Time To Listen Up

35

You could almost hear the sigh in the approach controller’s voice as he called the VFR Piper for the third time. “Cherokee Six Papa Kilo (not the real callsign), how do you hear?” The response, in a Georgie Tirebiter falsetto: “Was that for Six Papa Kilo?”

Sigh (sotto voce).

It’s been decades since I’ve issued air traffic control instructions, but whenever I’m loitering on an ATC frequency, I instinctively form an evolving 3-D image of the controller’s traffic. Radar bolsters situational awareness inside the controller’s head, but without that mind movie, radar is just, per Edward R. Murrow, “a box with lights.” He was referring to television but similar concept. 

On this day, the controller was moderately busy, snaking airline departures through IFR arrivals; two requested practice approaches requiring more attention than, “Cleared visual approach …” Like a former ball player relegated to the bleachers, I wondered if, despite the expanding time warp since my last government paycheck, I could slip unnoticed into the radar room and pick up where I’d left off in 1997. The terse Hemingwayesque reply for this old man in the sky was: Perhaps, but many would die. 

Skills don’t hone themselves because ego wills it so, but unable to set back the clock, I appreciated the sterling job the radar controller was doing. This was reinforced when he told Six Papa Kilo, “traffic two o’clock, five miles …” 

No answer. 

So, he repeated with an updated “three miles.” 

Still no answer. 

As targets must’ve merged, he added, “altitude indicates (same as yours, Buster!)” but still no response. Finally, the controller’s voice extruded a frustrated, “How do you hear?” Then, when the pilot replied in sleepwalking innocence, “Was that for Six Papa Kilo?” the controller answered, “Why do I bother?”

He really said “traffic no factor” and showed immense restraint by not firing an ATC Stemwinder Missile that pierces a nonresponsive pilot’s thought-canceling headset and bonks him/her with a cartoon boxing glove labeled, Listen Up!  (ATC secret; don’t share.)

This comm story should’ve died there, but more traffic calls went unanswered. I guess some pilots assume that upon hearing “radar contact,” a forcefield enshrouds the aircraft, and Obi-Wan FAA protects the flight until “radar service terminated” unleashes the muted aviator onto CTAF to blather useless position reports with the excitement of a six-year-old after consuming eight Twinkies with a Red Bull chaser. 

I admired the controller who never lost his cool. ATC’s primary tool is voice. Pilots talk to one controller, while ATC engages everyone on the frequency. Layers of cyber wizardry convey a sense of modernity, but largely, it’s 1957 as one human talks while another listens before responding. The Cherokee pilot violated that primal ATC/pilot audio bond and should be denied services for at least a fortnight, yet another fantasy that won’t come true. 

But this might. Earlier I mentioned a time warp, so let’s do the time warp again and consider Daylight Saving Time (DST). I’m writing this after cashing in the daylight I’d saved since spring, plunging me headlong into Midwest winter of discontent. Adjusting clocks merely gives the illusion of change. And I’m not alone in discontent. Famed 1930s aviation passenger Will Rogers once remarked to Charles Dudley Warner, “Everyone complains about Daylight Saving Time, but no one does anything about it.” 

Until now.

Consider the privately owned Village Oaks Airpark (60IA), located north of the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa. Here, the river swings east to west to confuse fliers like me utilizing the lost art of pilotage for primary navigation, and it might be this alluvion quirk that clouds time in the minds of pilots who refuse to submit to time’s pretensions. According to AirNav, 60IA “does not observe DST (Daylight Saving Time).” A bold stance, reminiscent of when Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” (1953) was asked, “What are you rebelling against?” and he famously mumbled, “Whaddya got … other than Daylight Saving Time?”

I was an airport kid when President Johnson signed the Uniform Time Act into law to “promote the observance of a uniform system of time throughout the United States.” Pilots, being rebels often without causes, revolted by stubbornly clinging to Universal Time Coordinated (UTC), aka Zulu Time, named for the 1964 film “Zulu,” in which the British Empire’s finest thespians came to near grief defending Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). *

Some missions, though, are doomed from inception, and forcing pilots to comply with mandated time parameters is one. Therefore, I would say, “Bully!” to the atemporal rebels at 60IA for defying LBJ’s clock-watching police, except deeper research disclosed the defiant posture to be a typo. DST still applies. Wars have been declared for less, but for an instant I believed in, and longed to inhabit, this bastion of DST-deniers, but revolution would have to wait.

