You do not want me around if you’re going to watch a movie or TV show which involves aviation in general or ATC in particular. I do not suffer fools lightly, and I have yet to see competent technical advice in any film about ATC and precious few about aviation. Much if it is so bad as to cause me to get vocal in response, which will ruin it for you if you’re okay with the dramatic license. I’m not.

“What do you mean?” one might ask. Okay, let’s start with an easy one. How many degrees in a circle? Is it possible anyone over the age of 12 doesn’t know the answer (360, if you’re under 12)? I swear by all that is holy that this is true. I once saw a movie with an airplane in it, and the pilot was cleared for takeoff on Runway 37. Ack! Okay, granted the best kept secret in aviation is how runways are numbered (the nearest compass direction rounded to tens of degrees), but please, how much would it cost to call a pilot, any pilot, even a student pilot, and ask them? Incidentally Roddy saw the same movie, and not surprisingly, we’re pretty sure it was an, uh, art film.

While I’ll principally discuss ATC, let me give a couple of movie acks and then we’ll move on. Remember Midway, documenting the eponymous WWII battle? Some of the aircraft returning to the Yorktown, Hornet, or Enterprise, were F6F Hellcats, which didn’t join the fleet until 1943 (any F4U Corsairs shown in the same time period also didn’t join the fleet until 1943). Well, F6Fs aren’t that easy to differentiate from the F4F Wildcats (which were the front line fighter at Midway), particularly if you’re not up on your aircraft recognition. But how about the movie Tora, Tora, Tora? It’s about the attack on Pearl Harbor—1941. In that one you’ll see a fighter crashing into the fantail of a carrier. It’s an F9F Panther, a jet fighter, vintage Korean War, ten years later. Acks all around

Oh, crap—one more movie “ack”. This one’s been around so long there is a large segment of professional communicators and virtually 100% of the entertainment industry that thinks that your last transmission should be “over and out.” Where do I start? Well, ack! for one. “Over” means “I’m done talking—your turn.” “Out” means “I’m done,” period. You might even be going off the air. In strictest terms “over and out” is either meaningless or contradictory. In one sense, it’s like saying “you go ahead and talk, but I’m not listening—na–na–na–na…” In thirty years I never used “out” and only heard another controller use it once, maybe twice. It really has no function in ATC communications. “Over,” on the other hand, is heard every day, but not every transmission. Its real purpose is to prod someone to respond when there may be some ambiguity as to when you’ve finished talking. Most ATC communications are pretty clear in that regard, though.

All ATC is conducted in UTC, or what was once known as (and frankly, still is), Greenwich Mean Time. While probably not immediately clear, that also implies 24 hour time (or military time, as some people call it), to eliminate any ambiguity of am or pm. That means 3 o’clock is 1500, for example. The 24 hour clock, and to a lesser extent, Zulu time (as UTC and GMT is also sometimes called), became so much a part of my life that every clock or watch I own which has the capability is set to 24 hour time. As a concession to my wife, I keep it on local time, but she’s had to come to terms with dinner being at 1900.

By the way, UTC is the contraction for Coordinated Universal Time. It’s UTC because the French from which it’s derived is universel temps coordonné . It's really hard to find proof of that on the internet, and since I’ve also seen universelle tiempes coordinate I am suspicious that while it’s almost certainly based on a foreign language, and French is usually the language of international standards, it may, instead, be something else. As I thought—after some research, I found thisdiscussion of UTC.

Okay, I recently saw an aviation blog in which the author was trying to convey the phraseology a pilot would be given when instructed to hold. “November 345 Juliet, cleared to PLANO, as published, maintain 70, expect further clearance at 1645 Zulu.” Ack! No one, ever, in the history of ATC has ever said Zulu when giving any kind of time, either to a pilot or another controller. It’s utterly, unequivocally, implied in every case. It’s what the system is based on and there is no alternative which might be confused for it.

Speaking of military time, I’ve heard this so many times I can’t even begin to count them. Someone in a drama will say, “he’s due back at 1600 hours.” Ack! No one who is conversant in 24 hour time ever says “hours.” It’s almost as firmly implied as Zulu is in ATC time.

On the subject of blogs or other written media (aural, too, it will become clear) another misapplication of words in aviation is the word “degree”. Actually, there aren’t many places where it’s used. It’s pretty much been bred out of the language in favor of brevity and against superfluity. For example, the phraseology for issuing a heading is, “turn right, heading three two zero.” No ambiguity or confusion there. The word “heading” followed by some numbers makes it pretty clear that we’re talking about degrees.

Similarly, in weather reports (METAR, they’re now called), although different kinds of degrees, temperatures are stated simply as numbers (although prefaced by the word “temperature” or “dew point”, which is also a temperature). For example, “…temperature one five, dew point 10…” Couldn’t be clearer.

Do you know what else is unambiguous (and back to degrees as a measurement of arc)? The radials of a VOR or bearings from an NDB. It is absolutely proper to refer to the 283 radial of such and such a VOR. It is utterly improper to refer to the 283 degree radial. It’s amazing how many people writing on the subject of aviation get this wrong.

