Monday, October 21, 2013

Lamest Excuse Ever

Pilots make mistakes, and we often try to explain ourselves, or cover up. Some of the excuses aren't even excuses anymore, just a code that everyone seems to accept. Like "the sun was in my eyes" on a missed tennis return (this one is used to explain a poor landing, too). Most of the excuses are things we say to ATC, or that ATC says to us, to help us save face.

Aircraft in busy airspace have to be equipped with a transponder, a device that responds to radar pulses (called "interrogation") by sending out a little signal reporting its altitude and assigned code. The code is mapped in the controller's database to the aircraft call sign, type, and filed destination, so that the controller can see that on her screen, along with the speed and position the radar displays. After take-off, the controller is watching to see that the transponder is responding correctly to interrogation, so she can declare the aircraft radar identified. The old sort of transponder has to be manually turned to the ALT position in order to be ready to respond to interrogation. I am privileged enough to have one that turns on automatically, either squat switch or speed linked, I'm not sure which, but I still hit the ALT button at line up in that airplane, because I don't want to get of the habit for another airplane that lacks the luxury. If I forget, ATC usually acts as though the fault is the transponder's and ask me to "recycle" it--turn it off and on again. That does sometimes need to be done, I'm pretty sure they know that most of the time they don't get a return at the expected altitude, it's because the pilot forgot. Pilots use the same lie. If ATC says, "I'm not getting a return on your transponder," the pilot replies, "I'll recycle" and then reaches over and turns on the forgotten switch.

Similarly if a pilot is a little bit off the assigned altitude, the controller may advise them of the altimeter setting and ask them to confirm their altitude. That gives the pilot a chance to pretend that they were off because they had the wrong altimeter setting. Or if a pilot is told she is at the wrong altitude, she may ask to confirm the altimeter setting. All of these things are sometimes true excuses for the controller not seeing what they want on their scope, but not as often as they are heard

.

It was in this context that I heard the lamest excuse ever.

ATC: I see you at 15,400'. Descend to 15,000' immediately.
Pilot: Sorry, my altimeter got stuck.

Might as well say, "Sorry, descending," and leave it at that.

8 comments:

Ali said...

Hello!

I found this short post interesting, as it made me reflect. I learnt to fly in France. I was always taught (and it was modelled to me) to be perfectly honest flying, because that was part of safety. It never even occurred to me not to be completely straight with a controller, because s/he is part of my safety!

Always enjoy your aeronautical thoughts!

Ali

Aluwings said...

FWIW -- There's actually a chance that there's some truth in "my alimeter was stuck..."

It surprised me when I discovered on the DC-9 a circuit breaker labelled "ALTIMETER VIBRATOR." Apparently without the airframe vibrations of piston engines, the gearing inside an altimter actually does need "shaking up" to keep from binding.

On some of the older airplanes, while sitting quietly at the ramp waiting for boarding, these units produce an annoying noise, so some pilots would pull that breaker, meaning to reset it before departure.

I've seen cases where the altimeter during the climb was moving erratically -- climbing slowly, then jumbing a big increment, as the friction inside the unit varied -- and we'd suddenly realize we'd forgotten the breaker.

So, there's a small possibility that if this was a jet aircraft with an alitmeter vibrator issue, that the altimeter really was stuck... Well, just saying...

Rhonda said...

I once had a "sticky" altimeter in a small plane. A drop of water had got into the static port, and would block the air movement in and out for a while, until the pressure difference got big enough to force a bubble past the water. Fortunately I was doing circuits instead of going anywhere and the needle staying still then jumping relatively large increments of altitude while I was descending or rising steadily was more of a curiosity than anything because I was flying visual. Cleaned the drop of water out on landing. I may have done the level parts of the circuit at an incorrect altitude however.

Pete Templin said...

At least ATC now says "recycle your altimeter" - I've enjoyed the tales of ATC asking a pilot to squawk his/her altitude, which gets misconstrued at the perfectly wrong time such as when they're 7500' MSL and the pilot mistakenly thinks it's time to enter their current altitude into the transponder...

PPL Driver said...

@Pete Templin Entering 7500 in a transponder is probably not good idea...

Aluwings said...

re: "Entering 7500 in a transponder is probably not good idea..."

FWIW -- I recently sqwauked 7600 when my radio packed up and I wanted to alert the local control zone FSS that I was returning to land. I called the FSS operator on the phone after arrival to let him know what happened. He told me he'd just got off the phone with NORAD. !!! No big deal, he said. Apparently now every emergency sqwauk in the continent gets copied into NORAD and they follow up to ensure it is just a 'normal' localized issue. Who knew. Big Brother really is watching.

Anonymous said...

ATC really are so helpful. My first solo visit to a controlled airport as a student pilot was going well, made the right calls at the right places, I'd done a couple of touch & go's and was departing to my base airport. ATC calls me "ABC...you asked for 5500, I see you are showing 5800, I can give you 6000 if you prefer...." What a great way to suggest to a nervous student pilot that he needed to check his altimeter a little more closely :)

jason said...

I agree with flying honestly, when your flying a plane your responsible for the passensgers safety.