The Future Will Be A Little Late This Year


It’s embarrassing. I’ve been a pilot for over 45 years, learned to fly at a military airport with a control tower, and mumbled through an ATC career that ended in don’t-let-the-TRACON-door-hit-you-in-the-butt-on-the-way-out. Despite that resume, I still fumble when using my own voice, a seemingly innocuous instrument comprised of hot air and virus droplets. As with other pilots—and controllers—I periodically engage the mouth prior to the brain. I’ll suggest a highish-tech remedy momentarily.

Much of what’s said in flight is anticipatory and repetitious, including what instructors say to students. Two mantras are embedded in my graduates’ subconscious: “Right rudder, right rudder ….” Good for a variety of scenarios, especially tailwheel. I rarely think before invoking; just comes out whenever the nose pitches up. The communication mantra is, “look, listen, think, talk.” That fourth being of least significance, therefore should be limited if not banned.

Emphasizing the obvious, when departing from a non-towered airport the pilot should look for traffic (think Plexiglas, not solely ADS-B In) and listen to the CTAF blather for any hint of intruders. Here it gets tricky. Before making your move onto the dance floor—think. Just like high school, are you really as cool as you think you are?  I never was and still bear the acne scars. Think what you’re going to say before saying it. And only then, talk. If you can’t think, then say nothing. Transmissions that begins with, “um,” “uh” or phlegmy throat-clearing indicate you skipped the think step.

I’ve violated thinking both as pilot and controller, and in quarantine, have analyzed how stupid I can sound. One problem is I switch between airplanes and will key the microphone with no idea what to call myself: “… Citabria, er, no, Cessna … Wait, there’s a low-wing, so, maybe, Cherokee …?” Once, when ferrying a Cessna 150, I called ground control for taxi. With the mic button depressed I discovered that the callsign wasn’t placarded on the panel. Maintaining the hot mic, I opened the door to read the N-number on the fuselage, only to discover they were in that stupid 3-inch font tower controllers despise. “I’ll call ya back,” I said and climbed out to read the numbers on the tail. Embarrassing? Sure, but no showstopper. Thankfully, with ADS-B, controllers know who you are before you do. It’s kinda creepy.

Here’s my high-tech pitch to Garmin. Autoland has garnered well-earned press, offering the possibility to not die after stumbling to the edge of one’s comfort envelope, or should the pilot have truly died, it will safely return inconvenienced passengers to Earth. Good stuff that Autoland but not good enough. Let’s expand that technological concept into pilot/controller communications or the freebasing CTAF, aviation’s equivalent of an unmoderated conference call.

Most of us will, at some time, get brain-tied babbling on frequency and wish someone had taken a hint from Galaxy Quest (great movie) and marketed a redo feature that can wind back time, perhaps 10 seconds to undo the error. As a controller I could’ve used that feature. Like the time (so embarrassing) when I was vectoring Citation N900GC to a final approach course, and slightly overwhelmed with other traffic, I instructed the Citation to “turn left heading, Zero Golf Charlie.” The response was the rare occasion when a transmission beginning with “Um,” was appropriate: “Um, say again …?!” A do-over would’ve been nice.

I believe corrective comm technology is the next best thing. If Autoland can mitigate an in-flight fiasco, why can’t there be a two-way comm Autocorrect? Like when your iPhone automatically changes words you typed with weird stuff that baffles the receiver. Utilizing a complex algorithm that I wouldn’t understand,  AvAutoCorrect™ will anticipate what you meant to say, based on all the possible things that should’ve been said and inserts the ideal words, not into your mouth where they would do no good, but straight into the transmitter.

Example: You’re wrestling through an IPC (Instrument Proficiency Check), with flatscreen inputs flatlining your brain as the CFII says, “Request the ILS.” So, you do, and ATC asks, “How would you like your approach? Own nav? Scrambled? Over-easy? Would you like a missed approach and toast with that …?” At least that’s how your brain’s interpreting things, since you skipped breakfast, leaving you hypoglycemic and so far behind the airplane it could crash, and you wouldn’t arrive at the scene for at least 30 minutes. Sensing your inaction, AvAutoCorrect™ will select the appropriate choice for you and answer ATC in a soothing male, female or gender-ambiguous voice, e.g., “Request vectors to final.” I’m hearing Ingrid Bergman from Casablanca in this voice role.

Ever since Apollo 13 (both the mission and the even better movie), “Failure is not an option” has guilt-slapped aviation. Frankly, possibilities for screwing-up are limitless as are solutions when underachieving minds are in quarantine too long. With technology the human can be isolated—in a manner so as not to offend—from decision-making and thus guarantee (music up) the smooth flow of traffic in the National Airspace System (NAS).

Hal, the enigmatic computer in Arthur C. Clarke/Stanley Kubrick’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey (our final cinematic allusion), aptly made this point 50 years ago. His diabolical, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” to the hapless astropilot, Dave, who mistakenly thought humans should be in command of spaceships, wasn’t a warning of technology besting humanity. It was a promise. And with AvAutoCorrect™, a promise that could soon be kept, if we’re not too embarrassed to accept the challenge to do nothing in the face of adversity.

Assuming AvAutoCorrect™ didn’t team up with Hal’s descendants and kill us first, I was anticipating the rollout of AvAutoCorrect™ during AirVenture this year at Oshkosh. My iPhone, though, just reminded me that the future is not in my hands … which I now need to wash, or the phone will release embarrassing photos of me from the Senior Prom. “The horror … the horror ….” (Okay, that’s the final movie nod.)

