The History of Going Down The Tubes


Consider that moment when you’re in the swirling bisque, fingernails clutching the rim as unpleasant consequences mock your lack of exit strategy. Like my first day in the Army when a drill sergeant expressed his unvarnished displeasure with my existence, or the time I accepted a party invitation only to discover, as the deadbolt clicked behind me, that it was an Amway trap, and pallets of detergent later appeared in my hangar. Not a total loss as those liquid-filled bottles made for spectacular hydraulic expansion demonstrations on the target range.  Airborne though, that sickening I’ve gone too far usually has one source. Me … or you. Mostly, me.

As I write, the Winter Olympioids are in full shrug. I’d watch if it included Hand-Propping on Ice, or Downhill Landing a Husky with Skis, or Over-prime Your Engine Then Extinguish the Inevitable Fire … on ice. Minnesota pilots would grab all the gold plus everything from the mini bar. Still, one event reminded me of aviation follies—the luge. Luge is Norwegian for, “Hold my beer, Lars, as I slide down this frozen culvert on my butt!”

In luge, once you commit, you’re going. Like the time I rode shotgun on a freight dog Beech 18 with a pilot whose name I’ve forgotten in case FSDO is listening. After we’d returned from the after-midnight run, the pilot preflighted the airplane. Odd, I thought, but, no, he replied, anticipating my expression. “In freight, we postflight the airplane, not preflight.” Because when the cargo’s onboard “you’re going.” Malfunctions can be addressed upon return. (Click here to express umbrage)

The point of no return in accident scenarios is rarely achieved without aggressive navigation. Like the time—long ago—I decided it’d be safe to scud-run down a mountain arroyo to reach VFR conditions above the flatlands below. Once in the chute below the manzanita, I knew I’d made at least nine wrong decisions, but I was committed or should’ve been. Apparently, I survived, or I’m writing from another dimension with my Cassandra warning about identifying stupidity landing on deaf ears.

“Going down the tubes,” according to the Urban Dictionary, “describes a situation (that) is … going rapidly downhill.” Some attribute its etymology to the British phrase, “going down the pan.” “Pan” being a British word for “sink,” and when repeated twice on the radio—“PAN-PAN”—implies urgency, as in “desperately need to use the loo.” For true emergencies one upgrades to thrice stated, “MAYDAY,” which brings rescue priority or Tinkerbelle back to life. Whatever its root, “down the tubes” portends ruin, but we give England too much credit for inventing the English language. “Down the tubes” is a classic ATC expression.

Gravity is the bedrock of flight. Without it, aviation is pointless. It has been overcoming weight vexed humans for millennia until someone invented airplanes. All fine, but airplanes require government to stifle enthusiasm, so air traffic control was created. Initially, controllers on the ground waved flags at pilots who mostly did whatever they wanted. So, a tower was built, allowing controllers to consider themselves equal to or above pilots. Soon flags gave way to radios. Then, radar sets arrived in some tower cabs, creating TRACABS (Terminal Radar Approach Control in Tower Cab) but as complexity swelled, radar scopes moved to windowless basements beside the furnace. The TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control) was born with approach controllers operating in shadowy tobacco haze.

Tower controllers notified radar controllers of imminent departures through a tube stretched from tower to TRACON. Flight progress strips, resembling chits from your bookie, were inserted into plastic strip holders. As the tower controller said, “Cleared for takeoff,” she dropped the holder down the tube (get it?). At subsonic velocity, the strip holder arrived in the TRACON with a distinctive Thunk, alerting the departure controller that some jet or a confused Bonanza pilot was on the way. Launching numerous departures—with attending plastic strip holders—could put the receiving departure controller “down the tubes.” When that happened, the tubed controller would awaken the supervisor to grab someone off the bench for relief. Old school, but it worked. Nowadays, it’s probably electronic and less dramatic.

Periodically, the drop tube would clog from holders jammed sideways or an errant apple core, so the upstairs controller dropped a steel ball into the tube to unplug the clot after first calling, “Fire in the hole!” This ATC angioplasty cleared the obstruction, as flight progress strip and ball hit the flapper door at the bottom of the tube beside the radar scope, ensuring the smooth flow of air traffic with pilots unaware of any glitches in this Flintstone delivery system. A wooden box prevented strip holders from ricocheting around the radar room. Usually.

