The Pilot's Lounge #45:
Road Rage on Unicom

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There are those who sound off on the CTAF like New York cab drivers lay on their horns. Is it ever appropriate to use the air waves to communicate opinions about another pilot's actions? That was the topic of the day in The Pilot's Lounge. AVweb's Rick Durden was there and reports on their discussion.

The Pilots LoungeA while ago one of my instrument students and I flew nearly six hours in a day. Not surprisingly, his last landing was probably measurable on the Richter scale. Earning our eternal enmity, someone then made a crude, derogatory remark about the landing over the CTAF/Unicom frequency. Neither of us responded, but over the next few days I sure came up with what I thought were some great comebacks. I was angry and I was going to be ready next time to tell off any jerk that bad-mouthed my student and let him know he couldn't get away with it.

The memory of the bum on Unicom came flooding back to me the other day. I was in the pilot's lounge at the virtual airport, between flights, brooding a bit because the Citabria is being sold and I can't afford to buy it. I popped out of my funk as I heard Richard relate a recent incident at a non-towered airport. He had finished his runup, observed an airplane on base leg, felt that spacing was adequate, and departed without further delay. The pilot of the airplane on base got on the radio and jumped all over Richard for having the temerity to takeoff when he was on base. Richard was accused of various improprieties. Worse, the other pilot seemed to expect a response, even as Richard was on the takeoff roll. Richard chose to keep his peace. A few moments later, another airplane gave a position report inbound to the same airport. The pilot who had been on base got back on the radio and told the arriving pilot to watch out for the idiot who had just departed.

Richard is an experienced pilot. He's heard inappropriate comments on the CTAF and Unicom over the years, but said that this one was just plain vicious, and clearly, he felt, out of line.

It's Getting A Little Ugly Out There

What's going on out there? Over the last few years Unicom has been plenty congested, yet we seem to be hearing pilots who are willing to hurl cheap shots, invective or generally try to tell other pilots what to do. Maybe it's because we are wearing headsets and it's easy to push the button and spew when we get upset, rather than having to reach for a mic. Maybe we are simply not handling the increasing pressures on aviation and are taking out our frustrations on convenient, but the worst possible, targets — other pilots.

After Richard related his story, several other pilots recited their tales about depressingly poor radio etiquette. The exchanged evolved into a universal condemnation of such behavior, so I figured we'd solved yet another problem in aviation and I could go back to being frustrated about the Citabria leaving. But, no, someone tossed in a question that split the opinion of the flock, and caused me to try and decide whether there was a correct answer.

Dare We Criticize On The Airwaves?

The question was whether it was ever appropriate for a pilot to give another pilot, um, let's call it flight instruction, or perhaps constructive criticism (okay, tell the so and so off) on Unicom frequency.

As I listened, three distinct points of view evolved immediately. A small group felt that pilots had no business correcting other pilots on Unicom or the CTAF at all. Ever. They felt that a person acting as pilot in command should be respected. A second group said they would offer information, helpful suggestions or safety of flight information without a pilot asking. The third group said that it was appropriate to correct the behavior of other pilots over the radio.

Being naturally curious, I was interested in finding out the definition of the boundaries of the various groups.

Live And Let Live?

Playing short field for keepsThe noninterventionists — those pilots who felt strongly about not bothering other pilots — said that they would respond to a request for information, but that they did not feel it was appropriate to offer information, and certainly not criticism, that was not requested. If they were near the Unicom in the airport office when a pilot called in for an airport advisory, they would always respond with wind, favored runway and traffic they knew about. If the arriving pilot then said he was going to enter a left downwind for runway 32, the nonintervention group would not advise the pilot that runway 32 had a published right-hand pattern. The pilots I listened to said that they would not assume that the arriving pilot was ignorant or stupid, but rather give him the benefit of the doubt in that he may have a perfectly good reason to be entering a left hand pattern.

