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Some minor details aloft

A thousand flights a day is child’s play say air traffic controllers at JFK. Are they kidding?

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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DESPITE RECESSIONARY GLOOM, children wear huge smiles. It’s the innocence of youth and the certain knowledge that their careers are guaranteed from the age of three. The latest recruits at the JFK air control tower are all under 10. Just as well the Obama healthcare bill has finally got through Congress. This is a facility that handles 1,050 flights a day, far too complex a matrix for rheumy middle-aged men. Clearly this is a task for tech-savvy three-year-olds who have passed their A Levels on PlayStation 3 and the Wii.

In reality it is all a carefully calibrated anti-terror move on the part of Homeland Security. What’s more terrifying, a suicide bomber piloting your flight, or a foetus directing air traffic? Hard to say. And that’s the beauty of this scheme. Here’s a transcript of a recent intercept that demonstrates the unique psychology behind this approach.

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Suicide pilot (SP) to control tower: “This is ToraBora 270 requesting clearance for take-off to Pentagon, sorry, Washington DC.”
Kid: “ToraBora 270 you are cleared for takeoff.”
SP: “Osama is great... I mean awesome job. Wait a minute. Who is this?”
Kid: “I’m Dave and today’s my third birthday.”
SP: “What the..? Is this some kind of sick American joke?”
Kid: “You’re cleared for Runway 13.”
SP: “Thirteen? That’s bad luck. God is great but get me off this flight.”

During critical phases of an aircraft's taxi, take-off and landing, below 10,000ft, the cockpit is deemed a no-go "sterile zone"

The transcripts of a JetBlue flight departing JFK with 179 passengers bound for Sacramento, California, and an Aeromexico flight headed to Mexico City have had sober eyebrows clinging to ceilings. “Over to departures JetBlue 171, awesome job!” the pilot signs off. All this would be amusing were it a record of a school outing choo-choo train manoeuvre. But this was one of America’s busiest airports.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), during “critical phases” of an aircraft’s taxi, take-off and landing, under 10,000ft the cockpit is considered a “sterile zone”. This means no distracting pilots with come-hither inflatable dolls, buxom sheep, or subtle questions on whether zoon is a legitimate Scrabble word (it is). Within this context, three-year-olds directing air traffic is certainly awesome. An awesome lack of judgement.

On 17 February, 2010, Glen Duffy, brought his young son into the control room to direct a JetBlue flight. The next day he brought his daughter. And the following day, unsavoury objects hit the fan. Travel guru Peter Greenberg huffed, “You're dealing with two separate violations here: access to the tower itself, and access to radio frequencies.” On the bright side, the incident concerned aircraft on the ground and not in the air where things would have become considerably more complicated. For one, minors need to be shielded from inflatable dolls and other prurient cockpit shenanigans.

Aviation authorities everywhere take a dim view of radio frequency hacking or indeed any sort of “suspicious” activity within sight of an airfield. This excludes all those people trying to find a working water faucet in the departure lounge or Toyota drivers ramming brick walls to bring their car to a halt, sans brakes. In 2001, Greece arrested 12 Britons on alleged spying charges for taking pictures at a military airfield during an air show. We’re not sure how else people can take pictures of aircraft during an air show but perhaps a spy satellite is a better option. British diplomats pleaded it was all a “cultural misunderstanding”. This is understandable, given that most Britons have no clue how to take a decent holiday snap.

Anyone willingly hanging around an Indian airport, plane-spotter or not, is one sandwich short of a picnic

More recently, the Indian authorities arrested two British plane-spotters for taking pictures and listening in on cockpit frequencies at New Delhi’s international airport. Mad dogs and Englishmen, they say. Plane-spotting hobbyists fly all over the world to log landings and flight numbers. It’s an odd sport. But so is underwater rugby and midget tossing. Given the insalubrious state of the city’s airport where bleary-eyed intercontinental passengers are put on collision course with the immovable Indian bureaucracy at 3am, anyone willingly hanging around anywhere near this facility is a sandwich short of a picnic. The old Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong was a particular favourite for its laundry-grazing approach and white-knuckle videos of errant planes are still hot items on YouTube.

The sterile cockpit rule is there for a reason. Studies have shown that mistakes get made in the air when attention is diverted. Children have played their part in disasters. On 23 March, 1994, an Aeroflot A310 en route from Moscow to Hong Kong crashed into a frigid Siberian hillside killing all 75 passengers and crew. The flight data recorder later provided a grim narrative of the tragedy. The pilot’s 15-year-old son who was at the controls had inadvertently disabled the autopilot resulting in an uncontrollable dive.

My son just turned 21. Unfortunately he’s too old to be an air traffic controller so he’ll just have to flip burgers like everyone else.

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