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The Air Traffic Control Exchanges You Really Don’t Want to Hear

an Airbus A330-600, like the one flown by Spirit Air Lines into Miami

If you’ve ever wanted to know what pilots talk about behind the closed doors of the cockpit, you may want to think again.  While most exchanges between pilots and air traffic control are mundane and technical, they can also contain aviation jokes.  Occasionally, some of the conversations are more than just a little worrying and might make you think twice about boarding a plane.  Users of Airline Pilot Forums have been discussing the funniest things that they’ve heard over the radio in a thread that’s been going strong since 2006.

As well as anecdotes from days gone by and legends passed down from captains to co-pilots, there are a handful of exchanges detailing close calls, mistakes and everything in between.  Many of the mistakes come from misunderstandings and language barriers.  A Northwest Airlines flight was en route from Florida to New York when it was asked to turn 20 degrees right for spacing into the city.

fighter jetHowever, just five minutes later, when the Air Traffic Controller requested confirmation of turn direction, the pilot responded “Which way did you tell us to turn?”  Assumptions can be equally hazardous, as a post shared by Joel Payne shows.  The exchange begins with a pilot making a simple request of “FL 600. When the ATC asked ‘how long will it take you to climb to FL 600?,” the pilot responded over the intercom that he actually wanted to “descend to FL 600.”  Being precise certainly helps in aviation, it seems, and is an issue that comes up frequently.

Another time the Air Traffic Controller told a pilot to “report 2 mile left base for runway 34 left.” The pilot responded with, “Roger, do you want nautical or statute miles?”

Similarly, a pilot was asked for their indicated airspeed and said: “Hmm… Don’t have an indicated airspeed… I have a calibrated and a true airspeed though.”  Some of the responses from pilots will leave you lost for words.

One pilot failed to follow the instructions he was given by ATC and said: “Sometimes you make it… Sometimes you don’t.”  For another pilot, it was a matter of flying too many aircraft, as pilot64golfer revealed when he was asked what he was flying  “Cessna 172. Sorry that’s my other airplane.”

Student pilots give perhaps the most hapless of responses. airplane takeoff

A pilot was asked to state his intentions, he gave an aspirational response of “I want to be a private pilot.”  Another forum user wrote that when asked to state position and altitude, a lost student pilot replied, “I am in the left seat, I am 5 feet, 11 inches’.” A few years back, I was climbing out of PHX with approach control. I heard approach issue a clearance to a Gulfstream to climb to FL230.  “The gulfstream captain came back and said, “Roger. Climb and maintain… Hey, don’t you touch that, don’t you ever touch that again.”

The controller asked if everything was alright and if he could provide any assistance. This captain replied, “Can you help me find a new co-pilot?”

There are posts that just make you wonder.  User kerns_bbo posted a series of exchanges between a Learjet and ATC during a period of long queues.  The pilot of the Learjet allegedly said: “Lear N____ has some info for ya: 5839…2834…2804…3823 Expiration 10/09.”  A confused ATC requested a repeat to which the Learjet pilot responded, “Oh, you mean my visa card number isn’t going to help speed this up?”  On the opposite end of the scale, some planes are visibly under-equipped.

When the ATC asked one pilot if their plane was “R-Nav equipped”, they responded, “What, are you kidding? We’re lucky if we’ve got oil pressure!”  But it’s not always the pilot who gives the worrying responses.  Another commenter described that after struggling to get a pilot to move in the direction they wanted, the ATC put out a statement saying “Alright everyone on taxiway A, watch out for the Light Blue Korean Air 747! I have no idea where he is going!”

And then there are times when it’s the ATC who’s behind the antics.  A pilot asked ATC “how do you read”, he received a cheeky response of “Left to right, top to bottom, how about you?”

airplane sunset

But it’s jweinerbu’s post that you definitely never want to hear over the intercom – “All aircraft, be advised, earthquake in progress.”

What do you think?

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