The Pilot's Lounge #59:
"Any Traffic Please Advise" and Other UNICOM Moronisms
Spring is coming, and that means more congestion at small airports and on the Unicom frequencies. Things would be a lot less hectic (and a lot more safe) if pilots would listen and think before transmitting, and AVweb's Rick Durden has some suggestions for both.
It was, as I recall, a Sunday afternoon. The weather was superb and we were in the middle of Nigel's semi-annual half day of recurrent training. He was, as usual, right on altitude, heading and speed, and way ahead of the airplane even though I'd covered instruments and he was doing it all partial panel. With my workload low, I was wondering, yet again, why it is the British-trained pilots I have flown with over the years always seemed to be, in general, so damned good.
My pleasant reverie was ended when ATC, washing its hands of us, suggested we switch to advisory frequency, requested that we squawk VFR and wished us a pleasant day.
I looked at Nigel, and asked, "Must we?"
He muttered something along the lines of "Of course we must. Tradition, you know, so buck up, Old Chap," or some other vaguely Nelsonian-sounding stiff-upper-lip platitude, glared at me in his best aircraft commander fashion while wearing Foggles, and switched to Unicom frequency despite my continued groans of protest.
I wasn't fast enough to turn down the volume on my headset. It was awful. "Ssshhhrrriiieeeekkk, Garble, garble Unicom, Cherokee November Niner Niner Four Eight is on left downwind for runw-Gggrrrritttcchhh-hhhooowwwwlll-sna Zero Four Quebec is on short final for runway two three at West Yaphank ... Hey, Tom, what kina speed you indicatin'? Yep, that wax you put on seems to make your bird fas-ssshhhrrrieeek-aba Unicom, we're five miles west, requesting airport advisory ..."
I finally got the volume down to a manageable level and started sorting out the calls and determining which airplanes were in the pattern for the airport we were approaching. I watched for traffic as Nigel flew the airplane, still under the Foggles, and bided his time. At a pause in the radio congestion, he concisely advised the world that we were four miles northeast of the airport on an instrument approach and would be landing straight in on Runway 24. He leveled off at the MDA, ran his time out, took off the Foggles, discovered there really was a runway ahead and landed on it, all the while listening to Unicom and making one additional, brief position report.
As we were taxiing back to take off, we heard it. Emerging from the clutter on the frequency came the call of the dreaded and fearless, the Airborne Clueless: "Mooney Eight Hotel Sierra is five miles out, any traffic in the area, please advise."
I groaned, Nigel chuckled and then our souls were lifted by someone with a wit far, far faster than ours, "Mooney Eight Hotel Sierra, we advise that you pull the throttle back, lower the gear, aim for the runway and land, then buy low, sell high and don't invest in Internet stocks."
As much as I detest extraneous verbiage on Unicom and rarely think it's appropriate to correct someone on the air, it's about time we stand up to the arrogant twits who sail into the area of an airport, blithely demanding that the world kowtow to them by dropping everything and, as good peasants, reveal their precise positions, even if they had done so 10 seconds earlier. The demanding hotshots can't be bothered with actually looking out the window for traffic because the moving map display demands all their attention, and such a pedestrian concept as listening to the Unicom to determine who is where and then making a mere position report is beneath their level of aeronautical royalty. The "any traffic" call is often followed by Their Sovereign Vacuousness proceeding to barge into the pattern without further regard for traffic flow, or even the fact that there is traffic -- blithely assuming the seas will be parted. Such pilots have received more than one imaginary Sidewinder up their aeronautical posteriors.
Good Intentions Gone Bad
Back in the '80s after the controllers' strike, when commuters were whistling into fields that no longer had control towers, and were being held on the frequency by ATC until three or four miles from the airport, there was a need for those pilots to get traffic information as quickly as possible. They were running things like the Swearingen Metro -- you know, the San Antonio Sewer Pipe -- and not only were they fast, the crews were being pressed by management to keep the speed up until on very short final. Even with two pilots, the workload was high as they sorted out the pre-landing checklist, said goodbye to ATC and then tried to make the transition to a VFR traffic pattern in a very short period of time. Some assistant chief pilot at one of the commuters came up with the "any traffic please advise" call. It seemed sensible to management and those who didn't know civilian aviation very well and hadn't done much flying at smaller airports. The fact that the call didn't work, and soon would prove counterproductive, was ignored. It became policy.
The inevitable happened. Just as animal waste flows downhill, pilots who should have known better started emulating the commuters, and the ab initio schools who figured that they had to mimic the commuters caused the "any traffic" foolishness to spread like flatulence in a closed room.
What is interesting is that the commuters seem to have dropped the "any traffic" practice. As with others who regularly make use of Unicom frequency, they have recognized that the best and most productive technique to use when you need to know if someone is near enough to be of concern is to simply make a position report. Almost invariably that action will generate calls from any other airplanes in the immediate vicinity, which gets you precisely what you needed in the first place.
The "any traffic please advise" call does three things, all counterproductive: It aggravates a significant proportion of the pilots who hear it, causing many of them to refuse to say a word, even if they are nearby and pose a potential conflict; when it does generate calls it tends to do so from folks who are 10 miles in the other direction, so some of the folks who do matter shut up and some who don't, speak up, gaining nothing, but adding to frequency congestion; and, finally, it tends to lead to some smart-ass remarks that create frequency congestion and don't do anyone any good when it comes to keeping airplanes from running into each other.
