Usual Attitudes: Attitudes on the Air

Pilots and ATC should stick to standard phraseology.

Attitudes on the Air
A no-holds-barred look at pilots, planes and life in the air.iStock

The airplane world certainly has its share of unique lingo and clever slang. I thought I knew most of it until I came across "pilot pellets" — those cheese or peanut butter crackers in every FBO's vending machine — and "rental power" — flying a "wet" rental airplane at full throttle. A little closer to the edge are "panel envy," the emotion felt by pilots on seeing an airplane with exotic avionics; "hangar queen," which I thought referred only to a maintenance hog; and, of course, the old "Tango Uniform," a phonetic alphabet abbreviation for something that doesn't work. There's a great Canadian expression, "dangling the Dunlops," for ­extending the landing gear. In fact, it's in military, British and airline pilot lingo where you find an endless list of colorful stuff.

So, OK, it's fun to "talk the talk" when you're hangar flying, but a friend Bud, who surpasses even me as a curmudgeon, has been complaining about all the slangy, nonstandard, "cool" and cutesy expressions you hear on the air as well as inappropriate, unnecessary and ambiguous radio calls. Tackling that is a big order since it includes exchanges with air traffic control, the chatter around nontowered airports and plane-to-plane conversations (not to mention "stuck mics" through which you hear more than you want to know about somebody's salary or chief pilot).

But here it goes: At nontowered airports, why call 10 miles out (and then at 9, 8, etc.) or when over some "insider" checkpoint or an approach fix that means nothing to transients or students in the traffic pattern? I'm particularly irritated by the "10-mile-outer" who instructs, "Any traffic in the area, please advise," as if that surrounds him with some protective force field. Like it or not (I happen to like it) there are no-radio and transponderless airplanes all over the place. At a local airport where the parachute crowd has taken over I recently heard a jump plane pilot advise, "Jumpers away at 11,000 feet; all aircraft exercise severe caution." This shortly followed by "I'm on high downwind at 9,000 feet for Runway 5."

If you're the only aeronaut shooting landings do you really need to call every leg of the pattern? "Georgetown traffic, Cessna 12345, departing Runway 19, Georgetown traffic"; "Georgetown traffic, Cessna 12345, turning crosswind for Runway 19, Georgetown traffic"; "Georgetown traffic, Cessna 12345, midfield downwind for Runway 19, Georgetown traffic" — and on and on. When this guy announces he's "turning left final," realize he's (hopefully) still a student and cut him some slack. It's another story when real, live private pilots come up with stuff like "Aaah, Spaulding County traffic, this is, uh, Piper 3456 Bravo. I'm transmitting on one two two point eight and I'm, uh, presently on the north ramp, sitting right next to, umm, hangar number three. And I'm getting ready to taxi via, let's see, on taxiway Alpha and then on, uh, Bravo for a back taxi on Runway 24. I'll be making a pattern departure with a left turn out to head to the east at, uh, 3,500 feet. Over."

A meaningless, potentially dangerous call is "Urbana traffic, Piper 45678 rolling on 23, standard departure." What in the hell does that mean? At some airports "standard" means flying the downwind leg before leaving the pattern; others do 45-degree turns from the upwind (the recommended procedure); and still others have some signage at the run-up area mandating a departure that avoids an adjacent old lady's home. Another ambiguous call is "taking the active." Your active might well be somebody else's "active" crosswind runway and says nothing about how long it will it be before you actually take off.

Even though the AIM states that "jargon, chatter and 'CB' slang have no place in [aviation] communications," you still hear plenty of "good buddies" and "10-4s," especially in plane-to-plane conversations. By the way, "fingers" — 123.45 MHz — is not the air-to-air frequency. It's 122.750 and even that isn't meant for conversations about who's ­hiring or what you're planning to do on the weekend.

Nontowered airports seem to grow their own unique rules and procedures. While I'm not ignoring what the AIM recommends as "good operating practice," you need to know there are only two immutable "laws" about traffic patterns at nontowered 'dromes: Make left turns (unless otherwise noted or marked) and know that the guy at the lower altitude approaching the runway has right of way. That "45-degree entry to the downwind leg" thing you learned isn't cast in stone, and sometimes it's not a good idea. You can enter upwind, crosswind, downwind or straight in but the one imperative is to count on the unexpected; a bluebird day with calm winds and a mix of airplanes around a nontowered airport ranks right up there with crop-dusting, low-level aerobatics and coal mining as a contributing factor in short life spans.

When it comes to pilot communications with ATC facilities, you rarely hear anything nonstandard or "cutesy" from the pros, but not everybody flying a fancy airplane is a pro so …

"Denver, Cessna 12345, 10 east at 8,500 squawking a dozen."

"There's the flash" (when told to "ident").

"30.09 on the meter, 4664 in the box."

For traffic, "Got him on the fish finder" or "Tally ho" (the latter not incorrect but used mostly by Civil Air Patrol pilots or other military wannabes).

Then there's "Roger" or, worse, "Roger that" or, even worse, "Roger wilco." "Roger" — if you must use it — means you've received and understand the last transmission. Use "affirmative" for yes, and "wilco" to mean you will comply.

"With you" at 8,000 says nothing more than you're "with" somebody else in the airplane, and "be advised" is superfluous and unnecessary. Both of these usually come from guys with resonant, deep, Chuck Yeager voices flying Cessna 172s.

But there are some charmers. I'm told that Navy student pilots at Pensacola on their last hop would call, "Tower, Navy 12345, three in the breeze, over the trees, last hop for a full stop." If the fledgling naval aviator could say that without messing up, he was guaranteed an "above" rating on radio comms.

I do lots of Sport Pilot practical tests at nontowered fields, but I've started asking Private Pilot (and on up the scale) applicants to fly into my controlled airport (Lunken) for the test. If they balk I tell them I'll gladly fly to their airport but then we're going to land at Dayton or Cincinnati on the flight portion of the test. Too many licensed pilots, after satisfying minimum experience requirements for the Private, avoid towered airports and controlled airspace like the plague. They've never used and aren't interested in knowing how to use flight following, and they get catatonic around control towers. In most cases it's due to a flight instructor who is less than comfortable using the radio.

Listening to LiveATC and other sites helps, but you need real life practice. So have an airport diagram on your glass panel, iPad or a big piece of paper pasted on the panel at eye level. Plan what you're going to say and try to say it in one transmission. Making "cold calls" like "XYZ Tower, Cessna 4827T" (and then waiting for them to call you back) are a waste of time. If the controller talks fast, don't ever assume you heard him correctly. Ask him to "say again" two, three or four times if necessary. Identify yourself on the initial call as a student, even if you're not, and don't hesitate to request "progressive" taxi instructions to be led by the hand (uh, get a little more proficient before you try this at Midway or Atlanta).

Controllers understandably get stressed and annoyed when they're busy (if you sit in a tower and listen to what goes on, you'll understand why), but most understand the difference between a seasoned professional and a student learning the ropes. But sometimes, like pilots, they're less than professional. Did you ever screw something up and get that chilling message, "Copy this number and call the tower"? Well, you should exercise the same prerogative if you get less than professional, polite treatment from a controller. When I heard an exasperated controller ask a hopelessly confused transient "What do you think you're doing?" and, on another occasion, a snippy controller embarrass an applicant when he requested confirmation about crossing a runway, I called the tower chief and complained. In both cases they agreed it was unacceptable and would make sure it wouldn't happen again.

Nonstandard phraseology can be effective, though — giving a DC-3 check one day when the weather was down, somebody appeared on a controller's scope, asking for a clearance. I will always remember the controller's words: "If you want to live, climb."