Short Final: A Case Of Mistaken Identity


Most Grumman American AA1s had similar tail numbers, many ending in Lima, like mine. I was making a short hop in my little blue two-seater from Nashua, New Hampshire (KASH), southbound to Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts (KBED). Having once been based at KBED, the routine was well set in my muscle memory.

I called in from 10 miles out and the tower controller told me to report entering a right downwind for Runway 29. Easy Peasy. But just as I was about to key the microphone to announce I was entering the pattern, the controller asked, “9689L, what’s your position?” Before I could respond, another pilot jumped in. “I’m not sure where I am.” It took me a second to realize he had misheard the tail number, and before I could protest, a long conversation ensued as the controller tried to help a lost student pilot (thinking he was me) find the airport.

Meanwhile, I was entering the pattern, and the controller thought he saw the airplane he was talking to. “Grumman 9689 Lima, the airport is off your right wing at one and a half miles. Continue on the right downwind.” And before I could get a word in, “I don’t see the airport. I see, ah, a river off my right side … and two highways intersecting next to a lake.” They ping-ponged back and forth until the controller began to suspect the airplane he was watching wasn’t the one he was talking to. When he said, “Grumman 9689 Lima, what color is your airplane?” I figured things might finally get sorted out. What are the odds? Grummans came in one of about six colors that I can remember. “It’s blue!” the other guy said.

The rapid-fire dialog continued as I flew the downwind (there was no other traffic) and started my turn to base before I got a break on the frequency. “This is the real Grumman 9689L,” I said. “I’m on base about to turn final for Runway 29.”

There was a brief pause as the controller cleared me to land, the student pilot realized his mistake and he and the controller figured out where he was—and more important to me, where he wasn’t.

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Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.


  1. I’ve been there, trying to get my clearance out of LGA. The trick is to talk slow, but start just before the previous transmission is finished. Talking slow means that you’ll still be transmitting when whoever tries to talk over you is finished. End with your call sign, in your case the REAL 89L.

  2. I have seen this issue more times than I want to. Making a call inbound and then being jammed out by ping-pong chatter, not always important.
    We have one particular airstrip some 66 nm to the easy of my home base. I have found that with regular monotony that when I call inbound at 10 nm the local Ol Boys are chattering between themselves about non important things. ‘Coming to the Friday night BBQ’? ‘How is your boy doing’?
    It maybe we are supposed to call at 10 nm but I subscribe to the notion that depending on the aircrafts speed I now call at 15 nm out and then again a second call at 8 nm or there abouts. ‘Cessna 12X now 8 miles to the west inbound, estimate the field at time 08’.
    That way I have a reasonable chance of alerting traffic at the ‘field and the tower, if there is one, of my location and intentions.
    In short I call by 10 nm not at 10 nm. I hate being jammed out from making important calls by chatter.

    • I have to admit that is one of my big pet peeves. Trying to call out my position in the pattern while a lot of unnecessary radio traffic is happing, maybe 20 or 30 miles away. I’ll (as) gently (as possible) remind them that there is a chatter channel they can switch over to for their weekend plans. Sometimes they are apologetic, mostly they are indignant.

  3. As a former ATC, there were more than one occasion where we had to work with local flight schools to get them to re-number their fleet after they bought new aircraft with sequential numbers and the school’s name as the last two letters. It LOOKS really cool on the ground, when the planes are all lined up for pictures, but in the air, with a bunch of student pilots soloing, when they hear the last two letters, they’re ALL transmitting. #NightmareScenario

  4. As a 40-year ATC’er, I wish manufacturers and flight schools would not use same letters to get a registration that makes “marketing” better. This has caused confusion on the frequency as this example indicates, and has killed people. One incident I remember happened near San Diego a few years ago, when 2 of a flying school’s aircraft (both call signs ended in the same letters) were on a late-nite cross-country IFR flight from AZ to the same destination in Socal a few miles apart on the same frequency. As the lead airplane crossed over higher terrain, he was cleared to descend. However, the rear airplane responded to the instruction, and flew into a mountain ridge. The controller of course, was blamed because he did not catch the wrong readback. Cleverness in marketing does kill people. All call signs should be random…

    • The controller could have caught the readback, but it’s primarily up to the pilots to be aware of the terrain and minimum attitudes. Question ATC if something doesn’t make sense.

  5. How ironic. I just looked up the N number of the 1st trainer I started flying in as a Student Pilot! It’s still flying around! Who would have thunk that. A brand new 1971 Grumman AA-1A. Back then we didn’t know what to call it, so we tried “American 63xxL departing runway xx”. That gag didn’t last long in and around the DFW area. We were formally instructed to announce it as “Grumman American 63xxL” It STILL caused confusion talking to ATC.
    It was a fun little airplane to fly. The flap motor was loud but that was about it..Couldn’t tell the difference – flaps up or down! Ended up geting my PPL in it. The DE has never been in one

  6. I owned N6391L for a time back in the 80’s. The airplane’s serial number often corresponded with the tail number too … my airplane was serno 391