We were assigned to work in military airspace, and I had been given a sheaf of papers including maps, the names, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of what seemed like half the chain of command and their administrative assistants, plus instructions that we did not need to telephone anyone, just call RADIO CONTROL on such-and-such a VHF frequency ten minutes out. "Radio control" is an odd way to address an ATC entity, so I looked up the military installation in question in the CFS (directory of all Canadian airports) and found that the frequency was that listed for the local tower. Now that made sense. I called them up as instructed, with a proper efficient position report and request, "Basename Tower, this is Aircraft Type Foxtrot Alfa Victor X-Ray, forty miles northwest, nine thousand fife hundred. Request entry to CYR
The response is something to the effect of, "Go ahead your PPR number." PPR is a common abbreviation for "prior permission required," but I don't remember seeing such a number in my sheaf of papers. I have a quick re-read and no, there isn't one. My fellow crewmember already has his cellphone out texting company and in barely more time than it took me to indicate to the controller that I would try to get that for him, the number is provided to me. It was "six". Okay it was 2012-0006, but essentially the number between me and the airspace in front of me was six. I provide it in turn to the controller and we breathe a sigh of relief when it acts like an unlocking code to the secret levels of the video game and he says, "Your route is clear."
That sounds like permission, but it's not standard civilian phraseology, and I want to be absolutely sure. I'm organizing words in my head for the clearest, most succinct and professional way to say, "I am a civilian pilot unversed in military ATC differences, please confirm that means we are cleared as requested," when he buries that slightly fuzzy phrase in a question containing a pile of acronyms and numbers so deep that I don't know where to start asking. I think the best I can come up with is, "I'm sorry, I don't know what that means." I've been through military control zones across North America and while there are usually some quirks, I've never been at such a communications impasse before. Eventually I figure out that he is asking about the exact location of the work relative to the trans Canada highway. Yeah, one of the numbers turned out to be the local designation for Highway One and I think the rest were terms relating to the land covered by the restricted airspace. He stopped using them. We go back and forth a bit on this. He says "over" or "out" after every transmission, which is in fact part of the rules in aeronautical radio procedures, but in practice is only used when reception is terrible.
He's asked me to remain east of the highway, which is essentially an east-west highway. We don't seem to share enough common vocabulary or reference points to discuss this. He says "Wait out," which I presume to mean standby. He then comes back and asks me to fly a holding pattern. That's unexpected for a VFR aircraft. Usually a controller would just tell me to hold outside the zone, or give me specific holding instructions, but I can handle this. I'm five minutes from his airspace now, so I just fly a hold right there on the inbound track, working out that I need a one minute thirty-five second outbound leg and a fourteen degree outbound correction in order for a rate one turn to bring me perfectly back onto the inbound track, with six minutes showing to the destination. I call him back to ask for an estimate of how long I might have to do this for, but there's no answer. Eventually he comes back and tells me I'm cleared to work, "do not proceed east of [three digits spoken singly] dot one four." Now sitting where you are reading this, even with my obfuscation of my exact location, it's probably obvious to you that he was giving me a longitude, and I did figure that out after a second or so of staring stupidly out the window. It was just such an unexpected way to designate a meridian of longitude. I read it back as [three digits] degrees, fourteen minutes and told him that our our work straddled [meridian]°14'. We were at an impasse, so we lobbed the whole problem back to company to sort out on the phone and found some other work to do.
They called us back with an approval when we had not quite enough fuel to do the job, so we landed and refuelled and came back up to discover that "dot one four" meant decimal one four degrees, not fourteen minutes, so I had only to remain west of [meridian]°09', which I could do, and we quickly completed the job. It hadn't initially even crossed my mind that I'd be given a longitude in decimal degrees. Who navigates in decimal degrees?
Afterwards I lamented to my coworker the failure to communicate, and he was the one that came up with the realization that we were not talking to a military air traffic controller at all. We were talking to a comm tech down there on the ground with a radio, whose principle job was to keep people from blowing each other up on the range. When he said "out" he may have sometimes meant he was putting down the radio and walking away. And he probably had even less idea of what I was saying than I did of what he was saying. Because as the conversation got difficult I retreated to the most excruciatingly correct formal aviation radio language I could muster, trying to measure up for this terribly important military tower controller who didn't have time for anyone who didn't file flight plans in mach numbers, when really he might have been just as intimidated by my pilot jargon, causing him to try to duplicate it, and coming up with phrases that didn't mean what he thought. He hadn't once called himself "Basename Tower," just "Range Radio."
We had to return to that zone on another day and by changing my perception of the person I was speaking to, I changed my experience completely. I finished the mission by saying, "Thank you for your service," allowing him and others in earshot of the radio to perhaps realize that they had not really provided any air traffic control service to me, and that I was really thanking them for serving our country.
That made me wonder how often I have attributed to someone else too much authority or too much knowledge and, in trying to approach them at the level which I think they are expecting, have intimidated or alienated them. In future I will remember that the person in the metaphorical or physical intimidating tower is possibly not disdaining me at all, but in the same situation of trying to appear informed and in control. Maybe that would even work on the Springbank Tower controllers. And if someone is just being unnecessarily officious, they'll think they're being condescended to, which they deserve.