Meanwhile, to the uncommunicative Cherokee pilot I say, you shall remain anonymous but not alone. Fifty years ago, age 18, I was standing “at ease” in formation with 200 other trainees on a sunny, cold day at Fort Dix, NJ. Basic training was—probably still is—an incomprehensible rush of commanding voices with frightening consequences for those who screwed up; comparison to first impressions of ATC is apt but misleading. As with air traffic control, I learned to block out the Army noise but didn’t remain vigilant for threats. 

Out of nowhere, a drill sergeant the size of a deuce-and-a-half leaned his smokey-the-bear hat into my face and screamed something about my birth legitimacy and imminent death if I didn’t—and I’m paraphrasing—“Listen up!” Apparently, in my “at ease” mindset, watching a C-141 Starlifter descend overhead for nearby McGuire AFB, the company had been called to “attention.” I’d missed that call and stood out like an unresponsive Cherokee in a skyful of attentive radar targets. Of course, controllers are not drill sergeants there to intimidate. Controllers exist to help by separating those who pay attention from … well, daydreamers like me.

Too many facts to footnote

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35 COMMENTS

  1. I did hear ATC lose it once on ground. The doofus private pilot started taxing in the wrong direction, then missed the turn off to the correct taxi-way, then ignored a hold short clearance for a crossing runway until the controller screamed STOP three times

    Buddies response was “was that for me ? “ . The response and you could almost hear the gritted teeth was “ ABC what part of hold short of runway 13 at echo did you have difficulty understanding?”

  2. There is such a place where “ATC” gets to provide that immediate and “forthright” feedback…Air Boss running flight deck and out to 10 nm…piss him off and you will know, your squadron’s “tower flower” for that event will know, your skipper, peers (subject for extended midrats discussions), CAG/Adm and staff will all know…and you will achieve lasting notoriety in grease pencil on the Boss’s tower window.

    …a 30 year memorable one was the day the COD checked in before the next launch/recovery and requested a fly-by (std up the wake, stern to bow up port side as low/fast as you could beat the horse)…all the squadron reps were already in the tower with Boss for the next cycle and collectively rolled eyes at the spectacle of a C-2 puttering by. Boss cleared him in and we all watched the wake and checked the calendar for his arrival…and waited…and then he showed up opposite direction (bow to stern)…Boss looked at us, we looked at him, he grabbed his mic…”(C-2) your signal is hook up clean up and just go away”. Though we missed some mail that day, it was good not to be him.

    …in answer to the F-16 mishap comments, you can only make a system idiot resistant and you have to have an effective purge process after they self-identify…add having such a filter for the GA world to the wishlist.

  3. > it’s 1957 as one human talks while another listens before responding<
    I've thought for a long time that "that" process is so far behind the tech curve that it's ridiculous. And dangerous, and taking way too much time and attention from the controllers.

  4. Truly enjoyed your article, Paul. As a retired Enroute ATC’er, it brought back memories. A colleague at Atlanta ARTCC back in the day made it standard practice to begin the third attempt to a non-responsive pilot as “earth to 44 kilo, how do you read?”

  5. “Zulu Time, named for the 1964 film “Zulu,” in which the British Empire’s finest thespians came to near grief defending Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). ” Too many facts to Footnote!

    My recollection is that it was a last stand action, forming a defensive line behind a lilywhite Michael Caine whose ink was scarce dry on his commission while Jack Hawkins kidnapped a young woman under the pretense of it being his daughter and hurried her off into the distance. Stanley Baker stood there wondering why he had been so badly upstaged by everyone.

  6. Inattentive pilots are problematic, as are task-saturated pilots. I wanted to point out, though, that the frustration works both ways. I still remember taking my new wife up out of Orange County, California in the 1970s. Though I was on an IFR plan and needed a NW heading, the tower turned me south after departure. This was back in the day when what is now John Wayne was very, very busy. Up at SMO, I was told once I was “13th in line” for landing during the same time frame. Well, just before handoff to center, I told the local controller that I was hoping for a heading in the direction of my destination. Well, he let off a lecture that would melt transistors. It seems my sin was not rejecting his initial instruction to “turn left after departure” since I needed to turn right. Most of my experience was in rural areas, but I had recently moved to Southern California so I hadn’t learned when to correct ATC. Well, it was an education. My wife never felt confident of my piloting skills after that incident, and obviously I still remember it.

  7. His evil twin brother was my drill sergeant at Ft, Jackson, SC in 1968. ” a drill sergeant the size of a deuce-and-a-half leaned his smokey-the-bear hat into my face and screamed something about my birth legitimacy and imminent death if I didn’t—and I’m paraphrasing—“Listen up!” As an aside, I accidentally turned a deuce-and-a-half completely upside down in basic training, but this was long before I was in aviation and familiar with the phrase about keeping the right side up.

