As a child of immigrant parents, seeing relatives meant traveling overseas. And, my father worked hard to save up money to fly back home every other year. We flew on United Airlines in the days where each cabin had one screen at the front of each seated section, projecting one or two feature films in widescreen RGB format.
I could never — and still cannot — sleep inside the plane. When I was bored to pieces (I wasn’t tall enough to be able to see the screen), I started to cycle through the radio channels on United’s “in-flight entertainment system,” if it could even be called that. (This was also the time when headphones used to look like stethoscopes, so I enjoyed more the role-playing of Doctor but my brother was too immersed in his world of books and sleep, that bugger, to agree to the role of Patient.)
One of the channels was called “From the Flightdeck,” and it broadcasted the communication between Air Traffic Controllers and the cockpit. Listening to them gave me a sense of calm, likely because the whole flying experience was somehow humanized by the fact that real people had my safety and travel interests at heart. I imagined them being my personal chauffeurs so that I could visit with Oma or Obachan.
And, I could hear the work as it happened. I learned to follow along, knowing before the rest of my family or cabinmates when we would bank on a turn. (This was also in the days when landing the plane used to be a funneling act of perpetually turning so planes had to wait their turn for an open runway. The preferred landing procedure nowadays is to ‘line up’ like a toboggan and land one at a time.)
Fast forward to today, and I still find the radio chatter of air traffic controllers to be calming. I’ve been using it as ambient noise for timed writing sessions while I write my dissertation.
I listen to it here: http://youarelistening.to/lax
I had been listening to the Montreal Trudeau airport up until recently, but the channel practically flat-lined with the COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Today is Day 10 of quarantine and I hear an unusual phrase over the LAX channel:
“Would you like city-view or ocean-view?”
I snap out of writing and, like someone on a police scanner who just heard of a crime, I turn my full attention to the radio chatter. The question was posed by LAX control towers, and I couldn’t catch the response by the United pilots because I was in disbelief at the utter off-topic-ness of it all. The LAX controller repeats:
“City-view or ocean-view? Take your pick. Sky’s yours today.”
“Where you coming from today?”
“How many passengers do you have onboard?”
“13… plus crew”
“That’s the most I’ve heard all day.”
They let out a little giggle over radio. So uncouth. It’s such a niche moment that I wonder who else might’ve witnessed this exchange besides the Controller and the pilots. And me. A moment to recompose, and it’s back to business:
“United, runway 2-5 right. You’re ready to roll.
“United, runway 2-5 right. Good day.”