Speech Impediment

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Controllers have to clear all sorts of physical and physiological hurdles to become controllers. Clearly, one cannot be deaf or blind. Neither can one be color blind. I had two friends who were off the boards for years with insulin dependant diabetes melitus (one eventually got a waiver). We were tested annually for hearing, vision, and assorted other medical anomalies.

In aviation, there are three classes of medical certificates. Regular private pilots must carry a 3rd Class certificate which is good for two years. Commercial pilots and air traffic controllers must carry a 2nd Class certificate, good for one year. Airline pilots must carry a 1st Class certificate, good for six months. The classes vary in permissible levels of varying afflictions between each other, as well. We were given an annual physical to renew our 2nd Class certificate, and they kept pretty close tabs on our medical history, tracking blood pressure, cholesterol, vision, hearing, any neuro or cardiac issues, medications, etc.

One thing that is never tested for, that I’m aware of, is speech impediments. I know, because I have one, and I was never called on it.

Now, I’m not talking about full on, Mel Tillis, stuttering. What I learned I have is an occasional difficulty with certain letter combinations. There are very few—in fact, putting this story together, I’m only able to recall a couple. And the combinations never did anything but cost me milliseconds in executing them. Here’s my primary example: for some reason, the number eight, in a pair as part of a three or greater number combination, was difficult for me to say—“eight eighty” for example.

We had a commuter airline named Britt Air which had a flight 880 that came up every morning from around SPI to ORD. Drove me nuts trying to say “Britt Air Eight Eighty”. Seems so easy to read and for others to say, but for me, the transition between “air” and the “eight eighty” pair caused a hitch in my mouth I couldn’t overcome. It was the hitch I couldn’t overcome, not the whole callsign. My stumbling through it was probably utterly imperceptible to anyone but me.

I had a similar problem with Trans World Airlines. Most airlines had a simple name which was their call sign—American, Delta, Eastern, National, Braniff, United, NorthEast, Continental. Some carriers had their own callsign—B-O-A-C (now British Airways) was always called “Speedbird”, Pan American was always called “Clipper”, and Canadian Pacific was always called “Empress”. None of those were a problem—they were mostly one or two syllables—even Continental only had four, and it was an easy word.

TWA, however, was a different proposition altogether. For one thing, we rarely, if ever, called them Trans World—it was always TWA. For most, that was easy to do. But those three letters comprise five syllables, and the combination was just a bit much for me. Fortunately, we didn’t get many TWA flights at ZJX so it wasn’t a problem for me there, but we had quite a few at ORD and later ZAU, which became apparent rather quickly.

Fortunately, for me, in my brief stint at ORD, I heard another controller employ a short cut for TWA which I immediately recognized as useful to me, and I integrated it forthwith. He didn’t say “Tee Dubb-ull-U Ay“—he said “Tee Double Ay”. Try it. Say it out loud. It’s almost indistinguishible, and if you have the tongue tripping I do, it’s an order of magnitude easier to say. I adopted it and used it successfully for the next twenty five years. If you listen to the audio clip of me working a rush elsewhere on this site, you’ll hear me work a TWA flight and I don’t believe you’d ever have noticed how I say it if I hadn’t told you about it here.

That’s what I mean about never being caught.

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Last updated: 21 July 2013