My favorite airline to fly is United, in large part because often (not always) they put the ground-to-air radio traffic from the cockpit on one of the audio channels. It’s at the pilot’s discretion, but they have it more often than not.
I just loved listening to this when I was flying long, long before I started my flight training. At that time I didn’t know much about what was going on, since it really is something of a different language. Despite that, or possibly because of that, I felt like I was getting a peek into a world that I always wanted to be a part of.
Pre-internet, pre-having-my-own-radio, this was the only time I could hear the Air Traffic Control (ATC) chatter. These days, even if you don’t have your own radio, you can listen in at any time online.
Check out http://www.liveatc.net to hear it for free any time. Pick an airport near to you, or pick one far away. If you really want to follow what’s going on, load up http://www.flightaware.com and pick the same airport, you’ll be able to follow the radar tracks of the all of the incoming and outbound flights and match them up visually with what you’re hearing on the radio feed.
If you pick a large airport (O’Hare, Boston, JFK, Dulles, LAX, and so on) you’ll get a list of possible frequencies for different services. Approach. Departure. Clearance. Ramp. Tower. Ground. Just pick the Tower frequency, this will be the one giving planes their final landing clearance and telling departing flights when to take the runway. If you pick a smaller airport (say, CMA, which is Camarillo, CA where I hang out) there will only be one frequency handling all of those different tasks.
If you’re a pilot or if you just learn to follow what’s going on (it’s not THAT hard, I learned it after all), it can be a wonderful “background noise” source. For me in the spring and summer, baseball games do that, a familiar pattern, cadence, flow that’s soothing and comforting. When they’re not playing baseball, ATC will do the trick.
It’s like comfort food for the ears and nerves.
Tonight, out of curiosity at first, I’ve been listening to the tower at Boston’s Logan International. Of course, Boston’s gotten slammed with one blizzard after another and Logan was shut down for many hours, leaving quite the mess with cancelled flights, stranded travelers, and delays across the country.
I checked at first just to see if they were open again. They are, sort of. It sounds like they’ve only got one runway open (33L), only a few taxiways open, many gates still blocked by snow, and they’re still getting lots of ice and blowing snow which makes braking somewhat dicey at times.
With just one runway open, they’re using it for both takeoffs and landings, slowing things down a lot. They normally would use one runway for landing and another for takeoffs so the two activities don’t interfere with each other.
With all of that, the guy on the mike tonight should get a freakin’ medal! I don’t know who he is, but I’ve been listening for a couple of hours. He’s had to deal with one mess after the other, and it’s great to hear a patient professional doing his job and doing it well. The pilots also do their part, but this guy just gets one after another after another.
Also fun are some of the “non-standard” exchanges. For example, an incoming flight being told that the gate they’re assigned to is already occupied and there are multiple planes waiting for an open gate said, “And the hits just keep coming!”
I also appreciate the pilots that just drop in a quick “thank you” or “appreciate your help” as they’re departing the area. When flying I’ve always tried to do that (time permitting), I feel that it helps to keep things human.
As a pilot who hasn’t flown in a while, listening to ATC gets my head back into the game, reminds me of what I’m missing, and lets me practice anticipating the responses from the tower and the corresponding transmissions the pilot needs to make. That’s useful, and fun.
Check it out! If you have questions about terms being used or what’s going on, ask away! I’ll be glad to help.