While taking a bit of a break at the Orlando Executive FBO the other day, the very place where I took my commercial single and multi-engine check ride all those years ago, a fellow wandered up to me with an expectant look in his eye. Donut in hand, coffee at the ready, he pondered aloud if it was alright to pester me with a question.
“Of course,” I replied. I’ve got as many questions as anyone else. Why not share?
“When I learned to fly we announced ourselves on the radio using our N number,” he said.
“Yep,” I agreed.
“When did it become okay to announce ourselves as ‘White Cessna’ on the radio instead of using the N number?”
“Ahh,” I replied. “It’s become common, but it’s not right. You should still use your N number.”
“The whole thing?” he queried.
“Use the whole N number until ATC abbreviates it. The you can use the abbreviated version while talking to that controller.”
He tipped his donut, took a sip of coffee, and wandered back through the FBO, his look of trepidation replaced by one of satisfaction.
Life is good.
His question was a good one. Pilots have increasingly gotten in the habit of announcing themselves in the vicinity of non-towered airports as a color and a manufacturer, not by the N number assigned to their aircraft.
I suspect this shift took place because a CFI somewhere began using new, different terminology with students. Those students took that to mean the proper way to identify yourself in flight was by color and manufacturer. So, they did. Others heard the calls and thought, “Hey, that makes a lot of sense. I’ll do that too.” So, they did. And now we have the situation my donut wielding friend asked about.
By the way, the insight I shared is not of my own creation. It came from the FAA. The folks who regulate aviation in the U.S. Believe it or not, they write these rules and recommendations down and publish them. No kidding.
Yes, folks are doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. But that doesn’t make the wrong thing the right thing. It’s still wrong. Fortunately, it’s an easily correctable error.
Folks are doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. But that doesn’t make the wrong thing the right thing.”
And yet, we have a dilemma on our hands. For too many of us the question arises if lots of people are doing the wrong thing, is it still wrong? Maybe what’s right has become this new method of speaking or doing. Majority rules, doesn’t it?
Well…no. Because the FAA puts out the Aeronautical Information Manual, and updates it periodically to keep it relevant and fresh. They do that to impart knowledge and awareness to the pilot community.
When the FAA, via the AIM, tells us that pilots should self-announce at non-towered airports, saying, “Strawn traffic, Apache Two Two Five Zulu…” they mean it. It’s up to us to comply with the recommendation.
And there’s the rub. Too many of us assume that a recommendation from the FAA is a non-regulatory suggestion that we can take or leave as we wish. That’s technically true, but in practical terms it’s a bit weak.
Think of the non-regulatory AIM as your mom, and the regulatory FAA as your dad. When you were 12 and your mom told you she wanted you to take out the garbage, that was a recommendation. Not regulatory perhaps, but clear and unequivocal just the same. If you chose to ignore your mom, as I often did, a very different experience awaited you when regulatory dad got home.
The recommendations and regulations come from the same team. They’re issued to the same group. We would all be wise to work collaboratively, rather than combatively. Compliance with the written word is a great way to start.
Interestingly enough, issues like, “How should I announce myself,” or “How should I enter the traffic pattern,” or “What does, ‘VFR not recommended,’ really mean,” are all written down in the AIM for us to brush up on any time we need it. The book is available as a printed product, and as a free online download from the FAA.
It’s there if you’ll take the time to look. And I look often. Sometimes it tells me I’m doing the right thing. Sometimes it tells me I need to correct myself. Either way, I come out ahead every time I reference the AIM. It’s a great resource.
Admittedly, the folks calling out “White Cessna on downwind” mean well. They’re trying to be helpful and specific. It’s somewhat ironic that the result of their intent is the opposite of what they hoped for. Most Cessnas are white. It’s like asking for a new football because the one you’re using is wet. “I left a brown one in the locker room. Can you get it for me?”
Yeah, regardless of the intent, that’s a pretty non-specific description.
Things can escalate from the generic color and make, too. Not so long ago I heard a pilot call in at my local airport, “White Cessna, over the lake.”
You know where I stand (and where the FAA stands) on the whole White Cessna thing. But in a county with more than 500 lakes, in a city with at least 50, a city that actually calls itself “The Chain of Lakes City,” announcing, “White Cessna over the lake,” is essentially pointless. Yet, there we have it. Pilots do exactly that, because it seems logical and reasonable to them.
Maybe it’s time we started to think of being book smart as a higher priority than we’ve done previously. Stick and rudder skills are essential, there’s no doubt about that. But knowing how to work safely in a system populated by a slew of other stick and rudder proficient pilots is every bit as critical.