Here’s one I’ve almost given up fighting about. It’s becoming more and more common, particularly because it sounds right to the ignorant. HUD. No, not Housing and Urban Development. It’s the acronym for Head Up Display, which is a feature in many modern airplanes, that displays critical flight information on the windshield or a transparent screen in front of the windshield. Yeah, that’s right, head up—not heads up. “Heads up” is something you holler to a person as a warning that some incoming missile (probably launched by you) represents an imminent threat. It’s what the movers holler when the piano has broken loose from the gantry. It’s intended to direct your attention to the wayward missile so as to facilitate your avoidance of it. It is not the descriptor of the windscreen projection of principal flight instruments which allow a pilot to fly without having to look (down) at his instrument panel. In other words, with his head up—hence “Head Up Display”. That error is so endemic it’s probably no longer able to prove it’s an error. To those of us who were around at the inception of the term and its report by such eminent industry publications as Aviation Week & Space Technology, however, it’s definitely a nails-on-chalkboard gaffe.

Often in a movie or TV show you’ll hear a controller give an instruction to a pilot or hear pilots talking to one another and one will say, for example, “roger that.” Ack! Any roger is implicitly a roger that. It is utterly redundant, unprofessional, and sounds really stupid. And while we’re on the subject, roger is not a synonym for yes. By definition, roger means, “I have received your transmission and acknowledge for it.” We don’t (didn’t) hear it often in ATC, but I hear it a lot in other services. Ack! Update: it’s getting worse. The word “copy” is beginning to contaminate the argot as a replacement for “roger”. How lazy does one have to be to substitute one two syllable word that exists nowhere in official phraseology with a two syllable word that doesn’t even sound cool (I’m almost positive it derives from the coarse lingo of the CB world from the ’70s when users were asked “do you have a copy on the ol’ Road Runner?”—very professional).

I guess the people who type the closed captioning can’t be technical specialists. Here are a few gaffes they’ve transcribed incorrectly over the years:

Ack, ack, ack. Expect this list to grow.

There were some internal issues, too—poor phraseology in our own house. One of them which used to drive me nuts was when a controller would instruct an airplane to turn to a heading and “join the localizer.” Ack! You have to really be up on ATP phraseology to understand the problem with that one, but mainly, the proper instruction for a localizer (or a radial) is to intercept it. Join is the correct word to use for getting on an airway. I have a wordy proof for that, but you probably would rather skip it, so trust me (clickhereif you want to read it).

Another one I started hearing in my last few years was when a newbie was vectoring an aircraft, he might say, “turn right, fly heading…” Ack! The proper phraseology is either “fly heading (xxx)” or “turn right heading (xxx)”. Combining the two is incorrect. I think I started hearing some of the foregoing because training wasn’t what it used to be. Trainees didn’t learn procedures and phraseology before starting training—they picked up what they thought they needed in OJT (on the job training). It was what I calledlearning by legend. The problem with it is when everyone learned the book first, then everyone was singing from the same hymnal. Even if one adopted bad habits and poor phraseology later, it didn’t trickle down several generations and the trainee could recognize poor examples right away because he’d read the book. But after someone’s trainee’s trainee’s trainee got certified, learning all the while by legend…well it was the old pass it on party game all over again, but in a serious venue.

This one’s been bugging me for some time, too. It seems that no one without an historical perspective can get these things straight. If it sounds like it’s right, it must be right. I was working airplanes when the Boeing 747 was introduced. It raised the bar by an order of magnitude of commercial aircraft in terms of size and weight. It was bigger than anything else, and justly earned the sobriquet of “jumbo jet”. Almost any talking head on TV latched on to that like a cheetah and a wounded wildebeest.

The 747 was the first in a new category of transports which came to be known as “wide bodies”, so named because instead of 2⁄2, 2⁄3, or 3⁄3 seating with a single aisle down the middle, wide bodies had two aisles with 2⁄4⁄2 seating and other variations. After having the wide body market it itself for a couple of years, the Jumbo Jet was soon joined by the Douglas DC-10 and the Lockheed L1011—both wide bodies but with only three engines apiece, instead of the Jumbo Jet’s four. In later years, Airbus added their A-300 and Boeing added both the 767 and the 777 (all with only two engines, by the way). Airbus’ most recent wide body is the 380, but let’s leave that out of the discussion for the moment.

In all that progression of wide body development (and they’re all heavy jets by the definition of capable of a gross take-off weight of more than 300,000 lbs) there’s still only been one Jumbo Jet—the 747. Yes, they’re all heavies, yes, they’re all wide bodies, but, with the exception above, there’s no comparison in either size or weight with a 747. So, no, a DC-10 (later MD-11) or an L1011 are not Jumbo Jets, despite what some talking head who wasn’t even born when they were introduced might call them. Ack!

I’m sure some more of these will come to me, and I’ll add them to the list as they do.

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Last updated: 13 November 2016