Of course, I had to ask the next question, would one of the group make a radio call if they observed a safety-of-flight matter?  For instance, what if the arriving pilot advised of an intent to enter a left downwind, it was after dark and there was a mountain on left downwind that the arriving pilot might hit? The answer I got was yes, if they felt it actually was a safety-of-flight issue. The same one who said he generally wouldn't call regarding the right-hand versus left-hand pattern said that he had made a call to a pilot whom he observed taxiing out with the tow bar still on his airplane. While he didn't want to embarrass the pilot, he felt the situation was a safety-of-flight issue.

Offer Information?

The next group was willing to get on the radio in safety-of-flight matters, but also to provide information. They felt it was appropriate to politely advise a pilot who expressed his intention of entering a left downwind for 32 that the published pattern for that runway involved a right downwind. Some of them said that the manner in which they provided unsolicited information to pilots had to be considered, as pilot egos can be pretty large. They tend to try and provide information in the most non-threatening manner possible. Nevertheless, some of them reported getting less than courteous responses from pilots they had attempted to assist.

Offer Criticism?

The third group was of the opinion that advising pilots of their errors on the CTAF was not only appropriate, it was essential. They acknowledged that it would be better to confront a transgressor, such as one who cut others out of the pattern, on the ground. However, they pointed out that, in the real world, it is rarely an option. They felt that the only solution for reaching someone who, wittingly or not, breaks the rules or the norms, is to call him or her to account on the radio.

I have a lot of respect for those who will stand up for what they believe is right, even if it brings criticism. It takes a lot of courage. The problem I had was whether it was the right thing to do on Unicom/CTAF. During the discussion, my own internal alarm was ringing. My own prejudice is toward less talk on the radio, rather than more. I don't know if it is correct, but it is the way I'm wired, so I wanted to listen to those who felt that stepping in assertively on the radio is the way to go.

One of the instructors present expressed himself well. He's a guy I respect a lot, and he's done much at the airport to see that students know and follow the regs and can read and understand the operating manuals for the airplanes. His position was that, if a pilot is not chastised on the frequency for doing something dangerous or rude, his misbehavior will go without punishment. Further, the pilot is likely to repeat the offense. The CFI said that the need for criticism of an errant pilot is rare, so he believed frequency congestion was not a serious concern. He supported that assertion by noting the true causes of frequency congestion: excessively detailed position reports, running commentaries by pilots as they putt around the pattern, making car rental arrangements over the Unicom, the yahoos who are 4,000 feet above pattern altitude yet see fit to tell everyone they are passing over an airport and the incredibly ridiculous call that has gained popularity: "any traffic in the area please advise." He had a valid point. Yet, the idea of correcting another pilot's behavior over the radio still bothered me. So I listened some more.

The instructor went on to say that all societies have some generally accepted norms. That is true of aviation. When you criticize someone for violating a norm, you are contributing to the general consensus as to the definition of the norm or the range of accepted behavior. He said that when criticism (and he used criticism in the positive sense, not as a nagging or tearing down approach) is expressed, depending on how the person receives it, the result might be to cause a change in belief and behavior for the better within the aviation community.

The CFI said that part of the reason for his position was that he'd been chastised on the frequency from time to time in the past and that he'd found that he'd learned from it. Adding to that point, he gave as an example his belief that many rookie flight instructors and even student pilots have better pattern etiquette than lots of high-time professional pilots in larger iron so they are certainly competent to correct a pilot who insists on flying a long straight-in approach when the pattern is full.

No one could disagree with his assertion that some of the worst offenders in the pattern are the professional pilots in turboprops who barge in and expect everyone to clear the area for them. Many folks present could not disagree at all with the need to criticize egregious offenders, but were still very uncomfortable with doing it over the radio.

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

One very experienced pilot in the group quietly said that one pilot's perception of appropriate traffic pattern operations might not match the point of view of another pilot. He also referenced the number of old wives tales in aviation as support for his position that the majority position on an aeronautical subject is often just plain wrong. As a result, he's very hesitant to step in on the radio and accuse some other pilot of doing something improper. He knows he makes mistakes. Despite having tens of thousands of hours of flying time, he knows that he may just about to be wrong very publicly.

