Published in November 2015 issue

By Clayton Taylor

The one thing I hated most when I was an Air Traffic Controller was repeating myself. If all I had to do was sit in front of a radar scope, key the microphone and speak, then it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But there was far more going on than simply sitting there and yakking. In addition to keeping abreast of where everyone was, I had to communicate with adjacent sectors and facilities. Sometimes, I’d be handing the traffic off to them and I would occasionally simply have to ‘point out’ an airplane that might brush up against another Controller’s airspace. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that, when I had to say something to a Pilot that I’d already said, it made me a lot busier than I wanted to be. Back then, the words, “Say again,” truly went through me like a knife.

All right, I know what you’re thinking. Your retort would sound something like this: “Didn’t you think it was safer to have a Pilot confirm a clearance than to just assume they got it right?” Yes, I did. And, because of that, I never got angry or barked at anyone for clarifying something; I just never liked it.

On a recent trip across the Atlantic, I was flying with a Pilot I’d never met before. After coast-out, he started asking about my background. During the conversation, he told me that he used to fly Harriers for the US Marines. He loved to talk about them, and I liked hearing his stories. This was the first time I’d ever worked with someone who’d flown the Harrier.

As he spoke, I recalled being at the Farnborough air show many years earlier. Late in the afternoon, a flight of five or six RAF Harriers took-off and did a high speed pass down the runway. “Big deal,” I thought. I mean, after you’ve seen the Russians fly a Cobra maneuver or do a tail slide in their Sukhoi; everything seems to pale in comparison.

The RAF group then made a tight turn and swooped in low while, at the same time, reducing their speed. They slowed and slowed in unison, before ultimately coming to a dead stop a mere fifty feet away. At first, they hovered in a straight line. Then, a few earpiercing moments later, they all turned as if they were interconnected and pointed their airplanes toward the crowd; while remaining over the exact same spot, 20 or 30 feet in the air. It was a breathtaking sight, and the noise was beyond belief. The ground beneath our feet shook. In fact, I think all the dirt under the British Isles shook wildly in protest to the aerial assault. I imagine that even some folks in the land down-under were wondering what it was that caused the earth beneath their feet to vibrate. There was no telling what may have happened to widow Pratt’s 10 cats, which reportedly lived nearby.

The amount of fuel it took to keep those jets in the air must have been incredible. I yelled to one of my friends, who stood only a few inches away, “That’s an awful lot of crushed up dinosaur bones coming out of those tail pipes!” I don’t think he heard me, even though I was literally screaming. In fact, I don’t recall if I even heard myself. I didn’t realize it then, but, if I had to put my finger on a date, it would have been on this day that my well-above average hearing began to deteriorate. Prior to this, I could hear a whisper from a hundred yards away.

When the Captain I was flying with finally wore himself out reminiscing about the good old days, he began asking about the A330. He was new to the airplane, so, for the next hour or so, we discussed the various positives and negatives of Airbus vs. Boeing. He loved the Boeing 767, having flown it for quite a few years. Some of the stuff on the Airbus left him shaking his head. I informed him that, when I first got on the B747- 400, I was the guy who was always asking, “What’s this thing doing now?” and “Why would they build it this way?”

I finally told him that, in order for a Boeing Pilot to understand an Airbus, he has to do the exact opposite of what he thinks he ought to be doing. If he thinks the switch should go up then he must move it down. If there is something he’s not sure about, thenhe should ask himself how he himself would design and build it. Then, with the answer in hand, go ahead and assume it will be the exact opposite. We both laughed, but we were aware that the A330 was ergonomically light years ahead of the much older Boeing.

As I’ve written before, even though the B747 was a nice airplane, one of its hazards was the wind noise in both the cockpit and the bunkroom. When on break, I used a noise cancelling headset to be able to fall asleep. In the Airbus, I can speak at a normal volume even at takeoff power.

When we fly over the ocean and, indeed, over some parts of Europe and Canada, we sometimes don’t talk on the radio. We have a handy little box that allows us to text-message the Controllers. We can ask for altitude and speed changes without picking up the microphone. We get clearances on the thing, as well as frequency changes to the next sector. Oftentimes, particularly in northern Canada, we may not even check with the new Controller when given a radio frequency change. We acknowledge the clearance with a push button, change the frequency and then sit there. It is definitely the way of the future, but, due to the transmission time delay, I think it will be a few years before it can be used safely in the terminal environment.

I like the CPDLC (Controller Pilot Data Link Communication) because I don’t have to have my headset on and the speaker volume turned up in order to comprehend the handful of accents we encounter on a typical ocean crossing trip. Nor do I have to fear that I’ll miss a transmission meant for me. If I don’t notice the blue light flashing in my face to advise me of a new message, a buzzer will sound. It’s like they designed the thing just for me.

As we edged into US airspace, we were back to talking on the radio. While trying to check-in, I overheard the Boston Center Controller give a somewhat complicated clearance to another airplane. The older-sounding Pilot replied, “Say again.” The Controller, who was obviously a decade or two younger than I, re-issued the clearance with a cheery tone in his voice. It struck me that it didn’t seem to bother this busy young man one iota. I was impressed. I knew that, if that had been me 30 years ago, I would have sighed before keying my microphone.

With every passing mile, I found I was talking on the radio more and more. It was such starkly different to what we experience over the ocean, where we often go for hours without talking to a soul. It seemed as if each sector was five miles wide and we were changing frequencies every two or three minutes. The Controllers were busy, and we really had to listen-up so as to not miss anything. After a while, whenever the Controller mentioned a call-sign, as he rapidly spat out instructions to the many airplanes in his charge, I noticed that one of us Pilots would glance at the other and ask, “Was that for us?”

I suppose that, with a little effort, it could have become an Abbott and Costello routine:

“Was that frequency change for us?”

“What?”

“The frequency change, was that for us?”

“The frequency change?”

“Who’s on first?”

Regardless of our auditory shortcomings, we thankfully found our way to our planned destination without getting into any trouble.

The funny thing about that flight was that, for some reason, it never once bothered me to repeat myself. I wondered whether it was maturity, but then quickly dismissed such a foolish thought.

I used to listen for the slightest audio cues in Controller/Pilot conversations, trying to detect whether the Controller was about to lose the picture. Old habits die hard. But, truth be told, I rarely hear any of those tell-tale signs now. Perhaps all of the racket I’ve taken-in while doing preflight inspections on noisy ramps, or the earsplitting wind and engine noise I’ve endured over the years—not to mention those awesome Harriers—has taken the edge off. Now, I no longer hear it when my wife grumbles behind my back, or that ever-soslight quiver in the voice of a student Controller who is about to go down the tubes.

Whatever it is, I must admit that I kind of like the tranquility. And I’d be willing to bet that the ex-Marine fighter jock I once flew with feels much the same.