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Touching Base!

The voice of the pilot from 34,000 feet above the sea level was heard… “Maintaining 340, SQ Flight No…” An Air Traffic Control (ATC) officer at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata (India), wearing headphones attached with a mouthpiece, was talking to a pilot of Singapore Airlines flight. The Europe-bound passenger flight was flying over the eastern Indian city after taking off from Singapore. The ATC officer replied: “Maintain 340… Roger.
These are but pieces of routine conversations… their language is different. ‘Roger‘ means ‘message received‘… but it does not necessarily mean that one would comply. There is nothing, called ‘Yes‘… they use the word ‘Affirm‘! Just before touching the runway, the pilots would usually ask the ATC officers: “Clear to land?” Under normal situation, the officers would reply: “Affirm“. Similarly, they do not use ‘No‘… they say “Negative.” While following the ATC’s instructions, pilots would never say: “I will do it“. They usually would say: “Welo.” In this way, officers from the ATC Room speak to the pilots flying thousands of feet above the ground!

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Pilots, sitting inside the cockpit, usually are not in a position to see anything after reaching a certain level of height. In a clear morning, only clouds are visible from the flight. Otherwise, it is all dark! However, ATC officers keep a close eye on the exact position of the flight through their monitors. They tell pilots to maintain a certain altitude in order to fly smoothly. After talking to the ATC officer, a pilot usually contacts the officer again after some time in normal situation.
On that day, the Singapore Airlines pilot contacted the ATC officer again. “Do you have a Cricket match at Eden Gardens? I can see the lights,” he said. The officer, who was concentrating only on the monitor, had forgotten about the match. He came to know from his colleagues that rains had played spoilsport in the India-Sri Lanka match. The officer replied: “Match is stopped for the time being… it’s raining in Kolkata.” The ATC officer had no idea that another surprise was waiting for him. The pilot told him in ‘Bengali‘ that it was not monsoon in Kolkata. When the officer asked the pilot how could he know the local language, he said from the cockpit: “I’m also a Bengali! Roger.

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Every day, thousands of planes fly around the world. The ATC officers keep regular contacts with the pilots. Often, there are personal touches in their communication, apart from the routine conversations. Once, a Pakistani pilot was flying over Kolkata. He told an ATC officer (in Hindi): “You people thrashed us badly, today.” Few hours ago, the Indian Cricket team defeated Pakistan by a huge margin. The ATC officer replied: “Maybe, you will win next time.” Before leaving the Indian sky, the Pakistani pilot said: “Thank you.
Some of the pilots are football crazy! Once, a German pilot of Lufthansa Airlines entered into the Kolkata sky from Bangkok. Because of heavy air traffic, the ATC officer asked the pilot to bring down the aircraft to a lower altitude. Pilots want to fly at a higher altitude in order to save fuel. On that day, Germany had won the 2014 FIFA World Cup, defeating Argentina 1-0 in the final at the Maracana Stadium in Brazil. Before giving the instruction, the ATC officer had informed the Lufthansa pilot about the result. With a pleasant smile, the pilot said that he would happily bring down the plane to 10,000ft as he received the good news.

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ATC Officer

The ATC officers and pilots discuss different issues. One day, another German pilot got nervous while flying over Kolkata… and, asked the ATC officer in English: “Is there a terror attack in Kolkata? I can see a lot of missiles from the sky…” “Captain, absolutely no need to worry. Today is Deeepavali (the festival of lights). It is also a day when the people here worship a particular Goddess… and, we (Indians) celebrate it with small rockets and crackers,” replied the officer. The pilot stressed: “Oh my God! Plenty of them!
A lady ATC officer, based in Kolkata, often talked to a Bangladeshi pilot. During their routine conversations, they used to exchange greetings in Bengali. Once, the officer went on leave for a couple of months due to health-related problems. After she re-joined her duty, she heard the voice of that pilot. “Sister, what happened? Are you fine? I did not hear your voice for a long time,” said the Bangladeshi man. The officer informed him that she was on leave. “The personal touch of a friend from foreign lands, who was recognised only by his voice that came through the hearing device, washed away my exhaustion that day,” said the lady ATC officer…

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ATC Tower

The chemistry of the relationship between pilots and ATC officers is somewhat hidden in the safe journey of millions of people from one city to another. Commuters, while flying for some hours, never know about this chemistry. However, the equation for a safe travel lies in this relation. The ATC officers play an important role in ensuring safe air travel. It is widely believed that lives of the passengers are in safe hands of the pilots. As passengers can directly contact with pilots, they have a respect for them. A pilot’s core skill can be realised during landing, especially in poor weather condition or emergency situation. Otherwise, pilots are much more relaxed in the era of Auto-pilot.
However, ATC officers ensure passengers’ safety, sitting behind the scene. During the entire journey from one airport to the other, the ATC controls the flight. The ATC officers decide the taxiways and runways that should be used by an airplane, as well as the directions the flights should keep to, after the take off. It depends mainly on the prevailing weather condition and other related factors. Shortly after reaching the sky, the pilot start interacting with the ATC at regular intervals of time. Even before landing, the ATC would inform the pilots as to the which they will use…

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Nowadays, all the aircraft have a small device, called Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), which is designed to minimise the occurrence of mid-air collisions between aircraft. The device monitors the airspace around an aircraft for other aircraft with a corresponding active transponder, independent of ATC, and warns pilots of the presence of other transponder-equipped aircraft that may present a threat of mid-air collision. Even TCAS instructs the pilot to fly in a certain altitude at that moment.
It is a daunting task for the ATC officers to keep a track of the speed and flight-altitude of so many aircraft at the same time. Two aircraft maintain a minimum 1000-feet difference of altitude in the sky and 9-18km distance (in case they fly at the same altitude). One should not forget that an aircraft maintains a speed of 700km per hour, on an average! Keeping in mind the speed, the ATC officers have to ensure that the aircraft will reach its destination in time. They also have to clear the runway before bringing down the plane. No ATC officers are allowed to sit in front of the monitor for more than two consecutive hours, as they need to concentrate hard on so many things in a short span of time. They take a break for half an hour before resuming work at their work stations.

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In other words, the passengers should be thankful to the ATC as well before catching their next flight.

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