Talking Out of School

My Jeppesen Private Pilot Manual tells student pilots that radio communication is very serious stuff. "When speaking on the radio," the good book says, "it is important to speak in a professional manner. Radio transmissions should be as brief as possible to help avoid frequency congestion. Incorrect radio procedures can compromise your safety and the safety of others."

All valid points, and all absolutely true-at least, as a rule. But what Jeppesen doesn't tell students is that some of the funniest and most helpful, memorable and wonderful connections and moments they will encounter in the course of their flying will also be through their aircraft radio. And those communications will, at times, bend all of those strictures.

There was, for example, the roundtable discussion on the lineage and nomenclature of the Cessna 310 that ensued one morning among a whole group of pilots in southern New Mexico. I was making my way west from El Paso early one hot, summer Sunday when a 310 pilot checked in with Albuquerque Center. The controller acknowledged the 310's transmission and then, a couple of minutes later, came back on the air.

"Hey, Cessna Three Romeo Mike," the controller asked, "do you have another name for your airplane?"

"Say again?" was the confused reply. The pilot probably had quite a few other names for his airplane, depending on how the machine was behaving.

"You know," the controller answered, "like, a 172 is a Skyhawk, a 182 is a Skylane … We're trying to remember here. What's a 310?"

There was a long moment of silence on the frequency. Finally, the pilot responded. "I don't think it has one," he said.

"Sure it does," chimed in an airline pilot who'd checked in a few minutes before. "It's a Skyknight."

"Nah," countered a Bonanza pilot with a deep, distinctive voice. "That was the souped-up version. The standard 310 didn't have a name."

The discussion went on for a few more minutes before a new pilot came on the frequency and commented with a long, southern drawl, "Guess it sure is slow in Albuquerque this morning."

The controller laughed. If we'd all been transmitting with hot mics, there would have been laughter heard from all over New Mexico. Our conversation may not have followed standard radio protocol, but the interchange was like a wonderful splash of fresh water that drove away my morning sleepiness and livened up an otherwise interminably long, droning flight across the New Mexico desert.

My long flights up and down California's San Joaquin Valley have been likewise lightened by creative (and evidently bored) controllers. A controller near Stockton answered my listing of Chino Airport as my destination one morning with, "Hey. Does Flo's Café there still have those amazing cinnamon rolls?" On another flight, I heard a controller ending every hand-off call with a cheery "Happy Trails!" Somehow I don't think "Happy Trails" is in Jeppesen's approved listing of professional radio transmission phrases, either. But it put a smile on my face, which is worth a lot on a long flight. Intrigued, I called in and asked the controller if he knew the rest of the words.

"As it so happens, I do," he said with obvious amusement.

"What'll it cost me to hear you sing the whole thing?" I asked.

He laughed. I guess he didn't think I was serious.

An aircraft radio is also a window to other people's lives, thoughts, and experiences that can be everything from heart-wrenching and touching to endlessly amusing. As I was getting ready to leave Kalispell, Montana, one summer morning, a flight instructor in a Cessna 150 taxied in front of me with a stuck mic. He was a pompous sort, telling his female student in patronizing tones that this flying stuff wasn't easy, but he had tons of flying experience, so she didn't need to worry. Another pilot and I tried frantically to get his attention to tell him to fix his mic, but he was oblivious. He took off ahead of us, leaving two very annoyed pilots in his wake. I remained highly irritated as I looked around and took off, still hearing his condescending instructions in my headset. But then, a miracle happened. The tone of the voice coming through my headset suddenly changed dramatically.

"Whoa, missy, that was a pretty steep turn," went the running commentary. "Okay, now, whoa, let's just try that the other way … okay, …. uh…. uh…. you know, I'm not feeling all that well, actually, maybe we should just try flying straight … oh, my, I'm not feeling well at all …"

As I nearly busted a gut laughing, the flight instructor proceeded to lose his high and mighty ego-and his breakfast, evidently-all over his poor student. Fortunately, I'd flown far enough from the airport that I could switch frequencies before all the messy details played themselves out.

There's also a big difference between a discrete frequency and a discreet frequency-something some pilots tend to forget. I was flying over Baja, Mexico, one time, listening on the common air traffic frequency that U.S. pilots use there as a kind of party line for giving each other weather, traffic and fuel information. An airline captain-I'll call him Dick-called in from 35,000 feet, asking if anyone was flying over Baja that day. A pilot from the same airline-I'll call him Wally-answered on the frequency, saying he was in a Piper, bound for a small hotel in Muleje. The two pilots quickly figured out that they actually knew each other.

"Hey, Wally," Dick asked, "is Nancy with you?"

There was silence on the frequency.

"Uh … Wally? Your radio working?" came Dick's perplexed voice.

"Yeah …yeah, it's working," Wally answered uncomfortably.

"So, is Nancy with you, or are you alone?"

There was another uncomfortable silence. Finally, Wally came on the frequency.

"Uh, Dick," he said, "switch over to 123.45, would you?"