  8. I left the FAA in 1998… that box with lights is what I maintained. When I didn’t think it was safe I refused to sign it off as certified to return to service… That was the end of my FAA life.
    I still remember all the systems, I even suggested the system now known as ADS-B back in 1991 to the military, then in 1993 to the FAA. They said it would never work. Now it is required.
    It is still a picture to help understand what is going on. I like hearing your stories of ATC, reminds me of when I use to wonder around in the control towers, approaches, and centers.

  9. MORE PAUL BERGE!

    “Good stories–well told!” I particularly like his allusions, similies. and metaphors to make connections between events–a reference that calls something to mind. They can be over-used, but Berge hits just the right balance in their use–to illustrate–not obscure. Their use causes the reader to make their own similar connections.

  10. One place where, in the course of my career, they took no prisoners was JFK. Although stories abound, and rightly so, about the often downright hilarious responses of the-controller-known-as Kennedy Steve, the rest of the crew often had a far less light-hearted approach to controlling traffic. I would not have wanted to be a pilot whose cradle language was not English on a first trip into JFK!

    On another note, you nowadays actually can relive your Controller days, by signing on with an outfit called Pilot Edge, which is a live ATC service to the computer-based flight simulation hobby. The Edge hires real controllers to provide these services, and although there are some elements of the “job” that have been compressed and combined to accommodate the “virtual” aspect of things, it is quite realistic indeed!

    Oh – and flying C-141’s? Yeah, me too! Great job while it lasted.

  11. Paul, your story reminded me of one of the best controller reactions to a wayward aircraft/pilot that I have ever witnessed in my 50 years of flying.

    It was early 70’s and I flew a friend into KIND in a Mooney to pick up his Bonanza that he had left there days before due to weather and drove home. I was the first to call ground and was given the taxi route to the active runway. Buddy (not his real name) then called and was given the active and told to follow the Mooney. As I made my way to the runway I heard the controller say,”Bonanza Nxxxx where are you going?” His reply was, “I thought I saw a better way to the runway.” The controller, scolded him some about following directions and gave new directions to the runway. I’m now sitting in the runup area waiting on Buddy when I hear the now exasperated controller shout, “Bonanza Nxxx, now where are you going? You are on an active runway!” His reply, “I think I see where to go now.” A minute or two later I hear, “Attention all aircraft. Indianapolis Weir Cook International Airport is now closed! Bonanza Nxxx cleared for takeoff any runway any taxiway just get out of here!” And then I see the Bonanza slowly rise above the ground somewhere around midfield and turn eastbound. My trip back was uneventful and Buddy never heard from Indy so clearly this was a kinder and gentler FAA.

  12. Probably couldn’t do it but if I were that ATC controller the urge to do this would be there.

    “six papa kilo. I have a phone number for you. Say when ready to copy.”

    That gets six papa kilo to respond

    “now that I have your attention there is traffic 2 o’clock 4 miles converging”

  13. While far less frequent an occurrence, sometimes it does work the other way around. More than once over the years I have realized via context analysis that the [some other callsign] aircraft being railed at for non-responsiveness is actually me.

  14. In years of operating single pilot GA aircraft in and out of minor and major airports all around the world I am very conscious of maintaining a live ear to ATC especially when airwaves are getting saturated. This is not easy when in an unfamiliar environment, where novel procedures and local accents may apply, and task saturation is close to being maxed out. Even when I’m PNF in an unfamiliar aircraft I take note of call sign and alert PF if I think they have missed a call, as sometimes their familiarity leads them to anticipate things, like GND taxi directions. In my own embarrassing list, I was at one time inbound from the north to a metro airport adjacent to a nearby major international with parallel runways and little terminal separation, and was cleared Visual Approach to join L base and land RW 35, “great” I thought, 35 is roughly N and I coming from N in so its a straight in, and it will keep me clear of the heavies off to that side, so realigned my track to the Left for oblique ‘base’ for the now visible runway among the lights of the freeways and the city and steepened my descent, relieved that this was well clear of the nearby traffic and was a gimme, DUH!!!! when ATC pointed out that I was getting lined up on 17, and that I was to make close visual descent on downwind for a left base for 35, I had a blinding insight of clarity that although I heard and responded to all ATC directions, I had programmed myself to fly for a downwind landing 180 degrees from assigned runway because that was what I wanted. I had allowed my expectations to influence my perceptions and interpreted the clearance to suit this situation. it was end of a long day and I was a little tired perhaps, but I didn’t listen to what I heard. I was visual and didn’t self brief the approach procedure as it all seemed to be conveniently on rails. One of the dumbest of dumb elementary mistakes, but fortunately the metro domestic airport had no departing traffic, so no harm done, except for my ego. ATC was very alert at this airport due to the proximity of the nearby heavy traffic and saw my error quickly and provided the corrective directions promptly, or it could have become much more embarrassing if the runway numbers in the landing lights on short final were the wrong ones.