Other pilots followed this line of reasoning and referred to local "pattern Nazis" at various airports who tie up the frequency telling off pilots who don't behave as some individual decrees is appropriate. Yet, many times those self-appointed dictators were just plain wrong when they gave public criticism, which could and did generate fights over the frequency, completely blocking all other legitimate transmissions.

Our instructor who felt that expressing criticism was appropriate was the first to say that civility is essential, no matter what is done. He wanted to make it clear that he did not have any tolerance for the little Napoleons who tried to rule the pattern via fiats to other pilots.

I could not stick around for the resolution (if there were to be one) of the debate. I noticed they were still at it when I left.

Yes, We Should Speak Up, But How?

As the day went on, my thoughts kept returning to the discussion I'd heard. What made the issue difficult for me is that I personally believe that a flight instructor has the background to evaluate a situation correctly and thus has an ethical obligation to speak directly to pilots that he or she believes are a hazard to themselves and others. I wrote a column about the instructor's obligation a few years ago. However, my experience is that the need for speaking out is an extremely rare event. I suspect that most instructors will only face the situation two or three times in their career. The question, as I saw it, boiled down to when, if ever, is it appropriate to criticize another pilot via the public airwaves? I found I had some opinions on the subject, and I'll be the first to admit that this is an area where there are no right answers. I suspect that after this comes out, I'll learn a lot from the comments of other pilots.

A long time ago I was taught to fly first and talk second. There are lots of cute clichés that are true. You've heard them, don't put down the airplane and fly the microphone; aviate, navigate, communicate, etc... I have come to believe firmly in the idea that less talk on a pilot's part is better than more talk. Most of us don't look around for other airplanes when we talk, so we are better off when we are looking rather than talking. I am the first to get on my soapbox and rail at those who feel compelled to report their every action to the world via the CTAF: "three-four-Bravo on downwind," "three-four-Bravo on base," "three-four-Bravo on final," "three-four-Bravo still on final" (those folks also tend to fly gigantic patterns so they have time to make all their radio calls), "three-four-Bravo landed without serious impact trauma and is going to taxi in to go to the bathroom."

Radio calls should be short and to the point. The AIM only recommends using the CTAF/Unicom for position reporting and getting information regarding the airport. That's it. It doesn't suggest using it to talk to other pilots, to compare recipes or to decide which airplane is faster. It doesn't suggest using the radio to educate other pilots. When you push the talk button to criticize someone else, it congests the frequency. Maybe only briefly, but what you cannot hear in those moments may be great importance to you. Do you want to take that risk? Or would you rather deal with the problem on the ground?

Criticize Privately

I'm also reminded of a basic management and teaching practice: praise publicly, criticize privately. Let's be realistic, it's no fun at all to receive criticism, well-intended and carefully worded or not. Remember when you got constructive criticism from someone you respected? It was done privately, right? The time some guy told you, publicly, what you should have done, could have been absolutely right. Maybe you even really screwed up and deserved the comments, but when you got told about in public, all you felt was resentment toward the clown who was inconsiderate enough to admonish you in front of others. You probably didn't learn anything from the criticism. I suspect you don't even recall what the criticism was about, but you do have a vivid memory of the way you were treated.

I agree fully with the instructor who said that, unless a person steps up to correct a wrong, the wrongdoer will never learn that what he did was not acceptable. I agree with the passionate utterance he made, "those who care act." However, I am of the opinion that acting by criticizing another pilot on the radio is rarely appropriate or effective. Your on-air comment may only inflame the listener. He may know he did something wrong and just not care. His reaction is going to be to tell you off. You, astonished that someone could be so crass, respond to him. Now the frequency is locked up as you two go at it. Has anything positive been accomplished? Probably not. Has it reduced the level of safety in the area? Probably so. On top of that, you've distracted other pilots who just might be in a situation in which their attention should be elsewhere.

