number of landings. We were not helping him. He wanted us all to maintain a speed of 210 knots. A British Airways (call sign speed bird) pilot made the mistake of saying, “Speed bird XXX would like to maintain 230 knots for a bit more”. The German controller came back instantly with, “Hey Speed bird what do you think this is, a game of checkers, I make a move, then you make a move, 210 nooooooowwwww”! A female ground controller who was in a vengeful state was dishing out abuse after abuse for many minutes. There was a break in her transmissions when somebody said in a soft monotone, “Was I married to you?” It may have been me who said that, but I don’t remember.
There are times that getting a clearance from a controller is time critical. You have to have a verbal clearance to land and sometimes that clearance is late in coming. I have seen aircraft go around because they could not get a word in to verify a landing clearance. I have been in situations where I knew or could see other jets converging on me and trying to get the controller to turn me but was blocked by other transmissions. You don’t want to know what it sounds like when an airport shuts down or even worse, a control center loses power and hundreds of us are hung out to fend for ourselves.
I have heard radio chatter that could be turned into an award winning comedy show. When it comes to blocked transmissions there is one consistent thing that happens amongst us pilots and that is the poor pilot who thinks he is talking to the passengers or even better, a flight attendant on the intercom but in reality is transmitting on an air traffic frequency. It could be ground, tower, approach, departure, or center frequencies. I have heard it all. On Denver centers frequency I heard a United pilot transmit to the world (he thought he was talking to the passengers), “Ladies and gentleman welcome aboard United XXXX from the flight deck. First let me say thank you for your business today and we will do our best to make this the most enjoyable flight you have ever had. Our arrival time into Los Angeles will be 6:25 pm, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. The weather in Los Angeles is 75 degrees with partly cloudy skies and winds out of the west at 12 miles per hour. By now the air traffic controller is pulling their hair out and several pilots are laughing hysterically, knowing it could easily be them doing this foot in mouth talking. While jets are moving along at 500 mph and a desperate controller is waiting for this guy to stop, there is nothing that anyone can do. United XXXX was not through. “Today in the main cabin our fantastic flight attendants will be serving our Mexicana fare so please enjoy your service. If there is anything we can do for you from the flight deck, blah, blah, blah. When the pilot finally releases his mic button what follows next is the best part. That pilot is guaranteed at least a half dozen jabs by his fellow pilots who had to listen to him. It would sound something like this, “That sounded very professional”, If you have any leftovers can I have some?”, “Are your flight attendants fantastic AND cute”? “You can so something for me, stop talking”, What was the weather in Los Angeles again”? Sometimes the controller tells us to stop, sometimes they yell at us to be professional. The unwritten law of giving the offending pilot verbal hell will never change. One thousand years from now when we are rocketing to the distant ends of our universe, some poor pilot will mistakenly transmit on an intergalactic common frequency, thinking he is talking to the 50,000 passengers on his space ship. It might sound something like this, “Citizens of Earth, the Republic of Mars, and all Extraterrestrials, welcome aboard the star ship Wilbur Wright serving you with nonstop service to the planets of Gamma Sector 6. Star ship staff will pamper you with other worldly foods, zero gravity recreation, and entertainment that any humanoid could enjoy. My name is captain Kirk and I believe this will be the most enjoyable experience you have ever had. I would like to extend a special welcome aboard to the thousands of Venebrium Slime Devils who are with us relocating to planet Zanadu. We are sorry for the loss of your home planet and wish you the best as your future is secure and bright in the hands of the Intergalactic Space Federation. I ask all of you to get to know each other and visit me in the command center, Kirk out”. As his lips slam shut Kirk’s first officer says to him, “Captain, I think you transmitted on common”. Kirk turns pale as he sees “GALACTIC COMMON” on the holographic communications panel. Within seconds from all over the galaxy, like perfectly thrown daggers, other pilots respond to the call. “Jim, go back to Star Fleet”, “My most enjoyable experience is not hearing you talk”, “Are Venebrium Slime Devils edible”?, “I’m a humanoid and I’d like you to entertain me”, “When I visit you can I play with the switch thingies”?, “I thought WE destroyed Zanadu”, and so it would go not for a few seconds but perhaps for hours as deep space would be a lonely place. I am not sure what the future holds for aviation but I do know that pilots will always be pilots and we will forever act like children when it comes to hearing one of our fellow pilots screw up. Be Safe, FlyGuy.