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Author: Chip Wright (page 1 of 32)

Is the 50-seater done?

When the CRJ came on the scene in 1993, it revolutionized air travel. With a 50-seat jet, airlines were able to overcome the high per-seat-mile operating costs and make money because of the appeal of being in a jet versus the previous turboprops that had dominated the market for so long.

Derisively referred to as “puddle jumpers,” turboprops had a limited range of around 400 nautical miles. To stretch much beyond that was to risk schedule disruptions becasue of alternate fuel requirements, as well as reduced loads. The RJ changed that. While payloads could still be limited in some cases, the standard range of operations increased dramatically, while offering passengers a faster, more comfortable ride.

Recently, the FAA increased the standard weights of passengers from 170 pounds (this includes a bag) in the summer/175 in the winter to 190 and 195 pounds respectively. There has also been an increase in the allowed weight for personal items.

What does all of this mean? In short, it could be the death knell for the current fleet of 50-seat RJs. The increase in weight for passengers is going to take a bite out of the allowable payload. In a recent email from my local union folks, the payloads on 50-seaters are said to max out at 48 passengers. Some may even be limited to 47. For the airlines, this is going to be a problem. The RJs were already relatively expensive to operate, and this will only make it worse. The other major challenge is going to be finding a way to continue to serve certain markets that cannot sustain service from larger jets.

There have been efforts to bring the larger turboprops back, most notably the Dash-8 Q400 from Bombardier. However, it hasn’t worked on the scale needed. The passengers have voted with their wallets and opted for competitors that had a jet, which they view as safer and more reliable, not to mention more comfortable. There is also a perception that turboprop pilots are not as well-trained or as experienced.

The 50-seaters are definitely long in the tooth, and larger numbers have been parked or turned into beer cans. Unfortunately, that trend is likely to continue. There is currently no movement afoot to introduce a new model to the North American market, which means that the 70-90-seaters will be the airplanes filling that niche. Airlines are currently trying out a 50-seat variant of the CRJ-700 by taking out some seats and adding first-class service and different seating classes in coach. Only time will tell if this is going to be a long-term answer.

It’s possible that there won’t be another 50-seat jet introduced, and that some communities will indeed see a decrease in, or even a loss of, service. If so, that would be a shame. It will also be a shame to see a workhorse airplane no longer in the skies.-–Chip Wright 

Old revisions vs. new

Ask any pilot about the advantages of the old, heavy paper ‘brain bags’ versus the modern electronic flight bag (EFB), and you won’t find many, if any, that prefer the old days. Jepp binders, company manuals that would run 1,000 pages or more, and personal items meant that the flight kit, usually black or brown leather and adorned with stickers, would weigh 40 to 50 pounds. In fact, one of the strongest arguments for going electronic was the steady rash of injuries that pilots suffered from the bags, usually to shoulders and backs that were abused in manipulating the bags in and out of the cockpit.

But there was one huge advantage to the paper books, and that was the ability to write, note and cross-reference from one book to the next. There was hardly a pilot around who didn’t keep some kind of notes in the manuals based on his/her previous experiences or inability to remember complex tables. In my case, I was always double-checking requirements for weather for certain approaches, for filing for an alternate, and for determining the need for a second alternate. I came up with my own tables and flow charts for this, but I also made heavy use of notes and ‘see page XXX in the other manual.’

Revisions also came with vertical change bars on the margins, so when you were doing the revision, you could immediately see what had changed. Highlighted passages could be transferred (or deleted, or added) as needed or desired. I always used two highlighters. One was yellow and one was pink, and they each had a different meaning. Doing the revisions by hand, in my opinion, made everyone slightly more aware of what was going on within the operation, because you felt compelled to read and understand the changes. It was also a bit of a challenge to try to find the inevitable mistakes that made it through several layers of editing and proof-reading. Minor mistakes would be taken care of in the next revision cycle, but major mistakes would be addressed right away, usually with a yellow-paged temporary revision. Every three or four years or so, there would be a total rewrite the books, and we’d all get the fun of getting familiar with some slight ‘improvement.’

