Friday, August 01, 2008

The Funny Things You Hear

So I'm training on the East Pensacola sector and I take a handoff on an eastbound Cessna 150. The guy is VFR, low at 500 feet and flying a serpentine path through the sky, riding the coast line. He comes over on my frequency and I ask him his intentions.

Firstly, his radio sucked. Secondly, there's confusion over what his call sign is, since he's calling himself something different each time. After we come to a mutual agreement on what he should be called, it turns out he's looking for a stolen yacht, of all things. Apparently someone jacked a 50+ foot Hatteras and he and his passenger are the heroic SAR team selected to go find it.

He continues on his way; with his altitude of 500 feet and our sector MVA of 1700 feet he is well below anything I'm working. He overflies every inlet, cove, and possible harbor looking for this vessel. In the meantime, we're all musing A) how someone can just make off with a freaking yacht and B) if said yacht is in Jamaica or Mexico by now.

Well, he reaches the eastern boundary of my airspace, I terminate radar services, and tell him he can get flight following from Eglin next door. He contacts them. Traffic was pretty slow and he wasn't that far off to the east, so I keep half an eye on his data block as he tools around. Eventually I see him start circling a single point off Navarre Beach.

Now he comes back, wanting to land at his home airfield in our airspace. He calls me up for flight following and - once again - is using a strange callsign. The last three digits are the same as before, but the first two are different. I won't use his real call sign, but let's say his original callsign was N11077. He calls me up with N10077. What follows was a frustrating back-and-forth.

Me: "Cessna November 10077, squawk 0101."
Pilot: Silence.
Me: "Cessna November 10077, Pensacola, squawk 0101."
Pilot: Silence.
Me: "Cessna November 10077, Pensacola, how do you hear?"
Pilot: Silence.


I'm a private pilot and have been in my share of busy traffic patterns full of similar-sounding call signs. ADF77, ADF11, ADF72, N55182, N52811, etc. I've heard the tower screw up call signs on more than one occasion, and when I hear them repeatedly issuing instructions to a call sign that sounds similar to mine - with no one responding - I'm not afraid to speak up and say "Tower, was that last instruction for ADF seventy-three?" That usually clears up a lot of the confusion on both ends.

Obviously this pilot didn't think along those lines. He kept plugging along and didn't put two-and-two together. I decided to try truncating his call sign, just to experiment.

Me: "Cessna November 077 [note: no "one-zero" at the beginning], Pensacola, how do you hear?"
Pilot: "Loud and clear sir!"
Me: *Sigh* "Cessna November 077, I've been calling you for the past few miles. Squawk 0101."
Pilot: "Roger, Cessna 077, squawking 0101."

Great. Finally. A method of communication established. But wait! Just when I think this finally resolved...

...his microphone proceeds to get stuck!!

For the next 10 minutes, the main frequency for Pensacola Approach is filled with the chatter of two guys in a Cessna. They're talking about salvage possibilities, towing companies, the stats on the yacht itself, all kinds of stuff. Here they think they're having a private conversation over their intercom, and here it's being broadcast for hundreds of miles around. On and on they go, and the entirety of northwestern Florida and southern Alabama is listening to it (if they happen to be tuned into 119.0).

In the meantime we're laughing on our end. I mean, what else can we do? Now, we were the East sector and PNS was landing from the east, so we were working the final. Well, while these two guys continue their conversation, we take multiple point-outs from the West sector, West keeps his traffic on his frequency, and he just works them to the final our side of the airspace. Luckily we didn't have any inbounds from Center, and if we did we'd put them on the West frequency. In the meantime, other aircraft who were on our frequency reverted back to their last-assigned frequencies, namely our West sector and South sector. We give those sectors control for those aircraft, while also taking care of getting them handed off to center or Eglin as appropriate.

Well, Cessna 077 never did come back one the radio while I was there. He tagged up just fine and I handed him off to the South sector, but there was not much else to do. One would think that if someone requested flight following he'd eventually check back to see if he'd been radar identified. This pilot never once wondered - at least aloud - why it was taking so long to identify him. Shortly before my instructor and I got relieved from the position, the pilot unkeyed his mic. Even then, he wouldn't answer calls, possibly because he was so low or because he'd changed to a different frequency.

Whatever the case, what I do know is that they got one thing right: they found the yacht. :)

From the Pensacola News Journal:
Stolen yacht abandoned off coast of Navarre Beach
From staff reports • August 1, 2008

The Full Moon, a 55-foot yacht stolen from Orange Beach, Ala., earlier this week was recovered Thursday afternoon near the Santa Rosa County and Okaloosa County line.

The yacht belongs to T.E.A. Investment Inc., and was taken between Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning from a boat dealership, Gulf Coast Hatteras at The Wharf.

The craft was adrift off Navarre Beach on Wednesday afternoon near the fishing pier, witnesses said.

Lt. Stan Kirkland, spokesman with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the vessel was found about three or four miles west of the Santa Rosa-Okaloosa county line.

"It was about 30 yards offshore," Kirkland said. "Whoever took it got close enough to shore, threw the anchor over and was gone."

No one was aboard the vessel when it was found, Kirkland said.

Evidence, including some clothes and a duffel bag, were recovered from the beach near the abandoned yacht. The items were given to the Orange Beach police for analysis, Kirkland said.


Towerboss said...

Wait till you here more stuck mic stories.

Wicked Penguin said...

Oh yeah, I'm sure. I'm just glad it happened when we were slow with only around two other planes on the freq.

Anonymous said...

Great post!