The Friday Fillip

I just flew back from Halifax a few days ago and was made to think yet again how like bus travel flying has become. It’s all so routine — and so ubiquitous. What isn’t so routine, perhaps, is all of the complex communication that goes on behind the scene to enable us to get from here to there via a curve that’s 30,000 feet high in the middle. Air traffic control is especially difficult. In fact, I’m amazed that it works at all. Let’s take a small gander at what’s involved.

In the partial image below, each of the yellow dots is an aircraft; then if you want to get the true global picture, take a look at the movie that simulates aircraft movement over 24 hours world-wide and imagine yourself responsible for even a small portion of it.

Simulation not convincing enough? Then look at it live: the Zürcher Hochschule School of Engineering has a page that shows aircraft movement played out over a map of the Zurich area. What’s particularly cool is that if you click on one of the plane icons, a popup tells you which flight it is, its height, speed and position.

Like some background noise to fill in while you’re watching flights approach Zurich? Why not eavesdrop on the communication between air traffic controllers and the planes they’re guiding. You’ll have to have your Java enabled in your browser to make this work, but offers a dozen or so live audio streams, one of which is from Moncton, New Brunswick. To give you a flavour, I’ve recorded thirty seconds or so of this radio traffic. To my ears, this is as unintelligible as the sound that taxi dispatchers make, so it might help to see some transcripts. And just to keep things light, I thought I’d point you to patches of air traffic control talk on a site called Funny Air Traffic Controllers Quotes. (This is a little like dental humour, I realize; levity and levitation aren’t as close as the words might suggest.) Herewith a couple of sample exchanges:

Tower: “Delta 351, you have traffic at 10 o’clock, 6 miles!”
Delta 351: “Give us another hint! We have digital watches!”

Tower: “TWA 2341, for noise abatement turn right 45 Degrees.”
TWA 2341: “Centre, we are at 35,000 feet. How much noise can we make up here?”
Tower: “Sir, have you ever heard the noise a 747 makes when it hits a 727?”

Finally, because I know you want to do it yourself, take out your iPhone and spend 99-cents on a copy of Flight Control. For those of you grounded on BlackBerries, there’s at least a video of what you’re missing here.

Happy landings!

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