I’m Looking For Patient Zero


Remember that great scene in “Full Metal Jacket” where Gunnery Sgt. Hartman screamed, “Who said that? Who the &^% said that?!” Only with great discipline do I restrain myself from blurting this out on the CTAF when someone says, “last call.” This evidently has become a thing, at least around this part of Florida when someone is motoring over the horizon and requires a curtain drop, a sense of closure as their journey of wonder continues beyond the constraining world of the traffic pattern.

I know how this stuff happens. Someone originates such a thing out the thin ether between their ears and someone else hears it and thinks, “Well, hey, that’s pretty cool. Why don’t I do that?” Then it spreads faster than the trots on a cruise ship and before you know it, you can’t escape it. I hear it on our local CTAF and also on the ones whose frequency we share.

It’s amusing to contemplate what it’s supposed to accomplish in that the person uttering it must somehow assume that people who hear it will muster enough interest to show anything above flat line brain activity. “Oh, you’re going? Well, y’all come back, ya hear!” I think maybe next time, I’ll stab the PTT and scream, “Wait, don’t go!” Or maybe, “And stay out, too!” I do wonder how many pilots are sphincter-gripping their seat pads waiting for that “last call” so they can, you know, stop worrying.

Now don’t assume that my pants are snagged on this phrase not being in the AIM, the holy flight scripture that guides us all about as effectively as the nuns’ entreaties against activities that might cause hair to grow on our palms.

No, that’s not it at all. What I object to is that it’s stolen valor. “Last call” has a specific connotation you can’t possibly understand unless you’ve closed a few bars. I did that in my youth as a newspaper reporter, but the last time I did it was in February of 1979. I was in the club car of the Amtrak Vermonter on the way to Washington, D.C., after two days of ice fishing on Lake Champlain. The car was populated with skiers who drink even more than ice fisherman and even though I’ve hung out with skydivers most of my adult life, skiers, by comparison, are psycho. The bartender called a panicky last call after something involving hanging out the open doors between the cars. I have no clear recollection. Certain of the passengers may have been “detrained” in White River Junction. Sobered up, we … I mean they … caught the next day’s train.

So to use the phrase “last call” in the aeronautical context does a grave disservice to the barflies, the Karaoke Queens, the boozy billiards players and line dancers, the hard luck cases and the lonely dissolutes who have sacrificed significant liver function in gaining an understanding of what “last call” means, when it will come and how to strategize a drink order to mitigate the awful finality of it. Somehow, using the phrase to imply “I’m done talking to you” cheapens the thing.

And for no particular reason, it reminds me of the worst story idea I ever pitched to the city editor. How about a feature on people who go to bars early in the morning? “Did it ever occur to you sonny,” said one of the barflies whose character I ventured to plumb, “that people who drink in the morning don’t want to talk?” It had not. But I did learn this: When you start at 7 a.m., last call is a theoretical construct.

My idea, then, is to find whoever originated this unfortunate usage—patient zero—and take him/her to a bar to show the real thing in the wild. I’ll even hike up my breeches and have a beer or two. I’ll put it on my expense account as education.

And, encouragingly, my own education continues. The standard of pattern radio work is execrable and made worse by the use of full call signs and other useless verbiage. So I rarely use call signs on the CTAF, but aircraft type and maybe color instead. A controller/CFI friend of mine notes that there is an argument for full call signs or a least a portion of it. With ADS-B in wide use, you might see three or four airplanes in a busy pattern whose N-numbers the gadget will reveal. But you still have to associate what ADS-B sees with what you see out the window so maybe the call sign will help with that or at least the last three characters of it if the frequency isn’t too busy. This doesn’t apply in my ADS-B have-not Cub, but it might in other airplanes. It’s worth keeping in mind, even for me.

I swore off excess drink after that train debauchery and the epic hangover that followed. But I still like a taste now and then, so with Oshkosh nearly upon us and a pandemic we hope behind us, who will be buy me one of those drinks with the little umbrella?

Last call is imminent.

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  1. I’m not sure what it is about the Sunshine State that their pilots seem to be very chatty on the com frequencies. Maybe it’s just that their southern hospitality gives them the need to share, but it seems to be very prevalent down there. Flying into Sun ‘n Fun a few years back, I encountered a young woman on a CTAF frequency with a loud and somewhat shrill voice who was determined to let the world know what she was planning. Her first call was from 10 miles out to some nearby airport, announcing her intentions that included which pattern she would be entering for which runway and her plan to do a full stop. Wow, okay, glad that is over. But wait! At eight miles out, she repeated the whole story. And again at five miles, and then three miles. Finally I was nearing my destination and switched frequencies to announce my own life story. But before I switched I was sorely tempted to shout “just land the damn thing and shut up!!” I often wondered if the people at her destination airport met her and beat her senseless, or if they were used to the ramblings. Perhaps when she turned off the active runway she announced “last call”. I didn’t have the heart to hang around and find out.