I was working radar when tower launched three departures in quick succession, the strip holders dropping like nylon flechettes. The sound of incoming turned my attention toward the flapper door, which had jammed open. It took a second to recognize the problem and another to react. During that delay the first two strip holders hit the box and stopped but formed a ramp for the third strip, traveling at Mach .89, to slide up and over the wall like Steve McQueen had attempted in The Great Escape. Unlike McQueen, this holder made the leap and, losing little speed, caught an unsuspecting supervisor, dozing nearby, square in the right temple. He went down like a sack of canceled checks dropped from a Beech 18.

As pilots, far removed from ATC, you should never hear controllers announce they’re “going down the tubes.” If you do, things are getting ugly. Stay calm and know that when the frequency is clogged, but the air traffic keeps coming, the system flexes. Controllers are assigned assistants, or one radar position is split in two, with a second controller sharing the load. Inside the TRACON—unheard by pilots—a controller might have called, “Goin’ down the tubes here!” And, PAN-PAN, Tinkerbell arrives to rescue ATC once again.

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  1. Damn you, Paul Berge … you succeeded in tricking me to click on your ‘(Click here to express umbrage)’ titillation. It’s been a long time since I’ve fallen for that. Good job. Thanks for the tune up. I’ll now be more careful on my emails.

    “Gravity is the bedrock of flight.” But you forgot to add that gravity ONLY starts when Wile E. Coyote looks down. I’ve seen him levitate hundreds of times on The Roadrunner so … there must be some scientific reason for the delay related to looking down and yelling, “Uh OH!”. At that point, gravity is turned on and down he goes. Maybe it’s related to the flight strips getting stuck in the ‘tube?’ Any ideas?

    You had it easy in the Army. I once had a USAF drill sergeant tell me — after I faced right when he ordered us left — as he stuck his Yogi Bear hat brim right over my head and glared at me eye to eye for 10 seconds that I was a “living F-ing vegetable.” I then learned it’s not good to laugh at the drill sergeant’s comedic theatre. Did you know that they use giant steam cleaners to get burnt on food off even more giant pots SO big they need wheels on ’em to move about in the KP kitchen? I still have a scar on one hand trying that act seeking atonement at 0300. I got 10% disability for that early injury, however. No purple heart, though. Helps pay for my Starbucks purchases.

    Is this why ATC types make so much money and retire so early while pilots have to endure to age 65?

  2. > …as he stuck his Yogi Bear hat brim…

    I think you meant Smokey Bear hat. As I recall, TIs (they called themselves Technical Instructors when I was a boot) did not like anyone referring to their head gear as Smokey Bear hats. I can’t even imagine how one would react to hearing a recruit call it a Yogi Bear hat, but there would almost certainly be a Boo-Boo involved.

    My KP story involved the next morning’s wake up. We were told KP duty exempted us from Reveille, so when the lights came on and the screaming started at 0500 (one hour after my KP shift had ended, and about 30 minutes after I got to sleep) I pulled the covers over my head. My TI, apparently unaware I had pulled KP the night before, savagely kicked the frame of my bed while loudly enumerating all the hideous and ghastly things that would befall me if I didn’t immediately “UNASS THAT MATRESS, BOY!”

    In my slumber-induced torpor, I–without extending the normal military courtesies expected of a recruit addressing his TI–mumbled something about having served KP duty the night before.

    The next thing I heard was that very, very quiet voice TIs use just before they do something really unexpectedly awful. He was leaning over me, his mouth inches from my ear when I heard, “You get your ass out of that bed right effing now or so help me GOD (no matter how softly he spoke, there was always a subtle but unmistakable emphasis on that word) you will regret the day your mother ever…..” If you’ve ever served you know that TIs say the most awful things about the mothers of their recruits, mostly because they know they can get away with it.

    At this point I’m still half asleep, and a bit indignant about this maniac yelling at me for no reason and insulting my Mom to boot. I climbed out of bed and stood up with my hands on my hips and what I’m sure was a peeved look on my 18-year-old face. My TI just stared at me and asked, “WTF is your problem, Airman?”

    ME: “I worked KP last night; I was sleeping.”

    TI: “What?”

    ME: “I said I worked KP last night.”

    TI: “I heard what you said. Did you forget something?”