    An international foreign heavy had lined up to land on the freeway beside the regional not long previously and ATC was very sensitive and keen to keep the heavies on their own airport on the other side of the freeway, thankfully.

    An F4u just took off outside my airport based office, so I’m drawn to go and watch it, as a moth is drawn to a flame, and i will likely be unable to hear anything other than the rumble of that engine while my friend is practicing his aeros routine overhead.

    PS that ZULU movie reference was great. this was one of the inspirational movies we were shown as cadets in the air force many years ago, a great movie, even if totally unrelated to daylight saving.

    • Randy, I did not know this so I googled it. Zulu Time follows an alphabetical military time zone listing.

      Time zone name Other names
      A Alpha Time Zone UTC +1
      B Bravo Time Zone UTC +2
      C Charlie Time Zone UTC +3
      D Delta Time Zone UTC +4
      E Echo Time Zone UTC +5
      F Foxtrot Time Zone UTC +6
      G Golf Time Zone UTC +7
      H Hotel Time Zone UTC +8
      I India Time Zone UTC +9
      K Kilo Time Zone UTC +10
      L Lima Time Zone UTC +11
      M Mike Time Zone UTC +12
      N November Time Zone UTC -1
      O Oscar Time Zone UTC -2
      P Papa Time Zone UTC -3
      Q Quebec Time Zone UTC -4
      R Romeo Time Zone UTC -5
      S Sierra Time Zone UTC -6
      T Tango Time Zone UTC -7
      U Uniform Time Zone UTC -8
      V Victor Time Zone UTC -9
      W Whiskey Time Zone UTC -10
      X X-ray Time Zone UTC -11
      Y Yankee Time Zone UTC -12
      Z Zulu Time Zone UTC +0

      • Tried to teach a 20 year old about military time nearly 5 years ago at work and he just COULDN’T grasp the concept. So I told another veteran “I guess trying to explain Zulu time would be a waste?” Was Infantry in the ’70’s Army Infantry and we all knew how to use Zulu.

  15. As instructors we need to teach (and model) the behaviors we want to see. With regard to radio discipline, make it a habit to immediately cease ALL conversation the moment you hear anyone talking on the radio. Even if that means stopping in the middle of a word. Talkative passengers in busy airspace? Explain before the engine starts the ‘Sterile Cockpit’ concept and if they do not comply, that you will be making extensive use of the ISO switch before returning to the airport to drop them off from their last flight with you.

  16. I use and at least monitor ATC all the time. The frequency of this kind of incident is appalling. The use of non standard phraseology by pilots, the inability to follow directions, respond correctly is appalling. These are I suspect the same pilots that go to fly ins and barge through the pattern, cut off people, land the wrong way and then wonder why everyone is so angry. Oblivious.

  17. In my experience it is just as often that ATC doesn’t respond until the second or third call. That’s just one of the limitations of trying to communicate over radio in a busy, noisy environment. Let’s not be too critical of each other – just do our best to listen up and patient when our first call isn’t immediately answered.

  18. Aircraft/ATC communications are like listening to a baseball game. To know what’s going on you need to pay attention, and be fully involved as PIC. Unlike baseball, flying can be unforgiving of mistakes and bad luck.

    There have been a few of times when ATC has gently reminded me of this. Once on a night cross-country flight I checked-into ATC for flight following and gave my destination (standard practice). A few minutes later they asked me to say my destination again. I told them and they recommended a turn 20 degrees in the right direction. I thanked them and quietly realized how lucky I am to have them on my team.

  19. Multiple missed calls has happened many times over the last 50 years, but the problem seems to be getting much worse in recent ones. I’d guess it parallels developments with cars which are rapidly turning into rolling home entertainment systems with a corresponding increase in accidents and deaths. IMO, a PIC has no business listening to tunes, phone calls, texting or otherwise messing around with doo-dads while in contact with ATC and barely any business when not.