With the EFB, the updates are constant and instantaneous. Notes in the margins of pages no longer work, because they get deleted during the updates. Same with highlights. There is a revision summary that goes through all the changes and has a hyperlink to the affected pages so that you can you see the actual change. But unless you want to create a separate PDF of the book, the days of dog-eared pages covered with notes and comments and highlights are gone. Is that good? Bad? It’s probably both, and like my brethren, I am in no hurry to lug a 50 pound bag around anymore with all of the risks involved (the handle on mine broke as I was going through security one day; fortunately, I was able to get a new one in the airport). Because nobody any longer worries about the cost of printing or the number of binders needed, a few of our manuals are pushing 2,500 pages, which is ridiculous. And, all of my personal notes, comments, memory joggers, etc. are in a spiral notebook as well as a file on my computer.

That said, I no longer have to worry about coming back from a vacation to a V-file stuffed with revisions. One quick tap on my EFB, and I’m ready to go in less time than it takes to put on my uniform. And that’s okay.

The people are coming back

I’ve been pretty lucky flying during the pandemic. Most of my passengers have been cooperative and understanding of the mask rules, the social distancing we all had to endure, and the temporary changes to normal procedures that were implemented to minimize risk.

That said, now that summer is here and people are making up for lost time, airports and airplanes are getting crowded again, and it’s great to see from a job security point of view.

But more people means more short tempers. I recently had a flight on which a passenger very nearly got himself banned from the airline, and possibly from multiple airlines. We had just closed the door in Houston for a flight to Newark. There was some last-minute confusion with a couple of jumpseaters (we had one pilot in the cockpit and two flight attendants in the back, all trying to get to work). When the final passenger count came off the printer, it was off by two. Unfortunately, it took more than 20 minutes to figure out what had happened. And the truth is, I’m still not sure exactly what transpired in the gate area, but we finally got the mess sorted out.

And then it started.

One of the flight attendants called and said we had a very belligerent, non-compliant passenger who was causing problems. His complaint was that we were running late, and he had paid for an on-time departure. That’s fair, but we can’t leave until we can confirm that the passengers who are on the airplane are actually supposed to be there. It’s hard to believe that people still get on the wrong airplanes in 2021, but it does happen rarely.

What this fella didn’t realize is that he was now making us even later, because now we had to make a determination about possibly returning to the gate and removing him. That led to a discussion of which gate we might use, and how long it would take for us to get the police there. As a result, we were taxiing very slowly to buy time while the cabin crew worked to de-escalate the situation. Removing people from an airplane is never fun or pleasant, and in this case, it would have been in part due to our late departure. It wasn’t like he got on and started causing trouble just to cause trouble—that’s easy to deal with.

Finally, the lead flight attendant called us back and said she had spoken to the passenger and his wife, and had made it clear that he was fast running out of time to change his attitude. His wife did what spouses do and got through to him that if got thrown off the airplane, his troubles were just beginning.

The rest of the flight was uneventful, and we were in fact on time landing in Newark. Ironically, we would have had to wait for a gate if we were early, because ours was occupied by a flight that was late getting off the gate. To top it off, that flight had to return to the gate for a mechanical issue, which required our ground crew, so we were looking at a late arrival (by just a few minutes) no matter what.

Sometimes, you just can’t win for losing.—Chip Wright

Special airports

A recent conversation with a non-aviating friend of mine brought up a reminder about certain airports not being of the every day, run-of-the-mill variety. The question was whether or not my airline could just fly any plane into any airport with any pilot on any given day (assuming proper runway length, et cetera).The answer is no.

Every carrier and many corporate flight departments have certain airports that require specific training or operating procedures. At my former carrier, these were called Special Airports. Back in the day of printed approach charts, these airports came with color print charts with photographs, several pages of notes, and a slew of other information that described why they were special. Most of the time, the goal was simply to call attention to an airport that might pose certain challenges based on geography.

For example, KAVP (Scranton-Wilkes Barre) is built right next to a hill in a valley, and the localizer is offset for terrain avoidance. The winds can make this approach challenging. KAVL (Ashville) is another airport in a valley with significant surrounding terrain and some wicked winds and wind shear. KROA (Roanoke) is a bit of all of this, with short runways to boot.