    ME: “What?”

    TI: “WHAT?”

    ME: Blank look on my face.

    TI: Getting red in the face, he said, “Boy, you need to get your ass back in that bed, RIGHT NOW!”

    Relieved, I climbed back into my nice, warm bed, secure in the knowledge my TI understood he had made a terrible, but perfectly understandable mistake. As soon as I had pulled the covers up to my chin my TI screamed, “NOW GET YOUR ASS OUT THE OTHER SIDE OF THAT BED RIGHT EFFING NOW AND ADDRESS ME WITH THE PROPER MILITARY RESPECT!”

    Fully awake now, horrified awareness finally dawned at who I was talking to and what I had just said. I scrambled out of bed–on the other side–leapt to attention and said, “Sir! This Airman was briefed he is exempt from Reveille after serving KP duty!”

    In a syrupy voice dripping with insincerity my TI said, “Oh, yeah. I just now remember seeing that on the duty roster. Sorry ’bout that Airman. Why don’t you hit your rack and we’ll see you later.” The “we’ll see you later” part was delivered with a grim smile that didn’t find it’s way to his eyes, thus ensuring my sleep was restful and reinvigorating.

    I got no injuries from that experience, but 40+ years later it remains a fond memory. Bless you Sgt. MacRall.

    • I got the Yogi Bear hat wrong but you’re right about “TI’s,” Mark. I called ’em drill instructors to make it easy for those who never served. But I think they’re ‘Training Instructors’ in boot camp. After half a century, some of that stuff is beginning to fade.

      I worked with a guy who had a similar story to yours. He was put on weed patrol on an ‘off’ day. Given a scythe, he was instructed to clear a very large area by his TI who said he’d be back to get him later. Lunch comes and goes. Then dinner time comes and no TI shows up to get him. Convinced that they’re “testing him,” he keeps on swinging until now it’s turning dark. Pretty soon a Lackland fire truck drives by, stops and a Base fireman gets out to see what the heck he’s doing. When he tells the fireman the story, he’s told to wait right there and stop weeding. Fifteen minutes later, HIS red faced TI shows up and is apologetic and begging forgiveness. The TI drives him to McDonalds and buys him a big dinner and says, “Don’t you tell anyone about my mistake.” After that, my friend said the TI never yelled at him again and he had it easy. 🙂

      See what you started, Paul B.

  3. My wife, a retired ATCer, laughed joyously while reading the article as she remembered the Up-Down facility where she worked for about 23 years. They had the “drop tube”.

    I instructed at PSP and I would often pick her up after her shift and remember the “tube” being somehow attached to the outside of the 52-foot tower down to the trailer radar facility. The PSP TRACON is no longer there as it was relocated to the Miramar Southern California TRACON (SCT) in 2007.

  4. Thanks for a great article, Paul. I spent 25 years as a controller and as a supervisor at two different Enroute Centers; we didn’t have a tube but we frequently went “down the tubes!”

  5. “” “Pan” being a British word for “sink” “” Nope.

    In this context – Being the British word for “toilet”. Like the thing you sit on. Or a bedpan as provided in hospital. But not a “sink”. In otherwords – everything is turning to $h1t…..

  6. Fantastic. Loved the basic training comments from the other readers. Yes, basic, you had to have been there. And DIs/TIs can and did say some of the funniest things that you had better, better not laugh at. Reference the drop tube, was at ORD, worked the TRACON. A husband and wife team on duty mid shift. She’s up stairs in the tower and he in the TRACON. She had brought in a sack of doughnut holes. He wanted some. She said she would drop a few down the tube. First, I cant imagine how nasty they would have been had they made the trip. But they didn’t. They jammed about half way down from the ORD tower. Our maintenance folks were not a happy group to have to disassemble the drop tube about 3 am looking for jammed doughnut holes. Another tower I worked, President arrived, secret service agents with a bag of machine guns stationed in the tower. The drop tube jammed. We had a heavy lead filled tube we dropped down the drop tube when it jammed. It was called “the bomb”. The controller yelled out on his headset to the TRACON below, “I’m gonna bomb the tube!”. Thought the secret service guy would have us al on the floor moments later. When we explained, he said never do that to him again. Super article!

