I love listening to United Airline’s inflight channel 9.
For those who suppose this might mean country music or the comedy channel, let me explain: channel 9 carries, at the pilot’s discretion, air traffic control (and ground) communications. It’s an open channel that gets you inside the cockpit, not only of your fight, but of all the pilots in the vicinity talking to the tower.
As far as I know, United is the only airline that does this, and I think it’s one of the coolest features, ever. Why do I like to listen so much? It seems odd, I grant you. I’ve never taken flying lessons and have zero interest in doing so. I also don’t play with HAM radios in my spare time. So what is it?
What first attracted me was the patter. The way the pilots talk to the air traffic controller (ATC) fascinates me. To a large extent, it is mechanical in its precision: one voice directing, the other responding. And there’s a very specific, although congenial, protocol to this call-and-response: all numbers are repeated back by both sides, every time. Flight number, air speed, elevation. None of this information can afford to be misunderstood since very large metal containers full of live cargo are at risk of colliding mid-air – definitely a situation to be avoided.
Another part of the protocol that entrances me is the use of the NATO phonetic alphabet. I’m intrigued by code, and I remember the first time I heard this one used, I worked out the whole sequence of alphabet names on a cocktail napkin: alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo…tango, uniform, victor, whiskey, xray, yankee, zulu. The names chosen for each letter fascinate me and there’s probably an entire blog post just on that (why are most of the words two syllable, but some three? And only two of them – “golf” and “mike” – one? Did the same person decide on both “indian” and “yankee?” And why do I love the sound of some of them – “tango,” but feel neutral or even antipathy for others – “uniform”). But that’s for another time.
The real attraction though was something else. Precisely because the patter is so mechanical, I became fascinated by any evidence of the particular humans behind it. For instance, I love to listen for the greeting the ATC uses. This small choice in an otherwise proscribed dialogue is like a hole in a cloud that allows a stream of light to shine through, the light being the ATC’s nature. “Good Day” is used more often then you’d think, since it is mostly an Australian convention. And it’s pronounced more like “gooday” – one run-on sound, just like the Aussies say it. I don’t know – maybe it does come from them? And once an ATC said “See ya” when our plane left his airspace, which I thought was sweet.
Over time, I became a more seasoned listener and began to understand most of what was being communicated by the decorous patter. It’s kind of like listening to Shakespeare: when I first start, my brain is confused by the mix of known words with unfamiliar ones and contractions, their unexpected order and the cadence they elicit, all making comprehension a bit laborious. But after about ten minutes or so, I get used to the speech, forget that it’s in verse and get totally engrossed in the action. When I reached this point in my listening on channel 9, that’s when the real fun began.
What I live for is the stand-out ATC or pilot. The rogue character who, for one reason or another, adds color to the efficient drone. One example of this was a pilot with a strong southern US accent. He just didn’t follow the protocols, or well, he did, but he had his own unique twist. He’d actually talk to the tower, instead of using the usual short-hand. Rather than “Say again” or “Repeat,” he’d say, “Sorry there fellar, I missed that. Can you run that by me again?” It made me laugh out loud, much to the bemusement of my seatmate. I wondered how this pilot got away with his outlier communication?
Actually, I’m amazed United pilots are willing to let passengers eavesdrop on their communications. And some of them most certainly aren’t – but they are really the exception. This is particularly amazing considering some of the chatter I’ve heard over the years – especially the times when I couldn’t believe the pilot didn’t flip the off switch. Maybe they forgot it was on…
And then there are the moments I wonder if I should’ve been listening at all. Like the time I heard a female voice coming from the tower – this is unusual. Actually, any female voices at all are still a rarity, although there are increasing numbers of female co-pilots – co-pilots being the ones assigned to communications with the tower. Anyway, we were taking off from O’Hare and it was a really busy time – there were planes everywhere. Ours was inching along the tarmac trying to take off, and every runway appeared to be clogged. We’d been sitting for what seemed liked hours and the tension on the plane was palpable. But each time the co-pilot spoke to us from the cockpit, his tone was as even as a new haircut.
On channel 9, I listened as the ATC rapidly gave instruction, trying to get the planes lined up right and out of each others’ way. I thought I detected a hint of being harried in her tone, but I figured I must be projecting. See, the key to these communications is that they are, by necessity, perfunctory. Anything other than that means there could be a problem. And pushing tin is no place for problems. But then the ATC gave an instruction, which, evidently, was unclear or mistaken. One of the pilots definitely sounded annoyed when he asked for clarification. I couldn’t believe my ears. The pilot was giving attitude to the tower! The tower is God in their world, so I sat up in my seat, body tingling with adrenalin. What was going on?
The ATC volleyed back harshly. And then, another pilot asked if they were ever going to get out of there. I was stunned. Did he really say that? Then the unheard of happened. The ATC went ballistic, saying it was really crowded and she was doing her best, and … suddenly the mic went dead. I thought our pilot had flipped the off switch, but not even a second later, a new ATC was on the line. A man this time, who spit directions to one plane after another. The tone of the replacement ATC was calm, confident, and directive. It was clear who was in charge. Planes started to move.
I have reflected on this event many times. I remember feeling terrible for the woman, and my impression was that she’d cracked under pressure. The fact that a replacement ATC was put in confirmed it. We’ve all heard about the pressure in the tower – that ATCs are at a much higher risk of heart attacks and depression, etc., so I assumed this happens from time to time, especially if someone is at the end of a long shift or in training, or both. And I figured this kind of thing had happened to plenty of male ATCs, as well. But, the fact was it happened on a woman’s watch that day – and everyone overheard. My cheeks burned for her. And they burned for me too. Are we too emotional for jobs like this? Is it true?
As I searched for the answer, I realized that in all my years of eavesdropping on channel 9, I’ve never heard a pilot challenge the tower in the way he did that day. It was the pilot who vented his frustration, judgment, and ego, and not just the one who asked if we were ever going to get out of there, but the first pilot, too, who spoke with an edge in his voice. I saw then that it was the male pilots whose emotions had first gotten the better of them, and that the ATC had succumbed to that.
And I wondered if these male pilots had spoken the way they did because the ATC was a woman. Did that fact somehow give them the permission? Or would they have taken a tone with any ATC they judged as incompetent in the situation? I also wondered if either of them (pilots) were reprimanded or fined, or if the ATC was. And I wondered if the ATC had been at the end of a long stretch, if she was a rookie or if her father had recently passed away.
And that’s the thing about channel 9, no matter that it’s real and in the moment, it’s still eavesdropping. And there are things you hear that you’ll wonder about forever.