Francis Meyrick

Castles in the Sky – “More HAM than Radio “

Posted on August 8, 2011

(Oh, SH….T!!!)

Castles in the Sky

“More HAM than Radio”

Being by nature and genetic make-up quite happy to exercise my jaw, be it on the telephone or propped against a suitable bar, when it came to learning aircraft R/T procedure, well, the whole process did not fill me with the same stark terror with which it seems to seize some folk. I regarded the whole concept of air-to-ground communication and pilot-speak with mild curiosity. It was something I reckoned I would eventually learn, and I also reckoned -modestly – that I’d probably be reasonably good at it.

I did have ONE problem during my learning. I knew C.B. jargon beforehand, having done quite a bit of truck driving and going to American trucking movies like “Smokey and the Bear”. Maybe subconsciously I had absorbed too much of the cavalier attitude of the American truckers in regards to the use of the airwaves. Thus I used to sense great pain in the instructor’s voice beside me, when he would tell me -somewhat testily- that I was NOT in a “convoy ” driving a Big Rig truck. Such little gems as calling the (Dublin International Airport) Approach Controller “good buddy” drew comments unprintable, to say the least. But I really got a flea in my ear when, upon being told by the same Approach Controller to “Expedite”, I happily chirruped that “Uniform Oscar” had “the pedal to the metal”. I thought it sounded quite cool myself.

But I slowly got the basic hang of things. I learned to speak normally, get the message across, distinguish between QNH and QFE, and slowly but steadily I actually reached the stage where I thought, basically, that I was kind of brilliant. The bee’s knees on Aviation Radio, the Charles Aznavour of the Irish Airwaves.
Two events, however, were to sneak up and upset my pride.

The first occurrence was when I was on a business trip to Dublin in my own Cessna 172 SkyHawk, only just after getting my Private Pilot’s License. I was plowing along through a hazy murk enroute to Brecon in South Wales. It was at this stage that a kind Air Traffic Controller asked me what my “Flight Conditions” were. “Oh”, I thought brightly, “He must want to know what it’s like up here. I’ll fill him in.” So I did. At great, detailed, drawn out length.

“Ah, well, Bristol, it’s kinda hazy up here. And, errr, well, visibility is about, errrr, four to five miles, and, errrrr, there’s quite a bit of cloud above me, and, errrrr, it’s raining slightly.” I reckoned I finished on a brilliantly helpful note. The controller, without a flicker of emotion in his voice, thanked me kindly for my information, and I flew on, gratified and pleased to have been of assistance to this hardworking supervisor of the Airways. It was not until about ten minutes later, that the first seed of doubt entered my mind. I heard the exact same question repeated to another aircraft. “Sir, what are your flying conditions?” The resultant answer startled me in its brevity. The other pilot merely replied:
“Victor Mike Charlie”.
Puzzlement. Victor-Mike-Charlie? Who is he?
I thought hard. And the harder I thought, the more I began to wonder. Somewhere, deep down, a little voice was telling me that maybe I ought not to have slept through so many lectures on my PPL course. Maybe I should have studied a bit harder, and not just wanted to fly…

I asked a Flying Instructor about it afterwards. What does Victor-Mike-Charlie mean? “Visual Meteorological conditions” he said. “As opposed to Instrument Meteorological Conditions. ATC may ask you that, when they want to know if you’re in cloud or not. All you do is reply VMC or IMC”.


Sheepishly, I told him what I had accomplished. When he had finished laughing, he suggested I might re-visit the text books.
And so I learned a bit more about English as she is spoke on the R/T. I learned that maybe I was not quite as smart as I thought. But I still reckoned I was pretty good. I reckoned that my voice in a controller’s headset would not betray my inexperience. I reckoned nobody would smile and think: “Happy days, there goes a novice on his own.” I reckoned…
Then… came the Luton episode. It still sends shivers down my spine.

It all started out just fine. Peachy perfect. I had been abroad on a business trip, during which all had gone smoothly, and I had picked my way solo across various international frontiers, and through an assortment of control zones. I had landed back at Luton International, near London, to clear Customs. This being accomplished, I had taxied out the the holding point, to do my pre take-off checks, prior to the last five minute hop back to my home base of Panshanger. It was a sunny day, and I was in roaring good form. Small wonder then, that I hummed a little ditty to myself, as I performed the ritual of the pre take-off checks. I think it owed something to the character of Winnie the Pooh, the honey loving, cuddly bear, whose adventures were read to me, over and over again, by my Irish Mother. It went something like this:

“What a lovely day
(tiddely pom)
To fly my plane
(tiddely pom)
Up through the Blue
(yahoo! Wahooooooooo!)”

After this and sundry other stanzas, during which I kept my left hand on the control column, and allowed my right hand to “touch-drill” the items being checked, I continued with the same undiminished enthusiasm. But now some Italian Opera was creeping in as well.

“Trim-oh-trim-oh-trim for LIFT-OFF
(tiddely pom)
Tighten friction NUT
(tiddely pom)
Mixture RICH
(tiddely pom)
Pitch FINE
(tiddley dine)
Fuel ON
(tiddely pom)
Flaps UP!
(tiddely pup!)

Having conscientiously carried out my duties so far, I finished off with my grand opera finale”

Let’s call the tower…..!”


And it was at that stage that I froze. For as I was about to “press to talk”, I realized to my horror that I was “already pressed”. I stared uncomfortably at the control column, with my left mitt firmly wrapped around it, and my thumb unintentionally firmly screwed down on the tiny unfamiliar button. The radio was correctly set to the Luton International Airport TOWER frequency, and all around me and my tiny little four place Cessna, big airliners with hundreds of passengers were landing and taking off, taxying, stopping, waiting…


“OH-OH-OH DEAR…!”, I thought, a fountain of panic welling up in me.
With a muttered “Whoops!” I let go, waited for a second, and then, somewhat tremulously, I squeaked:
“Tower, Gulf-Papa-Fox is ready for take-off…”

The answer startled me. There came, over the headsets, a great tidal wave of laughter. It sounded as if every controller in creation, not to mention every pilot on frequency, was hooting it out with great delight. It went on and on, and I slumped down in my seat, trying to make myself smaller. Disappear, even. My brain raced, trying to grapple with the horrible realization that I had cheerfully spent the last few minutes totally blotting out Luton Tower frequency. I could visualize a court martial, loss of license, arrest, furious airline commanders, instant firing squads…

The laughter subsided a little, and I realized the controller was trying to talk to me, with people in the background still busting themselves laughing. His voice sounded choked, as if he was striving valiantly to sound normal. He was in hysterics as well… I felt terrible.

“Golf-Papa-Fox, we KNOW you’re ready for take-off, we’ve all been listening to you for the last few minutes. You’re cleared for take-off, right turn to Panshanger…”

A little yellow-and-white Cessna crept out onto the main runway. A casual bystander might have remarked that the aircraft “slunk out”, and that little could be seen of the pilot’s head and shoulders except a nose and two bulging eyes, peering furtively out over the instrument cowling.

As I left the Luton zone, a voice which still seemed to contain laughter, cleared me to change frequency, and wished me a “Good Day”.

Nice fellows, those Luton ATC chaps. And those Airline Captains. And everybody else listening. They sure know how to forgive amateurs who royally screw up on R/T procedure…

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on August 8, 2011, 6:49 pm

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