Oops! You weren't supposed to hear that

One pilot's profanity-laced rant is broadcast on an open ATC frequency. Embarrassing, yes, but is it typical?

Published June 28, 2011 3:50PM (EDT)

So everybody wants me to comment on the Southwest pilot who accidentally broadcast an offensive tirade over an open air traffic control frequency. He thought he was talking only to his first officer. In fact, he was speaking to numerous other pilots and controllers. The rant went on for several toe-curling seconds in the skies over Texas, in which the unaware captain, whose name has not been released, treated everyone on frequency to an outburst laced with profanity and derogatory comments aimed primarily at flight attendants -- specifically those who are gay or not otherwise in keeping with his standards of physical beauty.

The incident took place back in March, but wasn't made public until last week by Houston television station KPRC. In the interim, the pilot had been suspended without pay and forced to undergo so-called sensitivity training before being allowed back to work.

The Southwest Airlines flight attendants' union may file a discrimination suit against Southwest.

I really don't know what to say. The incident is highly embarrassing to pilots. The best I can tell you is, no, this is not the typical sort of conversation that takes place in a cockpit during cruise. Over the years I have heard my share of wisecracks, tasteless jokes, snark and profanity. For better or worse this is going to be the case in any profession, anywhere in the world. But this was extreme. There's a pretty broad spectrum, personality-wise, among the ranks, but the vast majority of pilots I work with are wholly respectful of their fellow crew members.

It may have been different in years past. I can imagine a time when the temperament of an obstinate, old-school captain would make for a certain tension between cockpit and cabin crew. But there is surprisingly little anti-gay sentiment on the modern flight deck. Do fear of reprisal and powerful anti-harassment policies have anything to do with that? Possibly, for some people, but the end result is a successful one: It's a subject that doesn't come up.

Perhaps that sounds a touch too defensive and politically correct, but it's true. At least at my airline. Cultures vary company to company, so I can't speak for everybody, but this captain's behavior was not indicative of anything widespread or typical among pilots.

Now, how was it that his monologue got broadcast in the first place? The reports say his "microphone button was stuck." Sounds dubious, maybe, but this can happen.

To transmit over the active VHF frequency, one of at least three different buttons needs to be depressed. There's normally a "push-to-talk button," as we call them, on the control column, another on the hand mic, and a third on the center console. Once in a while, either because the button jams (rare), or because some object is physically depressing it (more common; for example, a hand mic that is twisted in its holster), one of these buttons becomes stuck open. At that point, anything you say is immediately broadcast over whatever frequency you're tuned to -- ground control, tower control, approach, departure or center control.

Or, in some cases, the public address system. Had the Southwest captain's audio control panel been selected to P.A. instead of the active ATC radio, his passengers, rather than fellow pilots and controllers, would have been his audience.

I'm not sure which would be worse.

This is why, by the way, you sometimes hear a pilot making an ATC broadcast over the P.A. He might make an announcement pointing out a landmark or letting you know the arrival time, followed moments later by, "Roger, Southwest 264, turn left heading one-six-zero to intercept ..." He's neglected to reselect the radio button on his audio panel.

I've been guilty of this a few times. We all have. It's as minor a mistake as they come, and generally it is caught right away ... but always it's embarrassing.

Or, it can happen the other way around. Some years ago I remember a Pan Am Express pilot giving an entire welcome aboard speech -- the route, weather, flying time and many effusive thanks -- over the ground control frequency at Boston-Logan, right in the middle of the busy morning push.

The potential for embarrassment is greater nowadays thanks to websites like www.liveATC.net. Pilot-controller conversations are carried live on your choice of thousands of frequencies around the world, with archives going back 45 days. The interface is clunky, but airplane geeks will spend hours listening to this stuff. As a kid I had an old air-band radio, which would allow me to eavesdrop on most of the local frequencies. Now, with the Internet, you can tune in almost anywhere and listen through your laptop.

Unfortunately, the archives have made it easier for the media to sensationalize minor events. On the bright side, friends and family can tune in and hear me on the radio -- taking off from Frankfurt or landing in San Francisco. Now and then, if the frequency isn't too busy, controllers will allow a shout-out: "Hello to Dad," and that sort of thing.

Those of us in the business have heard many entertaining stories about things supposedly said by pilots and cabin crew over the radio or public address system -- inadvertently or otherwise. Most of these, I figure, are apocryphal, but some are funny. One of the more enduring ones is that of an arrival P.A. supposedly made by a British Airways steward after touching down in Saudi Arabia several years ago.

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Riyadh," the announcement went. "For the correct local time, please set your watch back 300 years."

No word if any "sensitivity training" was in line for that fellow.

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Re: Regulating remote control "toys" 

Some of these "toys" weigh over 50 pounds and can fly at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour. They are far from toys. I suggest that you go to http://www.modelaircraft.org/aboutama/more.aspx to fully understand the nature of the FAA’s mission and the impact on model aviation. Actually, when you read the details, you will find that SUAS refers to the commercial use of UAVs in our common airspace.

-- David Sheckler, Round Hill, Va. 

Joke all you want, but the fact that somebody can convert a remote control craft into an aerial drone capable of spying on any private citizen and/or delivering weapons or bombs is enough of a threat in my mind. You can certainly argue that it's a case of Big Government needlessly trampling on the rights of hobbyists, but regulation needs to keep pace with changes in technology. If not, glaring weaknesses in protections of civil liberties and public safety will be easily exploited.

-- J.P. Shipley, Somerville, Mass.

You are missing something important about RC planes. We are on the cusp of widespread use of domestic drones. Law enforcement is chomping at the bit to use them, and the FAA is wrestling with how best to regulate them. RC planes will have to fall under this regulatory umbrella as drones continue to downsize and become cheaper. This is going to become a huge issue for other aviation in the future. The FAA will be under tremendous pressure as police and the national security state compete in the skies overhead.

-- Robert Pierson 

Author's note: Sheckler, Shipley and Pierson make good points. I probably should have taken a closer look at the FAA's proposal to regulate remote control aircraft. I was thinking mainly of the small, lightweight RC planes that were popular when I was a kid.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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