March 3, 2010

Cleared for Takeoff

Someone is always listening. That is part of the job description of being an air traffic controller. We hope the pilots are listening, but isn't always the case based on some recent "NORDO" events that have made headlines. doesn't have any live feeds of my area, so bad phraseology and dumb jokes tend to go unnoticed by the public. But everything we do is taped by the FAA. Every computer input is reviewable. And the blips/airplanes are full of people. We all take that very seriously, but, at the same time, have to put these things in the back of our minds to do our job successfully.

Things are sometimes said on frequency that we immediately regret, or at least a "I hope nothing happens to this guy or they're gonna pull the tapes" thought flashes through our minds for a moment, and then we move on and keep working. Our workday consists of many ups and downs, and we often go from being freakishly busy to mostly dull and back again within the course of a shift. That's just how airline schedules work. These "dull" times aren't void of airplanes, but there is nothing complicated happening. These are often the times when silly comments are made, or we spend a few seconds longer inquiring about the ride reports, or ask an simple question about a new aircraft's performance. It keeps us sane and alert.

Controllers are paid a lot of money to make good judgment calls thousands of times, if not millions of times, a day. As much as it is a part of our job, we are NOT solely paid to talk on the radio, nor is issuing clearances on frequency the most difficult part of our job. This job is all about formulating a plan and a series of timed transmissions to make the plan work. We are paid to manage our airspace and our frequencies together.

This is in response to all the media hoopla in regards to a controller that let his child transmit to airplanes. The child was not being an air traffic controller. The child was not in control of the airspace. The child was relaying clearances that the controller was instructing the child to transmit on frequency, in a similar fashion that FSS controllers relay clearances to planes at uncontrolled airports. (This is NOT intended to undermine my FSS friends, just to make a point) The controller, who is trusted to make judgments about everything else in regards to his operational position, apparently is not trusted to determine that two airplanes awaiting takeoff at one of the busiest airports in the world is slow enough to let his child have a great experience on his winter break with his dad at work. If something other than "cleared for takeoff" and "contact departure" needed to be said, it WOULD have been said.

Sorry for the op-ed piece. Let's focus on stuff that is actually unsafe. Check out the newest adjacent sector "ATCfreqs" for some important information about ERAM. Let's not get distracted by a controller who can't get a day off to spend with his kid because the FAA is under-staffing his tower.

Till next time...



Wes Hartley said...

Great job on this post! Just think how much better shape the ATC industry and airline industry would be in if we had more opportunities to show the next generation the joys of the job.

I am a pilot and have had to rely instructions from ATC to planes that have flown out of radio range. I am not an authorized controller, should the controller have been suspended for asking for me to rely instructions?

I think there is so much fear over liability and responsibility that we have lost touch with common sense!

Anonymous said...

DM, you are absolutely right. This isn't a big deal and it is sad the press is making such a big deal of it. This simply highlights their continued ignorance of aviation and the desire for meaningless sound bites.

kt said...

Approximately 26 of my friends copied and pasted me this story before I even woke up this morning. So naturally I was annoyed by the whole thing.

I don't see how this kid is any different than any trainee who walks through the door... He was just parroting what someone else told him to say. So is Randy Babbitt saying there shouldn't be any trainees in the FAA?!

I can tell you that kid, however old he is, sounded WAY more confident than I did my first day on the boards!

Senior Captain said...

What's the big deal? The kid repeated what his dad told him to say, and did a fine job!

CFI's do the same thing every day with students. Not a big deal at all, as I posted in my blog. Give the guy a slap on the wrist and send him back to work.

Senior Captain said...

DM, going with your FSS analogy, I wonder if there would have been less of a fuss if the kid said "ATC clears JBU171 for takeoff" :D

I mean, technically, that IS what is happening, is it not?

Steve said...

Thank you for posting this! I heard similar hoopla on the radio while driving to the office yesterday and wanted to scream. Clearly any respectable pilot would question any ATC instruction that didn't sound correct and clearly the controller was in complete command of his airspace.

God forbid we actually allow a kid to have an incredible experience he'll probably tell all his friends about and possible get other kids excited about ATC and aviation!

Harold Bien said...

It's a sad state of affairs when you rightly point out that people no longer trust ATC judgement. I think the greatest damage here, however, is that:
1) The poor child will likely be traumatized by this incident no matter how things turn out, and
2) Why the FAA themselves failed to stand-up and defend the controller is beyond me - they could have easily allayed public mis-understanding and fear by articulating exactly what you just wrote here instead of playing safe and pandering to the mass hysteria.

Dan in ALB said...

I totally agree with you. I do not find this story to be troubling at all. To the general public (aka my wife) it IS a big deal so tread lightly.

By the way, I do believe that your voice may occaisionally be heard on

Would you not be heard on the ALB 22 sector?

Anonymous said...

Seeing the media and FAA get wrapped up by this is pure balderdash. Just like how big of a deal they're trying to make the SFO tcas event last week, balderdash. That B772 captain certainly over-reacted and we're now investigating something that needn't be investigated.