    Sorry, Paul, but I can’t make Oshkosh this year, so maybe a raincheck on the drink. Maybe next year at SnF I can spot you for a beer? You’ll have to bring your own little umbrella. 😉

  2. “…even though I’ve hung out with skydivers most of my adult life, skiers, by comparison, are psycho.”

    At first I was surprised at this statement. What can top a tractor-trailer-sized keg serving free beer from multiple taps at the World Free-Fall Convention?

    But then I remembered my one (and only) Para-Ski competition at Hunter Mt (New York), I shared a room with the Canadian Para-Ski champion. He said most competitors set their bindings so tight that their skis would never come off (“They’d rather break a leg than lose a ski.”). The party afterwards was similarly intense, tempered only by the fact that some of us still had to drive home.

  3. I sometimes think excessive reporting on a CTAF is a misunderstanding of what the announcements are supposed to be for and the assumption that more reporting is safer. I typically see one of two things happen at non-towered airports: pilots who over-report and tie up the frequency, and pilots that don’t report at all (or maybe report when they’re short-final or “taking the active”). It’s not often that I hear pilots who report concisely and timely. And I will admit to at one point having been in the “pilots who over-report” category at one point. I’m sure everyone has been in one (or both) categories at some time.

    As for “last call”, I first saw it in some videos I was watching about helicopter training (I don’t recall which videos, though), and it was explained in one of them that the idea is you’re doing manuevering in some area near a non-towered airport and then departing the area, so you’re announcing that if someone else wants to ask you something they’ll know now that you are no longer listening. I tried it once myself, and it felt awkward and silly, not to mention it doesn’t help if someone wasn’t paying attention. It’s a silly idea.

  4. Patient zero likely flies for a fractional operation. That’s where I heard it for the first time and it seems a great source from which to “spread the trots”

    Announcing “last call” always seemed superfluous to me but I do understand the impulse. You’ve just cleaned up your swept wing, you’ve only been cleared to an altitude well below 5000 feet above your departure airport, you’re climbing like a banshee and for the next 45 seconds you have only 2 purposes in life: 1) don’t hit another airplane, 2) talk to a controller who can clear you to at least 10,000 feet or higher where you are not limited to 250 knots if you have to level off. So you make your final call on CTAF and announce it as such hoping that whomever might be inbound will understand you’re no longer listening or talking but you’re still in the area for another minute or so.

    A more serious heartburn than “last call”, and this one should snag your pants Paul because it is covered in the AIM, is trash talk on guard. It’s even worse than APA tower requiring your FULL CALL SIGN every time you talk to them. (That didn’t prevent a recent midair did it.) If you’re used to monitoring 121.5 while droning along in the flight levels it has become almost impossible to tolerate and frankly embarrassing. Hitch a ride across the country one of these days. listen to guard frequency all the way across and then blog about it. You’ll want more than just one of those drinks with the little umbrella.

    • I once tried (actually, really tried) to monitor guard for an entire 2hr flight. I only made it about 20 minutes before I got tired of hearing Jet Blues asking for a center frequency, a couple guard police, and people not realizing they were on guard (until said guard police jumped in). At least I didn’t hear any meowing (though I’m sure if I stayed on it for more than 20 minutes I would have).

  5. Paul, I’m so proud of you! Drinking, debauchery and even nice cleavage in the header photo.

    You are human after all!

  6. Paul: On the request for the umbrella drink, do you want it flaming or is that just for tourists?

    As a musician who worked the club circuit in my younger days, I can attest to many last calls. “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here!”

  7. It is even worse in Canada. Thanks to the flight school “good idea club” you now hear many GA pilots end every transmission with “Any Conflicting Traffic Please Advise”. I can not conceive of a more useless communication.

    I am doing my best to stamp it out by ruthlessly mocking every instructor I hear using and/teaching this silliness, but it is an uphill battle.

  8. In the 70’s, there used to be a disco bar in downtown Oshkosh off Main St called Bobby McGee’s. I’ve heard that call there many times when I used to stay at the UW dorms and was an ordained practicing ‘disco daddy.’ It’s gone, I no longer stay at the dorms or imbibe until I can’t see straight (isn’t getting old great?). Nowadays, it’s the Acee Duecee Club on Oregon St. That said, a few extra beers can be found at the grey house between the red barn and the light sport runway accessible off Knapp St. I live in the large white cargo trailer. Ask for Paul, Rodney, Jason or Larry. One of us will be there.

    What makes ME crazy is people on “left final” who think saying niner niner is required.

