Over the years, I’ve accumulated quite a few funny stories that revolve around airplanes. My brother Jay knows most of them, as he was frequently an eyewitness. These are all little plane stories. Fixed-wing, gear down-and-welded kind of stick and rudder flying. Unlike David, who is a greased lightning professional jet pilot, I am of the puddle jumper school, and always will be.
This story is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard on air traffic control (ATC) radio. Jay was not with me on this flight, which was from Warner Robins, Georgia, through Cross City, Florida, to Fort Myers, where my mother and step-father lived. By the way, Cross City was, at the time, the best place for a $100 hamburger if you needed to stop for gas and didn’t mind flying through the armpit of Florida. There are two things in Cross City: an airport and a prison (they are adjacent to one another). The biggest difference between the two is that the airport café had better food.
Somewhere south of Cross City, west of Orlando and north of Tampa, I was trying to thread the needle between multiple Military Operations Areas (MOAs), the upside-down wedding cake Class C airspace surrounding the big commercial airports, and possible weather. There’s always “possible weather” flying in Florida. I used to practice the two-finger salute of pressing the “nearest airport” buttons on the GPS because you never know when a thunderstorm could just pop up out of nowhere.
Once I got stranded by weather all night at Suwannee County Airport (24J)—myself and a passenger—having to walk some distance to the local Scottish Inn in the wee hours of darkness, appearing like an apparition to the frightened wife of the owner/manager. In the guest register, I wrote our tail number in the blank for “license plate.” That’s a story all on its own, and not the funny one I’m telling now.
So I’m flying along, solo, just me, talking, I believe, to Tampa ATC. (Don’t test me on this, it was a lot of years ago.) Then on the radio I hear the controller call another aircraft. It doesn’t matter what his call sign was, but let’s call it “45 Alpha.” The conversation went like this.
ATC: “45 Alpha, Tampa departure. Say altitude and heading.”
45A: “45 Alpha. Six thousand, heading three-niner-zero.” The man had a thick accent. It could have been Middle Eastern, it could have been Indian. But clearly we weren’t hearing him right.
About ten seconds go by…
ATC: “45 Alpha, you were garbled. Say again altitude and heading.”
45A: “45 Alpha is at six and three ninety.”
ATC: “45 Alpha, Tampa. Just confirming, we were asking for altitude and heading, not airspeed.” Was this guy flying a fast turboprop or something, I questioned in my mind.
45A: “45 Alpha, roger.”
About 10 more seconds go by.
ATC: “45 Alpha. One more time, sir. Say again your magnetic heading.”
Tick tock, about five seconds later.
45A: “Tampa, 45 Alpha. My heading is three niner zero. Three ninety.”
Long pause. I am now actively looking out the window for this clown. I have no idea where he is, and I suspect neither does he.
ATC: “45 Alpha. Sir, I don’t know what planet you’re on, but here on Earth we have 360 degrees on our compasses.”
At this point, my soul left my body. I was laughing harder than I had ever laughed, while trying to simultaneously fly a small plane (without an autopilot), and supernaturally look in all directions for an extradimensional aircraft that could materialize at any moment directly in my flight path.
I honestly don’t remember anything in the exchange after that. I suppose the man with the thick accent might have pulled out his handy English phrase dictionary and learned to say numbers. Or he might have realized that he was reading the compass heading upside down and was really flying on a heading of 063. Whatever the malfunction was, its source undoubtedly originated between the yoke and the microphone.
This concerned me greatly. As in, I was sharing the big sky over western Florida with someone who either could not read a heading, or could not speak English well enough to say it, or is literally a jack-wagon whose forged airman certificate was dug out of the bottom of a cereal box. Call him Captain Crunch flying a Tardis. He could have been anywhere.
I am grateful that at least the fine controllers in Tampa might have had this gentleman on radar, as what they call a “primary target,” to at least warn me should he teleport into my immediate vicinity. At the time I was also grateful that I had relieved myself of the coffee and Coke I had with my burger at Cross City before I took off. If there’s anything that could make me simultaneously pee myself and spit Coke all over the instrument panel, it’s hearing a normally reserved controller tell a pilot they don’t appear to be on Earth.
Maybe you’ve heard something funnier than this while flying, or as a passenger on those big metal tubes that pass for airplanes when you fly in their belly. As for me, I will never forget my encounter with Marvin the Martian, plying the pale blue, humid skies over Florida.
I hope you enjoyed this departure from the usual crooked politics as much as I enjoyed telling it to you. If you liked it, there’s plenty more where that one came from. For instance, there’s the time when my first flight instructor, a retired Air Force colonel, sat on his mic and keyed it with his clenched vertical smile…but I’ll save that one for later.
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