Reporters like me got to write countless news articles—but we were barred from responding at all to “letters to the editor.” The readers made our enterprise possible, and the editor decided that they deserved the final word in any argument. I’m reminded of the wisdom of that policy whenever I hear fellow pilots arguing with air traffic controllers, or each other, on the aircraft radio.
A ground controller at my home airport recently provided the ATIS information over the radio to a pilot who had called seeking a taxi clearance. The pilot had said he had ATIS information “alpha” in his initial transmission, but the controller wasn’t sure or didn’t hear it, so he provided it verbally, just in case.
“I already told you I had information alpha,” the peeved pilot replied.
The controller’s repetition of the ATIS information clearly bothered the pilot because, in the pilot’s mind, it implied he had made an error of omission. And if you’re looking for a way to get under a pilot’s skin, suggesting he may have made a mistake is a great way to do it. I’m all for accurate radio communication and clarity. If there’s any question about a heading, an altitude, or a clearance, insist on timely clarification. But in the case of something as harmless as repeating the wind direction and barometric pressure, let it go.
It might surprise my AOPA colleagues, who are excruciatingly aware of my argumentative nature, that I counsel peace and quiet on the radio—but it’s true.
I recently got dressed down by a tower controller for making an “unauthorized” turn on the runway. I had landed and come to a stop slightly beyond my intended runway exit, and my sin was turning more than 90 degrees to get onto the taxiway. I thought I was being a good guy—but the controller disagreed and pointedly told me so. I was convinced that I was right and very much wanted to answer in kind. But I resisted and held my reply to a terse “roger.”
I wish I could say I always practice proper radio etiquette, but that’s simply not the case. Once, while approaching a nontowered airport, I watched a Piper Cherokee ahead of me fly over the airfield and depart the area. I entered the traffic pattern and turned downwind and then base. That’s when the Cherokee pilot announced that he was turning final and complained that I had cut him off.
I reflexively keyed the mic and told him he was flying an absurd, unrecognizable pattern, and that my airplane would be washed and put away before his even touched down. “I’d say you were flying a B–52 pattern—but that would be an insult to B–52s because they fly tighter than you.” But as soon as the sarcastic words left my mouth, I regretted them. The right thing to do would have been to go around, bite my tongue, and land behind him with another 0.1 hours in my logbook.
We pilots certainly don’t have a monopoly on radio truculence. There are plenty of ATC offenders in this category, too. The reason I’m harder on pilots, however, is because we’re the lucky ones. Whether we’re flying for work or pleasure, we’re doing what we love to do. We’re fortunate beyond measure, and we ought not to forget that.
If someone else suggests we might have erred, or misheard something, or misspoke, so what? Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’ve got good intentions for pointing it out. Nothing anyone says changes the basic fact that we as pilots get to fly airplanes.
So the next time a fellow pilot, controller, or anyone else questions something I do or say in an airplane, I’ll try to follow the wise words of Taylor Swift (“players gonna play, haters gonna hate”) and simply “shake it off.”
Or as my former editor used to do, give them the last word. ‘