"You Just Might End Up Being Wrong," J. Buffett

Another nagging factor in this whole debate is that a substantial portion of the time I've heard criticism over the CTAF, the person doing the criticizing was wrong. Sure we all make mistakes. Do you want to be the one to chastise someone else and then find out you were wrong on a transmitter that reaches out a hundred miles?

On another level, we like to think that, as pilots, we are a cut above the road ragers fighting it out on the highways below us. We certainly had to do more to learn to operate our vehicles. We should be more professional. We learned that when we have a difference of opinion with an air traffic controller it's never appropriate to argue on the air; you get the controller's operating initials and the phone number for the facility and call the chief to discuss it. I think it's the same thing on CTAF. If the problem is a local pilot, take it up with him or her on the ground, outside of the airplane. If the pilot is a transient, get the N number, look up the name of the owner and make a phone call. (It sometimes works, believe it or not. When a guy wrecked my friend's tent at Oshkosh by powering out of a parking spot, my friend got the N number, made a polite phone call and the pilot reimbursed him for the ruined tent.) If you really feel strongly, call your local FAA safety counselor (they are not FAA employees), discuss it and let him or her contact the miscreant. If you want to go to the next level, call the FAA and make a complaint. Yes, I know that most of us will never go to that level because we do not want to sic the FAA on even our worst enemy. Yet, I think, one has to ask the question, if I believe in my heart of hearts that another pilot's actions are a part of a pattern that is putting others at risk, what is my obligation? It may be to call the FAA and set out your complaint.

Civil Isn't Weak

Low Flying BonanzaFor some reason, a number of members of our society, some pilots included, have come to believe that civility equals weakness. If we don't respond to a provocation we are wimps. I don't know where such an idea comes from. My experience is just the opposite. I live in the north, but regularly deal with lawyers in the south. Almost invariably they are extremely polite in our dealings, peppering their sentences with sir and ma'am, even when we are engaged in take-no-prisoners legal combat. They don't respond to every thing that might irk them. They know how to pick their battles — and win them. The last way I would describe any of them is as weak. I have friends who are in, or have been in, elite military outfits. Every single one of them was and is civil in all social activities. I once had dinner with two Ghurkas, reputed to be the toughest fighting men on the planet. I had the overwhelming feeling that these extremely pleasant, polite men could easily kill me with a flick of the wrist, yet they took no action to "prove" they were tough. They didn't need to. Not a one of the elite military men I know has that fundamental insecurity or need to prove something that marks those who loudly express their lack of basic social graces. It seems to me that the person who makes the snide remarks, or frequently criticizes other pilots on the radio, says more about himself than about those at whom the remarks were directed.

Nevertheless, I must support the instructor who encouraged pilots to speak up when wrongs are observed. I do not see this as an area that has any absolutes. It takes guts to speak out when we know that we will be identified. (It's easy to speak out anonymously.) It would be great if the issue were black and white. It's not. We all agree that if we see a safety-of-flight item we're going to push the mic button. It's just not easy to describe where the on-air speak up line is to be drawn, so I think it's time for each pilot to give it some consideration before getting into an airplane.

I wish there were an easy answer to when to use the airwaves when we see something wrong. Perhaps there is one absolute: It's never appropriate to make snide remarks on the radio. There are few enough pilots as it is. We don't need to demonstrate that we are jerks when we are trying to sell aviation. Just remember, there are a lot of teenagers who want to learn to fly. Many of them have aircraft band scanners and are listening to us, wishing they could be flying. If nothing else, we owe it to those kids to set an example for how to behave in airplanes.

Otherwise, I guess the way I look at the situation is that, if we are considering saying something on the CTAF that doesn't involve position reporting, maybe we ought to give ourselves a five count before we punch the talk button. We may either decide not to make the call, or we may have time to compose ourselves and put the message in a way that is actually beneficial.

See you next month.