Airport PersonalitiesInternet Version Revised 2017
Throughout my flying years, I have admired the professionalism and dedication of air traffic controllers. More often than I like to admit, I have called upon the skills of people on the ground to overcome my lapses aloft and to assure satisfactory outcomes for misadventures in the sky. Pilots seldom ever meet these remarkable people in towers and radar rooms. Personalities can be inferred only from voices on the radio, as in these selected quotes from Chapters in the Sky...
Air traffic controllers talk on the radio. Imagine a whole career spent talking on the radio. Their work can be mighty stressful, as I have described in Swamper. However, there are plenty of occasions for humor. Collections of radio exchanges are fun to read. Here are a couple of my own...
A popular reporting point for aircraft inbound to the Santa Monica Airport is a prominent landmark at corner of San Vicente and Melrose. Lovingly referred to as the Blue Whale, the Cesar Pelli-designed Pacific Design Center is one of the architectural icons in Los Angeles. The massive blue and green space holds more than 130 design showrooms for furniture and home accessories plus a branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).
My position-report one Sunday in the '80s was intended to give the Santa Monica Tower people something to think about.
"Cardinal Three-Four-Niner-One-Four abeam the Cyan Cetacean, inbound for Runway Two-One."There was not the slightest hesitation in the Tower's reply.
"Niner-One-Four at the Aqua Orca, cleared to land Runway Two-One."Formal exchanges over the radio can get tiresome. Unlike in the movies, the word roger is seldom used. Instead pilots repeat back instructions, often in abbr. form...
"Cardinal Niner-One-Four, two miles north of MAGIC, turn right to one-five-zero, maintain three thousand five hundred until established on the localizer; cleared for the ILS Runway Two-Eight approach, contact Watkins tower 121.1 at the outer marker."Here is a typical exchange in the '90s between me and the control tower at the Orange County Airport (now John Wayne International). After reporting inbound from Huntington Beach, I would hear...
"Cutlass Three-Seven-Romeo, Orange County Tower, continue on the forty-five, for initial approach, remain west of the airport, turn right abeam of the tower, make mid-field crossing to a downwind entry for Runway One-Niner-Left and report turning base."
From a landing strip in the suburbs to a humongous international terminal, each aerodrome has a distinct personality, which is determined not only by runway layouts and surrounding environments but also by the verbal behaviors of controllers talking on the radio. Most are cheerful enough, even when busy. Some seem wistful, perhaps wishing they could be up there jinking around in the sky instead of stuck on the ground in a swivel chair, microphone at the ready, squinting through slanted windows or gazing in the dark at radar screens.
Oh sure, to us light-plane pilots, the controllers in Palm Springs can be a bit snobbish sometimes, assigning a favorable landing sequence to a Lear inbound with weekend golfers on board. Las Vegas gives priority to Gulfstreams loaded with high-rollers, and Hailey Tower seems downright obsequious to trust-funders in their Aerocommanders headed for the chair-lifts in Sun Valley.
And then there is Salt Lake City International Airport.On my first of maybe five flights there, I thought it might just be my not being a Mormon (although I could not imagine how they were able to tell from anything I said over the radio). But no, in radio exchanges with everybody, whether talking to 172s or 727s, air traffic controllers in the control tower and in the radar room adopt an officious tone and a sour demeanor that borders on surly.
A routine initial contact that goes, "Skylane Two-Eight-Two-Four Foxtrot, ten miles south, inbound with Information Charlie," gets an indignant reply, "What are your intentions?" -- as if asking, "Why are you bothering me?"
Nota bene, "What are your intentions?" is a query reserved for responding to an emergency, like when a pilot reports engine trouble or icing conditions.Meanwhile, by convention and for terseness, the phrase "inbound with Information Charlie" can mean only one thing, which I made explicit as follows: "I really want to land my little airplane on your runway there at the Salt Lake City Airport" (barely resisting the temptation to add a tincture of sarcasm, "...if it is not too inconvenient").
Salt Lake City Approach vectored an airliner, then snarled back at me, "Two-Four Foxtrot, squawk 4732 and Ident." I keyed my mike, "We put forty-seven thirty-two on our transponder and you should be seeing an identification bar on your radar screen courtesy of Two-Four Fox."
Just then, the airliner joined in with uncharacteristic verbosity, chuckling: "And Sky West Eleven-Seventeen is now angling left to take up that assigned heading of one-two-zero degrees magnetic."
On one particular flight in 1992, I had
reason to hope that the air traffic controllers in
Salt Lake City had forgotten my verbal hi-jinks in the
sky. Or at least forgiven me...Smoke in the Cockpit.