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  1. It’s always a delight to start my day reading one of your articles. These sentences brought back painful memories: “Before making your move onto the dance floor–think. Just like high school, are you really as cool as you think you are?” I was not…
    I love your writing, so I have bought one of your books! 🙂

    • …and you wouldn’t arrive at the scene for at least 30 minutes. FUNNY! The funny thing is that what maybe made you crash (being behind the airplane) could end up saving you as… tail. If only…
      I remember in flight training on my first night flight where I was cleared to land runway 9R at PBI (before the runway had changed to 10R). On a very long final, I aligned the airplane for the runway and my instructor pushed the right side of the yoke down to move us over to the right, just a little. I was “thinking” maybe he wants to see if I can recover being off the intended path. So, I “recover” and line up the that beautiful runway with all those pretty lights. He again, without saying a word, moves the airplane to the right. Now I’m “thinking”, “Dude, I just demonstrated to you that I can get back on track here” and went ahead and lined up to the runway again, almost proud of myself and “correcting” my instructor’s attempt at turning my airplane into a sewing machine that is stitching a zig-zag pattern into the night sky. My instructor then states, “You were cleared niner-right, yes?”. “Yeah!, I respond” realizing now that I need to figure out why he would ask such a silly question when I am clearly heading for the runway. He moved the airplane to the right again! It was at this point that I realized I probably need to do more of this step 3 (huh, think) of the communication mantra as Paul the author here described. I was CLEARLY doing step one! I was looking at and lining up for the runway in front of me! A long 10,001 ft runway that was totally mesmerizing. Step 3 revealed no solutions so I skipped right to part 4 (talk, and thankfully so). “Why do you keep doing that?” I asked. “He cleared you niner-right” he says. “I know that”, I said. “Then why do you keep aligning yourself to niner-left” he asked. Step 3 all of a sudden sprung into action but amazingly, it still revealed no answer! “What niner-left?” as I demanded an answer and right now as we were, at this stage of our game, getting preeeeety close to our hail mary. “There niner-right” he points. After a brief discussion he convinced me that that little “blip on the right” that he had pointed to was actually a runway (over 3000 feet worth). “I’ll never be able to get this plane in there” I argued! “Trust me” he said, and sure enough. Step 1 is the easy one but I think there can be a huge gap between step 2 and 3! And step 4 is one that sometimes should be practiced more often…

  2. Loss of the brain—mouth connection is certainly embarrassing, but not as embarrassing as loss of the brain—pilot connection. Even though he had probably never heard of Socrates, one of my favorite old flight instructors frequently employed the Socratic method in the airplane as a way to prompt a desired response. On one particular flight I couldn’t seem to get past the mental IMC I was suffering to get where he wanted me to go. It was a windy day, perfect for learning about ground reference maneuvers, but nothing was making sense. I was getting pushed out of the outside of the downwind turn requiring “heroic” bank angles (my CFI’s description) or pushed over my ground point on the upwind side. Imagine the following in a slow, droll, southern accent:

    CFI: “Look out the front; what’s your eyes tellin’ you?”
    ME: “The wind is pushing us to the left?”
    CFI: [Pause while waiting for me to get it.]
    ME: [Not getting it.]
    CFI: “What’s your bank angle tellin’ you?”
    ME: “It’s at 20 degrees.”
    CFI: [Pause while waiting for me to get it.]
    ME: [Not getting it.]
    CFI: “What’s your BRAIN tellin’ you?”

    Apparently, my brain wasn’t speaking to me at that moment.

  3. Two ATC stories from my career at Chicago Center;

    1-A flustered trainee referred to Canadian Bravo Oscar Tango as Bosco, Osco Tango.

    2-The controller could not understand what the pilot of FMxxx was saying (French Military). Then he thought of the Fannie Mae candy company and began calling the French military flight “Fudge Packer”. “Zees Ees zee French meel-ee-taree!!!” was the reply the controller got.

  4. When position reporting over HF was the order of the day in oceanic and remote airspace, not wasting the achievement of having raised a radio operator on HF by talking before thinking or even first rehearsing before talking was a lesson a person would never want to learn twice. In the most extreme cases it could make the difference between getting a higher altitude for fuel savings or not. Then transitioning back to one’s native VHF airspace was sometimes such a relief that relief was palpable and guess what – sloppiness crept in.

  5. Last (but I’m sure not least) I loved the little “TM “ superscript on AvAutoLand. Great writing! Keep it up! Between you and Bertorelli, AVWeb is my first go-to email when it shows up!

  6. AvAutoCorrect? That’s the LAST thing we need! Given the way the current algorithms from the “best and brightest” in Silicon Valley currently butcher text messages, I have no doubt they would turn a pilot’s reply of “contact Approach” into “Cancel IFR”.

  7. Your article resonated with me to bring back earlier days when I found that the yoke mike button had a dual function. Besides lighting the “T” on my radio; I found that it also effectively disconnected the cord between my brain and mouth.

    As a youngster, I was extremely shy. Not surprisingly, this carried over to radio work when I began flying. Hence, my love for uncontrolled fields; and especially those with self serve gas.

    Like all else in life, we must learn to accept our individual deficiencies and find workarounds. In order to minimize the stuttering and often dead air mess that sometimes came out on my mouth; I devised a training aid, which I pasted to the top of my panel to help keep me on track.

    I is merely a generic reminder of basically what I SHOULD say when first contacting the tower when approaching Class D airspace. The sticker reads:
    “______ TOWER, CESSNA 12345 INBOUND
    OVER (location) with XXXX (atis) [or]
    X MILES (direction) OF FIELD with XXXX (atis)

    Thankfully, I no longer need my ‘crutch’. But, just like an old faithful friend, it is still there and I don’t have the heart to remove it.

    Jerry King