The "any traffic" call is not just useless frequency clutter, it's becoming a hazard and it's time it disappeared. Let's see, maybe Lake Superior State University will add it to its annual List of Words Banished From the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness. Yes, the list includes phrases as well as words. So, let's banish "any traffic please advise" from aviation just as our aeronautical ancestors finally got rid of the instructors who taught that ailerons were to keep the wings level during turns back in the 19 teens.
Keep It Simple, Accurate and Brief
Let's face it. In most parts of this country, Unicom frequencies are dreadfully overcrowded. Until we have a usable electronic collision-avoidance system for all general aviation airplanes, the way in which we separate airplanes is via the judicious and aggressive use of the Mark II Eyeball and a soupçon of pure luck. Concise, accurate position reports on Unicom provide a huge assist to the process. Letting someone know where to look for you in as unequivocal manner as possible, using the minimum airtime, does nothing but good things for your continued longevity. Anything that interferes with that process is a safety hazard.
It's perfectly normal for pilots, especially when in a new or unusual situation, to have some problem on the radio. Fumblemouth is forgiven by all who hear it because we've all been through the process of learning to speak on the radio. Learning requires time and practice, and everyone knows it. What isn't forgiven is loquaciousness. When on Unicom, fly the airplane first and foremost, then listen to what's being said, then think about what you are going to say and, when it is time to talk, do so in a calm, unhurried manner, getting your message across with as few words as possible. Then revert to your normal pilot mode: flying and listening.
Instrument Approach Jargon
After flying with Nigel, I went back to the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport and pulled up some notes I'd made during flights over the last several months. One of the complaints I'd heard from students and non-instrument rated pilots was that some pilots shooting instrument approaches seem to have a need to impress all on the frequency with the fact that they are indeed shooting an approach while simultaneously providing no useable information about where they are. The fact that you are 3.6 miles from BAGEL intersection on the GPS 33 approach doesn't tell the new solo student in the pattern where to look for you.
With all due respect to the high and mighty busily shooting instrument approaches, please give position reports in terms of direction and distance from the airport and let us know which runway you hope to hit. The idea is to communicate effectively so that people you might not want to meet while flying will know where you are and all concerned can avoid the noise of a midair collision. That means using words that everyone with an interest in you can understand. Leave the jargon for ATC.
Overflight Reports at Altitude
I've never fully understood why some pilots feel the urge to inform the world about every airport they overfly when they are thousands of feet above those landing sites. Maybe they feel the need to give the eager folks on the ground listening on air band radios a running commentary of their travels. Maybe with their desire to impart useless information via a microphone they want to become air show announcers. Who knows? They are not a concern to airplanes in the pattern at those airports, which is the purpose of Unicom, and, being at altitude, their call can be heard for a long, long way, cluttering the frequency at even more airports.
I'm still waiting for my friend to finish development of the stupid-seeking missile. If I were absolutely certain it wouldn't return to me, I'd use it on those cross-country emcees.
If you are one who feels the urge to make such reports, continue to do so, just don't press the transmit button.
You hear it every weekend. Homer and Jethro get on Unicom frequency and run their mouths about their power settings, indicated airspeeds, which fly-in breakfast to go to and whether they got drunk last night, as the rest of us come to a slow boil. We would really like to report that we are on downwind and have the Cessna in front of us in sight, but Jethro has got the frequency tied up with his dissertation on using molasses as an engine additive.
Please, there are frequencies for plane-to-plane conversations: 122.75 and 122.85 Mhz. Use them. Oh, and don't get huffy when we ask you to either knock it off or switch frequencies. Unicom frequency is congested enough, we don't need the CB mentality on it. One missed radio call can be the difference between a routine flight and a fatal midair, so your conversation about the best airport restaurant for chicken-fried-steak isn't going to improve our level of safety in a congested traffic pattern.
Some Airplanes Do Not Have Radios
With all of the discussion of the benefits of Unicom when used properly, we pilots have to remind ourselves that not every airplane in the pattern has a radio and that all pilots are not interested in talking on the radio. That means that, whether we have a radio or not, we have to be assertive in looking for traffic all the time. Some pilots don't have the extra cash to buy a handheld transceiver or won't buy one for the half-dozen times a year they get to fly a no-radio airplane. Some pilots regularly fly Cubs and Champs and Wacos with no electrical systems other than magnetos, like that fact, and are not going to get a radio no matter what. It is interesting that most of those pilots also have developed excellent looking-around skills. Maybe it would behoove pilots who over-rely on their radio for aircraft separation to spend some time in no-radio airplanes.
The entire matter of Unicom communications around airports boils down to recognizing that the most important method of avoiding other airplanes is to look out for them. The radio is a tool to support that effort. As a tool, it should be used solely to support the goal of spotting and avoiding other airplanes. Use of the radio in any fashion that does not work in the direction of that goal reduces the level of safety for all of us. Radio calls that are counterproductive or add to frequency clutter have no place on the air. Using words or methods of position reporting that are not clear to everyone flying in the area serves no useful purpose, and tying up the frequency with idle conversation could cost a life.
So, let's relegate "any traffic please advise" to the pile of aeronautical failures and move on.
Oh, and Nigel: Happy 50th.
See you next month.