Arguing the ATP

An Amateur Takes On A Pro

Hoo, boy. I initially included the following in my “Ack!” page, but it quickly got big enough to warrant a stand alone article. See if this amuses you at all.

Last Fall, the journal of an organization to which I belong published a nice tribute to Sally Ride, who had recently passed away. Unfortunately, the title read, “Sally Ride, Clear For Takeoff”. Oof…or, ack! It’s not an uncommon error, and one I’ve pointed out several times in other venues, but the particular organization this journal services should be especially receptive to edification on the argot of my profession. So, I crafted a letter…one I thought delicately explained the error while still honoring the purpose of the tribute. Here is the text I sent, which they published under the title Cleared Up:

I'm not sure how to couch this note. It refers to the headline of your Bulletin Points celebrating Sally Ride in the September Bulletin: “Clear for Takeoff”. I don’t feel like berating you, because I suspect you’re not a pilot and probably couldn’t know differently. In any event, let me soften the blow by saying it was a very nice tribute for a remarkable woman.

I got your point. It was an allusion to Ride being an astronaut and flying West for that last time, etc. I’d like to just offer this as an FYI and whenever you next might be presented an opportunity you’ll make a better choice. Nevertheless, it grated on me—for a couple of reasons, so I’ll offer you the more-detailed-than-you-ever-wanted 411 on the problem.

First, I’m not sure Ride was ever a pilot. That’s a minor point and not so germane, because the case is easily made that the backseaters in an aircraft suffer the benefits of a takeoff clearance every bit as much as the pilot(s), so I’ll not press farther on the point.

However, after more than 40 years in aviation, and 30 as an actual air traffic controller I must assure you that the actual phraseology you were grasping for is “clearED for takeoff”. All aircraft under the jurisdiction of controllers operate on a clearance of some kind. For the average person who thinks a controller is the guy in the tower (and it is, in many cases) it could be as simple as a clearance to land, a clearance to take off, or a clearance to taxi to the gate, the runway, or the fuel pumps. Whatever it is, they need a clearance, and they are cleared (or not) to do so.

I was an enroute controller—actually most controllers are—and while I never cleared anyone to take off or land, I issued tens of thousands of clearances in my 30 years. “Cleared to destination”, “cleared to hold”, “cleared direct xxx”, etc. The only case that I can think of where the “ed” isn’t part of a transmission involving the word “clear” is when I’ve called traffic to someone (“traffic, ten o’clock, three miles, northbound”) and when it’s no longer a factor, the phraseology is “clear of traffic”. Note that it has an entirely different connotation in that use than an actual ATC clearance.

(I included a cite to the ATP here, but they, somewhat mercifully, edited it out.)

So, the next time you hear someone in a movie say it the wrong way, my ears will burn, because you’ll know better and you'll be thanking me.

Seems reasonable, doesn’t it? The following month, they published a response from a high placed person on the board of The The Ninety-Nines, a women’s pilot organization. Here’s what she had to say:

Sally Doesn’t Ride (in fairness, I believe the journal probably created the title, and mine above)

In regard to the November/December “Brainwaves” concerning Sally Ride, the “Cleared Up” writer is mistaken on several points. Not only was Sally Ride a licensed pilot, she was a member of the world’s largest organization of women pilots, The Ninety-Nines, founded by Amelia Earhart and 98 of her fellow women pilots in 1929. We are proud of her time with us as a Ninety-Nine, as she represented more than 5,000 fellow Ninety-Nines in 17 countries where we have sections and chapters.

Secondly, the writer mist have been a controller a very long time ago, or he would know there is the command to pilots to “line up and wait” (it used to be “position and hold”), followed by “clear for take-off.” If the aircraft is not in a “line up and wait” situation, then the correct command would be “cleared for take off,” as the writer suggests.

The dismissive attitude to Sally Ride, and women in general, by the writer tells me there is more work to be done. Women today represent 30 percent of all flight school trainees, and their ranks both in the airplane cockpit and the control tower are significant. As a licensed woman pilot (and aircraft owner), and longtime member of this organization, I wanted to set the record straight.

Dianne (Summers) Cole,
international director,
The Ninety-Nines Inc.
Pinole, Calif.

There was so much fail in that response, I was rendered speechless. I cranked out a multi-paragraph response illustrating just how wrong in how many ways she was, then put it on my “24 Hour Rule” back burner.

Let’s examine some of the fail:

Paragraph 1
Nice attempt to make The Ninety-Nines the story. I remarked being ignorant of whether she was a pilot. The rest of this stuff is spam.
Paragraph 2
If you know anything about me at all, you could accurately guess I was about 98% positive I was right before I put the magazine down. However, I’m nothing if not thorough, so I went to the online ATP (latest version complete with changes) to see if there had been any radical changes in it since the very long time ago when it was my bible, and sure enough, aside from the “line up and wait” change, of which I’ve been aware since it was implemented, little else has changed, and nothing in the prescribed phraseology for take off clearances. Certainly not that nonsense about one takeoff clearance from on the runway and a different one for off the runway.
Paragraph 3
If someone will please point out how I was dismissive of Sally Ride or women in general I’ll spring for drinks. And to that point, it appears Ms. Cole must have glossed over the last sentence in my very first paragraph, “…it was a very nice tribute for a remarkable woman.” In fact, my letter wasn’t about her at all—it was about the phraseology error in the magazine. So much for Ms. Cole setting the record straight. She didn’t get one thing right in her whole diatribe, except maybe Amelia Earhart. What was up with that?

I still haven’t sent it, and I don’t think I will. However, there’s no reason not to document the issues at hand, so I’ve included some of it here. In the unsent letter I cited my background and familiarity with our procedures manual, including some of its history and evolution. I’ll pick up here with those paragraphs:

AtFAA.govyou will find the online version of our manual, FAAH 7110.65U, effective 9 February 2012, includes Change 1 effective 26 July 2012.

Run down the list to:

Note the phrase “cleared for takeoff”. In both explicit code as well as in every example, the phraseology is “cleared for takeoff”. Not “unless the aircraft has previously been issued a clearance to ‘line up and wait’”. It’s unconditional and it’s the same. One gets cleared for takeoff no matter whether they’re in position on the runway, waiting at the runway edge, or even still taxiing to the end of the runway. Cleared for takeoff. See if you can find an example of your assertion—that the phraseology is variable depending on aircraft position. I’d suggest you start with 3.9.4 which is the section on LUaW. Nope. Not there. No reason for it to be, either.

I didn’t send it because it’s unproductive to perpetuate a flame war, exploiting space in a national journal. In any event, a small mind eager to find offense where none exists, as demonstrated in her response, even in an organization this journal represents, is unlikely to be dissuaded from faulty thinking. I think I’ll just leave it posted here and let it propagate as it will.

It’s the same as it ever was—I didn’t lose ATP arguments with controllers when I was working. I definitely don’t lose them to amateurs. And just because I was a controller a very long time ago doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten the tools which were my daily life.

Addendum: In my original letter to the journal, I stated that I couldn’t recall any other case where “cleared” wasn’t used than “clear of traffic”. I’ve since recalled a rarely used phrase which is another exception. When relaying clearances through non-ATC facilities, such as Flight Service Stations, company radio, BASOPS, ARINC, or other aircraft, the correct phraseology with which to precede the clearance is “ATC clears…” That doesn’t help Ms. Cole’s case.

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Last updated: 20 March 2013