'Say Souls On Board,' and Other Secrets of the Skies

By Deborah Fallows
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By Deborah Fallows

When I fly on commercial airlines, I always try to listen to the air traffic controllers (ATC) on my headset. On United Airlines, that would be channel 9. After 9/11, channel 9 went quiet for many, many months. Then it occasionally, irregularly returned. When I would ask the flight attendants if they could turn it on, they would always respond, “I’ll ask the captain.” Either they never asked or the captain declined, but I never got my wish.

So imagine my delight when in our small plane, we could listen to the ATC on demand.  We’ve logged many thousands of miles in the last 6 weeks, through more than 65 total hours aloft. I haven’t gotten to the point of recognizing specific local ATC voices yet, but I suppose that day might come.

There are three options for being in touch with ATC in a small plane. When flying on an instrument plan (officially "Instrument Flight Rules," or IFR), which we do whenever there are clouds or otherwise not perfect weather, the radio is always on and we’re always communicating with the ATC because we’re following their instructions on where to go. On the other extreme is flying under visual flight rules, or VFR. If the weather is good and we stay away from certain big-city areas, we are flying on our own and don’t have to communicate with ATC at all. And then there is the sweet spot in between: if we’re in good weather, but in busy airspace (like most of the East Coast), we usually get “flight following”, which means the ATC keeps an eye on us and lets us know if there are other planes in our vicinity, but doesn’t direct our routing.

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Last August, after meandering through the upper Midwest for a few weeks and then way out to the edge of Wyoming, we decided to fly all the way home in a single day, from Cheyenne to Washington DC. It would be a long day, but we had an early start, the weather was perfect, the winds were favorable, and we weren’t tired. So we planned to give it a try, knowing we could always change our minds en route. We opted for flight following, figuring that we would be free to choose our own course and not have to fly any ATC-dictated doglegs out of our way.

We talked with Cheyenne Tower on takeoff, then went to Cheyenne Departure, then to Denver Center, and were passed along throughout the day to Centers in Minneapolis, Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Washington, and finally to Potomac Approach and in to Gaithersburg, MD, call letters KGAI, which is the closest general aviation airport to home in DC. [The Centers are shown in the map at the top of the post, each beginning with Z. Denver Center is ZDV, Minneapolis is ZMP, and so on, including some obscure abbreviations like ZAU for Chicago Center, in Aurora, Illinois.] Along that route, we were in the occasional jurisdiction of city approaches, like Cincinnati. And just last week, we flew back from another trip to Burlington VT, via a different set of controllers, on instruments, since there was a big fat cloud layer at about 6 thousand feet. That day, we were passed like a hot potato from Burlington Approach to Boston Center, New York Center, Washington Center, Potomac Approach, plus spells with local approach controllers in Albany, Binghamton, Allentown, Wilkes-Barre, and Harrisburg, and eventually home.

You never know what a day in the air will bring, but you can be sure that you’ll be witness to some kind of interesting, curious, or even dramatic events.  Here are a few from our recent days in the air. [Below: the kind of place where you don't need to talk with ATC if you don't want.]

Surprising pilots: Exchanges with the ATC are predictable. The language is spare, almost catechismal in its patterns, and it leaves little room for ambiguity (as you would hope!).

“Denver Center, Cirrus four-three-five Sierra Romeo, six thousand” (meaning, “Hi Denver, you're expecting us to check in, and this is a Cirrus airplane, call letters 4356SR, flying at 6000 feet.”)

And they answer:

“435 Sierra Romeo, Denver Center, Denver altimeter three-zero-zero-niner” (meaning, “Hi back atcha, and the atmospheric pressure, which you need to know to gauge your altitude, is 30.09).

I’m not a pilot (tales for another day) but I do practice doing routine things in the plane. Talking with the ATC is one of them. It’s fun; it’s oddly reassuring to make the contact; and if I have to do it on my own one day, I’ll know what I’m doing. What is not reassuring, is when the formulaic exchanges veer off script.

For example, on an August day, with some scattered storms around the Midwest, we were flying down the east coast of Lake Michigan, veering south around Chicago and heading west to South Dakota. We heard an ATC speaking distinctly, insistently to a clearly lost pilot:

ATC: “You need to head to MOTIF [an air-routing waypoint – these have five letters]; You need to deviate from Joliet.”

Pilot: “We are heading to MOTIF.”

ATC: “No, you’re not. You’re headed right for my holding stack at Joliet. You need to expedite course change to MOTIF!” (Exclamation point mine, but I heard it in the ATC’s voice. The drama, of course, is that the pilot was lost and heading straight for the planes circling and waiting to land at O’Hare, one of the world’s busiest airports).

Last week, we were flying through New York Center’s airspace and listening to the very patient ATC going back and forth with the pilot of an Asiana flight. The international language of flight is English, but you often notice the change in enunciation and speed of delivery by the ATCs when they know they’re dealing with pilots who are not native speakers of English. I tried to follow the exchange of numbers, (which are important!) but became quite confused myself. It went something like this:

ATC: [giving a new radio frequencey] 133 point 23

Pilot: 123 point 33

ATC: that’s 1-3-3-point-23

Pilot: 1-3-2-point-23

They lost me by that point, but the ATC must have felt things were OK because the transmissions stopped. [Below, sample screen shot of planes being followed by ATC, via Flight Radar 24.]

Dramatic events: When we were flying over Cincinnati Approach’s airspace a few weeks ago, there was a sudden set of comments from the ATC, but we couldn’t hear the pilot's responses, which sometimes happens, when for example, the other plane is too far away from you.

ATC: 4194 Say souls on board. (This is the ATC terminology for asking how many people are in the plane. It is the standard terminology, and when you file any flight plan that’s the term for number of people on the plane; but when you hear it said out loud by a controller it’s usually a bad sign. It fills me with dread.)

ATC: Say fuel remaining.

ATC: Tower does know you are expecting emergency landing.

ATC: Verify. Are you minimum fuel?

My husband and I were exchanging worried glances at this point. You know an emergency is happening. You feel like an eavesdropper.  You can’t stop listening. This time, as with the few other times we have heard such dramas, we flew out of the airspace and were passed off to another controller before we heard the end of the story. I assume all was well, as we didn’t hear anything on the news later that evening.

Surprising things in the sky: While the skies over the Great Plains can be empty for hours—not a sign of another plane, not a peep from the ATC, only the vast empty plains below -- we eventually fly  east into the busy, populated, noisy skies. Then you hear ATC comments like this:

“Jumpers!” (Meaning parachute jumpers, and we certainly want to avoid their space.)

“Crop dusters in the vicinity.” (So old-fashioned and charming.)

“Birds reported in the area.” (This is dangerous; you don’t want one to hit your propeller, wing, or worst of all windshield.)

“Gliders.” (Always worried they are not really in control)

“Unmanned rocket launch.” (No kidding; that was a first.)

I realize there is one constant in all this drama, be it big or small, in the skies where we fly: that is the steady, reassuring, unflappable presence of the air traffic controllers. I love them.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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