I looked over at the friend who was flying with me. He was already reaching for the radio knob-along with every other pilot who was flying over Baja that day. This sounded just too good to miss. We came up on 123.45 just as Dick checked in again.

"So, Wally, what's the deal? Are you alone?"

"Uh, no," Wally stammered.

"Who's with you?"

"A friend."

There was a moment of silence. I could almost hear the snickers filling airplane cockpits all across the peninsula. Then Dick's knowing voice came back on the frequency.

"What's her name, Wally?"

Silence. Then, reluctantly, "Tammy."

I could picture Dick shaking his head up there at 35,000 feet. "You be careful, Wally," he said before signing off.

My friend and I landed at the hotel in Muleje an hour or so later, tied the airplane down and made our way to the hotel pool, where a number of newly arrived pilots were gathered. We began introductions, and when one pilot introduced himself as Wally, I could hardly contain myself. I looked at the buxom bleached blonde next to him, smiled, and said, "Oh! You must be Tammy!" Every pilot there burst out laughing as I thanked Wally for the best inflight entertainment I'd had in a long time.

Radios are wonderful aviation communication tools. But a word to any pilots for whom this is not patently obvious: they are about as private as a billboard in Times Square.

Yet radio transmissions usually allow pilots the gift of at least a little anonymity. A radio signal can reach hundreds of miles. But it can't convey race, color, creed or celebrity status. And that can be a wonderful relief for pilots who want to escape from the labels of everyday life. It can also be a lot of fun.

I went flying with my friend Roger one day in his newly acquired Siai-Marchetti SF.260 fighter/trainer airplane. The Marchetti is a high-powered sports car with wings; a zippy little machine that has to climb at a startlingly steep angle after a touch and go takeoff to avoid blasting through its gear limit speed before the gear can be raised. We zoomed and soared for a while, and then Roger asked me to call the airport tower and ask for a radio check. He'd had some radio trouble and he wanted to see if it was in his headset or in the radio itself. I keyed the mic and started to call the tower in my normal, businesslike manner.

"Chino Tower, this is …"

I looked at the N-number on the panel, and realized that today, I was not in a lowly Cessna or Piper. I was in a Marchetti. A Ferrari. Meeeeoooowwww. I threw a mischievous sideways look at Roger, dropped my voice an octave and started again.

"Chino Tower," I breathed in my best sex-kitten, midnight-radio-dee-jay voice. "This is … Marchetti … four-two-Tango-Alpha … How do you read?"

There was a moment of silence before the startled tower controller stammered back,

"… uh … four-two … who was that again?"

Radio communication procedures are like any other rules. First you have to learn them. Then you have to learn when to follow them exactly, and when the rules can be bent a bit. It should go without saying that if the frequency is busy, it is not a good time to test out alter ego voices or inquire about song lyrics or cinnamon buns. But when the radio waves are quiet and the night is still, a voice on the other end of a radio can be a wonderful and valuable companion.

Once upon a time, farmers lit bonfires in their fields to help guide airmail pilots through the night. I like to think of those days, before the bonfires gave way to electric beacons and radio signals, because keeping a fire burning takes effort. Someone had to stay awake, feeding logs and branches to the fire, as if keeping a silent vigil in communion with the pilot in the darkness above. As long as those bonfires were burning, no pilot was ever really alone. His family may have been spread across the country in cold winter fields, but his solo flight was buoyed by the thoughts of all those who were trying to aid his journey.

Today the bonfires are a distant memory, but their spirit still lives on in the people who keep watch with us, on the other end of the radio. I'll never forget one quiet summer night when I was returning to Chino, California, where I used to base my Cheetah. The tower controller acknowledged my initial call and told me to report left downwind for runway two-six. There was a pause. Then the controller's voice came back over the radio.

"Hey, how does the festival look?"

For a moment I was perplexed, even wondering if the controller was talking to me. Then I realized he was referring to a balloon festival south of the airport. I looked down and saw several ground-tethered balloons lit up as a sunset attraction.

"Looks nice," I replied. "There are a couple of balloons lit up, but they won't be flying anything til morning."

"Yeah, I think I'll take my kid there tomorrow," the controller answered.

I smiled. The brief interchange transformed the voice in the tower into a real person; a neighbor and a father who wanted to do something fun for his child.

The bonfires may be gone, but there are still men and women who keep vigil with us on our way. Questions about a balloon festival, discussions about Cessna 310 names, or comments about airport café cuisine might not classify as by-the-book professional aviation language, but sometimes it's good for all of us to remember that there's a real person on the other end of the radio. Those connections also allow us rewards that Jeppesen couldn't even begin to describe. Many times, upon returning to Chino after a long trip, my controller friends there would raise a lump in my throat by ending my landing clearance with a simple "Welcome home." Welcome home. You may fly alone, but you have a place here, and a community that cares whether you return safely or not.

I doubt "Welcome home" is included in any professional aviation radio phrasebook. But, you know … maybe, just maybe, it should be.


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