April 14, 1999


It's not what you say, it's how cool you sound saying it.

Why do so many people, fliers and non-fliers alike, associate airplanes with radios? Strangers to airplanes often think that radios are required, and many pilots wouldn't venture forth without one . . . or two. What changed in the last fifty years to make radios seem to be such an imperative? Did the air get thicker, thinner, or change color? Was a new chapter discovered in the laws of aeronautical physics? Did the factories produce two- seat planes that suddenly flew significantly higher or faster? The answers, in order, are: No, No, and No.

At the thousands of little airports across the land, absolutely nothing has changed in fifty years, as far as airplane operation is concerned. The wind still ruffles the grass, and airplane tires still make the same swishing noise as they alight on it. Airplanes still take off, fly around, and land, guided only by the pilot's whim and watchful eye.

Flying at airports the size of Penn Yan or Dansville, the radio becomes an item of courtesy, people operating in and out of the area check in with each other and advise their position and intentions. Traffic at these airports is self- controlled, in that pilots conform to a prescribed flow of traffic and watch out for each other. Radios, used as an adjunct to standard procedures can provide assistance, but often, they are used instead of those procedures.

I have arrived at these sorts of airports to hear two pilots flying takeoffs and landings, each advising the other as they make each turn of the rectangular pattern, over and over. They sounded like a couple of young squirrels that were exploring a new- found acorn tree. I tried to check in a few times, but was cut off each time by their self- absorbed chattering, and gave up.

I observed the traffic, fit myself into it and landed. I was rolling on the runway when one of them exclaimed "Where did he come from?? He never called on the radio!" Simply assuming that all traffic will use the radio saves pilots a pile of work. Eyes never have to look ahead, and the brain, freed of the tedium of vigilance, can float in frivolity.

Those folks were engaged in a somewhat casual misuse of the radio. As the years have gone on, more and more I hear radio calls like "Smithville traffic: Bonanza 111AA, ten mile final for runway two- eight. Any traffic please advise." You can assume that this pilot's love is divided approximately equally between himself and his radio equipment, and his attention outside of the airplane will be centered within a degree or two of the runway threshold. At least he called in to warn us.

The use of the radio at places like Elmira, where there is a control tower, is more focused than it is at smaller airports, but that doesn't mean that things run smoothly there either. The problem is that people, both pilots and controllers, can't just leave the microphone alone. In the spirit of thoroughness, safety, and with a measure of CYA, important communication is sometimes hindered by redundant exchanges of marginally useful information.

Sometimes I feel like all of the controllers and pilots on the frequency were the same people that had PA systems under the hood of their cars when they were younger. You likely remember them. Their fathers were long-winded dinner speakers, and their mothers were karioke junkies. Maybe I am irritated by the barrage of noncommunication because it interrupts my efforts to provide flight instruction. The student cannot hear me if someone is talking on the radio.

Controllers dispense the wind speed, the altimeter setting, and meaningless traffic advisories with the enthusiasm of firemen throwing candy in a July 4th parade. Pilots, for their part, are either very impressed by their radio- toys, or just lonesome. They just love to say about twice what they really need to say, and so often parrot an acknowledgment of the controller's every spoken word, regardless of its significance.

Ironically, most of the things I have railed about are encouraged as proper procedure, an example of the contemporary philosophy that if something is safe, more of it must be safer. To acknowledge all instructions, regardless of their importance certainly fosters accuracy, but it impedes the timely flow of truly important information.

I try with some success to hide my annoyance with pilots and controllers who distract and delay everybody else on the frequency by overusing their radios, no matter how well- intentioned. My rule to students is to acknowledge clearances, and anything that you feel you don't understand. The lengthy and somewhat redundant instruction "Cessna two three three two niner, taxi to runway two eight, departure control frequency will be one one niner point four five, squawk zero two zero eight. Altimeter three zero zero seven, wind three one zero at one zero gusting to one seven." is acknowledged with a simple "Taxi two eight, three two niner"

Look around you, and try to find many exceptions to the rule that "all things considered, simpler is better."

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