  9. Paul, you’re absolutely right about what Last Call means. As a practicing musician I’ve been on the scene of uncountable Last Calls over the past 50+ years, and my brain simply will not change gears to let in some different definition. It would be like calling UFOs something other than “UFO”s. I know somebody’s doing it now but I don’t know why or what it accomplishes.

    Maybe one or both of Patient Zero’s grandparents had a CB radio, thus giving Junior or Juniette a hereditary head start toward the categories of Dramatic or Comedic Spoken Word Radio Performance. And maybe these radio voice actors ought to shift from emulating Orson Welles to emulating Jack “Just the facts Ma’am” Webb. Not wishing to be part of the problem, I would resist the temptation to respond to someone’s “Last Call” with “Maybe for you, but I KNOW it’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” Tempted, but pretty sure I could resist, unless somebody nominated me for a Best Supporting award.

  10. I’m not really a GA guy and I think I’ve made a half dozen transmissions on CTAF in 35 years but I enjoyed the article. Frankly, I enjoy reading anything Mr Bertorelli writes.

  11. I think I started hearing “last call” on the CTAFs around here (northern Colorado) about 3 or 4 years ago—it was typically students out of the Denver area flight schools who often venture north to less trafficky airports to do their practicing, especially instrument approach practice. Now it’s as common as Carter’s pills once were. When I first heard it, though, rather than comparing it to the bar scene, my reaction was that it mimicked and frankly degraded the traditional “last call” ceremony ending the funeral of a fallen law enforcement officer.

    I guess “last call” has functionally replaced “any other traffic in the area, please advise”, which seems to be not quite disappearing. At least, it’s not quite as prevalent as it once was.

  12. Different sub-cultures evidently. The one time I spent time with skydivers they smoked weed all the time, but hardly touched drink — not even water (you know what fish do in it, don’t you?)
    When I saw the floaty patterns in the sky I knew what caused them. Some, most, seemed to spend all their time in freefall.
    As for last call, surely it can only be accompanied by an ear-splitting peal of a great brass bell and a ceremony by a big bellied chap? Or if you cannot afford that sort of establishment, at least a hammering of a half-shaft hung from the rafters with barbed wire to discourage removal?

  13. Good article. Although I could have gotten through my day without the reference to the trots on a cruise ship.

  14. In the pattern I’d rather hear aircraft type and abbreviated call sign than type and color…the color does me no good when I’m five miles out and it’s easier to keep track of with abbreviated call signs. And AIM provides advisory guidance that is similar. One last irritant…those pilots who insist on using local landmarks instead of distance/direction from the airport. Non-local pilots have no idea where “the lake” or “Barney’s place” is. Or pilots using IFR approach fixes for a VFR pattern. Or pilots overflying at 5000′ agl providing repeated position reports. I could go on, but clear and concise and well-timed is the key. And Paul is my favorite writer.

  15. Ranks right up there with NXXXX taxiing on KXXX to wherever and NXXXX transiting KXXX at XXXX altitude, which is 4000 fricking feet above the field.

  16. I teach; “If you want to be a pilot, then FLY your airplane. If you want to talk on the radio, then get your ham radio license!” Keep it short, no wasted syllables.

  17. Having been in the communications game both military & civilian since … umm, lots of decades ago … I do lean toward brief & to the point, but frankly I prefer putting up with a little too much rather than experiencing not enough. It’s annoying to make an initial call (and yes, sans the “any traffic advise”) after a period of monitoring inbound and then during pattern entry make the late discovery there actually was someone wandering around the pattern area who felt it unnecessary to mention the fact.

  18. The annoying beauty of “last call” transmissions is there’s no way to scold the miscreant. By definition they’ve already left the frequency and ignore everything that follows.

  19. Seventh decade of flying, and I’ve never once heard “Last call.”
    Maybe it IS better to be lucky, than it is to be good.

    Had two double cocktails two nights ago. First other-than-beer alcohol in at least five years. Coulda had three more. Smooth drinking, and no hangovers. It was a good reminder of why I haven’t drunk any in so long. Waaay too easy. No umbrellas, though.

  20. Boozers are bad.

    Intoxicated skydivers? All the better to not clearly remember how to untangle lines, deploy your reserve, etc. Idiots!

    (My good brother Brian taught parachuting in his big skydiving career. One time a first jumper froze hanging onto a strut, Brian had to kick his hand to get him away from the airplane. The idiot had fortified his ‘courage’ with booze. Thereafter Brian checked psychology of first timers – to better ensure they were ready.)

  21. I hereby vow that the next time I hear “last call” on frequency I will instantly respond:

    “don’t let the door hit you in the ass”

  22. The use of call signs on CTAF is an FCC requirement, not FAA. All radio transmissions must be identified.