  7. With all due respect to my fellow veterans and their harrowing KP experiences, I believe I might have the worst KP experience ever. Thanksgiving Eve, 1972, Fort Dix, NJ: I, an E-1, stupidly questioned a mess sergeant, E-7, about something trivial and found myself spending the ensuing 12 hours scrubbing a pizza oven, using a brick, a rag, and a child’s beach bucket of cold water. Learned a lot about openly questioning authority that day and recounted it, and more, in my inglorious Army memoir, A-5-2.

  8. I’ve been known to use joke “Click here’s” in web stuff a few times myself, but if I may insert a moment of seriousness: In today’s cyber wild west it’s good to develop the habit of first glancing at the destination URL your browser helpfully provides when you hover over it. If it’s going to be a journey to somewhere like “{plus a bunch of uv1ÒbñjOSigSïçg⌋Ä6A type stuff}”, probably you shouldn’t.

    • This is GOOD ADVICE for everyone to follow. I did ‘hover’ over Paul’s ink but nothing showed up. Knowing it was likely a chuckle and safe, I went for it. But in another forum … doing that is not a good idea. In MY email client program, I can see the link. And having good anti-virus protection is necessary, too. My “damn you, Paul … ” was not a serious comment … just adding to his chuckle, BTW.

  9. What I remember after having worked for 13 years in the Denver Stapleton Airport TRACON before the airport closed in 1995, is the smell of dill pickles. When those large nylon strip holders were dropped down the tube, they had to be carried back up to the tower cab. Someone brought in some 5 gallon pickle buckets from a nearby deli.
    I also remember working the west departure RADAR position when, at the end of a heavy westbound departure push, the tower controller decided to celebrate by discharging a fire extinguisher down the tube. I couldn’t leave my busy position, and did my best to work through the dissipating cloud.

  10. That brings back memories. I spent 25 years at SDF which is an up/down, tower/tracon facility. The first seven years were in the old tower that had drop tubes for east and west local. During one of the UPS inbounds, some idiot was eating grapes in the tower and the departure controller asked him to send him some. Even though the old tower was only 70 feet tall, a grape doesn’t stand a chance against a sudden stop at the bottom. I’m not sure how many grape drops were attempted but maintenance folks were always having to clean that tube out because the strips were getting stuck. We had what we called “bombs”, which were two strips bolted together with a piece of lead between them. When strips got stuck, you would request a bomb. One of our bombs was heavier than the others and one day when it hit the box at the end, it blew the whole end out of the box. Fortunately, when we moved to the new tower in 98, it was 300′ tall and they had to go to an electronic drop tube because the speeds achieved would have been to great.

  11. Our old tower had a pair of drop tubes, only 3 stories to the radar room. We used a metal strip holder to unclog simple stuff and AF had stronger ways, like a weighted ball and rope, of cleaning gunk, like spilled coffee or Coke. Once we moved to the new tower/TRACON, it was electronic drop tubes, which means you entered a few particulars like runway of takeoff and initial instructions, then scanned the strip. This printed the departure strip at the radar position with the runway and instructions on it. If it bombed, you sent the departure strips to the radar room ahead, then called down and gave them the rest. Rarely did it fail.

    While in the old tower, back in the days when smoking was still allowed, some of the controllers used a pad of paper to cover the tubes until needing to drop a strip as the smoke wafted up from the radar room. One of our brash female controllers was working local and sitting while doing so as it was slow. The ground controller asked her to cover the hole, it stank. She quickly responded, “Hey, I’m crossing my legs.” The ground controller turned red as a beet while she howled! Controllers!!

  12. While we’re on the subject of ‘drop tubes.’ I was in the last group of people trained to maintain the B-58 Hustler’s bomb/nav set in the late 60’s. That airplane was the first “integrated (albeit analog) systems” airplane and very complex if not ahead of it’s time … hence its retirement after only 10 years service in 1970. (Low MC rates, high MMH/FH and costs for those that understand those terms). That single pilot supersonic airplane actually had a clothesline looking contraption in it along the starboard side. It was for moving notes and other written material between the pilot, bomb/navigator and EWO in the rear. More often than not, it was used to trade food. You’d hook whatever you wanted to a clothespin clamp and then the aft two occupants would reel it back and forth. Once in a while, something would fall off in the ‘tunnel’ and the maintainers would have to crawl in there to retrieve it. True story.