Wishing the Words Never Spoken

It all started on a nice fall day back in 1986, yet who could have known at the time? Jeffrey Barnburner, a farm implement dealer in Ottumwa, Iowa, was flying his lovingly-maintained 1946 Funk B-85 from a private strip to a local fly-in on a fine Saturday morning. Little could he know that on this flight, one small innocent utterance, born of legitimate concern, would haunt him to the present day.

Since Jeff’s cherished antique airplane never had an electrical system from the beginning, it also never had a simple radio. But in the 1980s, as engineers learned to print complex circuits, the price of modern electronics was plunging as capabilities skyrocketed. Jeff saw that a functional, battery-operated handheld radio could be easily added, improving safety all around. Just like in the modern Beechcraft Bonanza that Jeff used for his business.

With an external antenna installed and the radio clipped in, Jeff could talk to other pilots or to controllers all he needed. He could now go to tower-controlled airports without worry that the controllers would have to dig out the light-gun and ruminate on how to use it again. Correspondingly, he felt much more comfortable taking the airplane to a temporarily busy non-tower-controlled airfield for a favorite fly-in with friends.

On this particular morning, as Jeff arrived early, the sun was still low in the east. Since he was inbound from the west, very little was visible in the glare in his windshield, and this concerned him. So, he innocently¬† thought he’d coax other arriving pilots into a quick position report on the local CTAF: “Funk two-six-charlie, three west for left downwind runway three-zero, any traffic in the area please advise“.

One county north, a pair of college-aged student pilots were following each other around the traffic pattern flying touch and goes for practice at a little-used field, one in a Cessna 150, the other flying a Grumman AA-1. Since thousands of the small airstrips across the country use 122.8 as their CTAF, they heard this (seemingly professional sounding) traffic position request, and imbued it in their young, innocent, and impressionable minds that this was How It Was Done. After arriving back at their home airports to end their respective practice sessions, they punctuated their arrival calls with their newly-learned “any traffic in the area please advise”. It was surely the right thing to do now that they knew all about it.

Meanwhile a small collection of studying student pilots heard these calls on FBO dispatch radios, and so the lights thusly went on in their heads regarding the criticality of these special twelve syllables anytime arriving or overflying an airport. Consequently, on their next flights, they started using the phrase. Westward and eastward, young, impressionable pilots heard it and adopted it, and continued to spread it in all directions. Kids teaching kids. Within days, the practice had spread coast to coast, like so many social phenomena do (Not to mention diseases…).

Crusty old pilots cringed in their headsets. They remembered a time when mark-one eyeballs out the window ruled the day for traffic avoidance, and the radio came along to fill in the gaps where the eyeballs fell short, or for when positive control was necessary in busy terminal areas. Now, across the continent, on the thousands of airports that share common frequencies, the airwaves slowly filled with a useless cacophony of stepped-on radio calls overloaded by those extra twelve superfluous syllables. Across the land, 122.8, 122.9, and 123.0 slowly filled up into the continuous screech and howl of colliding amplitude-modulated carriers that, in the end, imparted no useful information, only irritating noises: “<buzzzz> valley traffic <screeeeeeeeee> one-seven <howwwwwwwwwl> five south <wowowowowowowowowow> final for <mmmmwooooooooo>any traffic <bwerrrrrrrrt> please advise”.

Amongst the experienced, frustration with the unwelcome phenomenon grew. Knowing the difficulty of trying to squeeze in a radio call in busy airspace, they’d long known the importance of using only the words necessary to convey meaningful information. As the air-band airwaves filled with squealing racket, their spouses quickly learned to isolate their headsets from the aircraft radios, while the pilots increasingly came to understand that the multi-thousand dollar radios installed in their aircraft were becoming bricks. Over time, they began simply turning the volume down on account of the futility of trying to listen through the noise.

For the better part of two decades, this unfortunate practice grew. Then sometime in the mid 2000s, the folks at the FAA who maintain the Aeronautical Information Manual (some of whom actually still fly with the rest of us) realized that an admonition over what not to say had become necessary. Thus, AIM section 4-1-9 (g)1 became updated with the text:

Pilots stating, “Traffic in the area, please advise” is not a recognized Self-Announce Position and/or Intention phrase and should not be used under any condition.

For a period of time, this change was discussed on the internet enough that it appeared to have a meaningful impact on it’s misuse. Alas, this suppression was only temporary; over time, it crept back into the newbie pilot lexicon, like an infestation of insects.

All this time, Jeff was troubled. After all, he wasn’t absolutely sure the phenomenon could be ascribed to him. He never talked about it. Anyone could have started it. Yet he knew that he’d never really heard it used before speaking it on that fateful fall day, and not long afterwards, it was heard everywhere. Guilt followed him around like a shroud.

One day, while flying with a friend in the southwest and monitoring 122.9, newly-retired Jeff heard what sounded like a Chinese student pilot, working so very hard on his english language proficiency skills (to ensure the required “English Proficient” endorsement would appear on his new commercial certificate) state, with a diligently-suppressed Mandarin dialect: “Gila Bend traffic, Warrior two-three-seven-whiskey-tango, ten north inbound, any traffic in the area please advise“. And Jeff felt the 25-year cloak of guilt ensconce him yet once again.

He knew now what he must do. Upon returning to Iowa, he proceeded to the machine shed converted to hangar on the turf strip where his lovely little airplane rested. Up to the door of the Funk he walked, opening it, and disconnecting then removing the handheld radio forevermore. When he originally installed it, he was convinced it would be for the best. Now he understood the depth of the abomination which it really was.

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