At my current airline, on my current equipment, KAVL is considered special for a different reason: The runway is much narrower than the ones we normally use, so the potential for adverse yaw during an engine failure means that, under certain weight conditions, the rudder may not have enough authority to keep the plane on the runway should an engine quit. The solution is to make sure that the aircraft meets certain minimum weights prior to takeoff. The easy way to do this with a light passenger load is to add some fuel.

Almost every airline that flies into Vail, Colorado, has training procedures that require the first officer to fly in with a captain who has already been there, and the captain usually has to fly there for the first time under the supervision of a check airman. Further, if the captain has not been there in a certain window of time, he or she will again need to go under the supervision of a check airman. Some carriers have a few airports that require a captain to go in with a check airman every so many months no matter what.

Bogota, Colombia, is another airport that is problematic. The terrain is intimidating, and as a result weather deviations are limited. So are diversion options. Throw in the fact that a lot of arrivals come in after dark, and you have bad weather, high terrain, fatigue, and communication challenges all rolled up into one.

Back in the United States, another airport that fit the Special category, even for a turboprop, was Key West. It’s a short runway (4,800 feet), but plenty long for a turboprop. However, the challenge is the extremely close proximity of NAS Key West off the east end, which could lead to some interesting traffic conflicts. It’s also built with no spare room on either end of the runway if you have an overrun. Last, but not least, it can be both windy and wet. Frequent rains in the summer often leave puddles on the runway. Needless to say, flying a jet into Key West is a different level of challenge.

Special airports are not always so obvious. And they’re not always problematic. However, the require your attention and respect. Read up on the notes when you haven’t been there in a while. And remember, just because it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you doesn’t mean that it can’t become a very big deal very quickly if you’re not careful.—Chip Wright

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How long does it take?

Pilots who are new to a company and an airplane can at times feel like they will never “get it.”

The first shot out of the firehose is information. Lots and lots of information, about everything from the company to the managers to how to get a mistake on your ID badge fixed. Then there is airplane training, which is information on steroids. There are memory item checklists and limitations to memorize, some of which feel silly or seem to have no reason (and often don’t).

Next is the simulator, where everything goes from being an abstract, academic concern to a practical one, as you try to tie up all the pieces you’ve been given so far. Callouts, flows, crew resource management…it’s a lot to master, and there never seems to be enough time to do so. Worse still, you don’t realize how narrow the scope of flying is in the sim until it’s over. Most of the time is spent flying approaches and learning how to use the flight management system (FMS), while also figuring out how to keep the blue side up during an engine failure. In fact, in sim training, you actually get very little time experiencing what the airplane flies like when everything is working. You also get almost no exposure to the cruise portion of your flight.

Simulators are great for a lot of things, but they are terrible for mastering the art of a visual approach, because the graphics, as good as they are, still lack a certain amount of depth perception. The sims also usually do a poor job of replicating terrain-induced winds and turbulence on an approach. At some point you will begin to feel a little bit cocky about how you’re doing, because you will have mastered (or come close to) this narrow field of flying in a very controlled environment.

It’s only after you get on the line and have to really and truly put it all together in an airplane with passengers and other distractions that you finally have to master the art of not crashing and flying with some degree of grace. Generally speaking, it takes around 100 hours in an airplane to get your first new level of comfort, and it takes around 500 to begin to feel less apprehension in challenging weather conditions. With larger airplanes that fly longer legs and do fewer takeoffs and landings, it may take more. Getting the hang of hand-flying and performing smooth visual approaches is a sign of comfort, and a big boost to your confidence. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen with practice and repetition. You’ll also learn from your mistakes, of which there will be many at first.

But there comes a time where sitting in your seat feels like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. And that’s a great day when it comes.—Chip Wright

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Is the pandemic over?

It’s the question we all want the answer to: Is the pandemic over? In short, no, it isn’t. But things are definitely trending in the right direction.

Unless you have been buried under a rock of late, you’ve no doubt heard that mask mandates are being eased, and travel is suddenly becoming more popular. With that popularity comes certain expenses for the consumer. Rental car companies were forced to sell off large chunks of their fleets last year in order to survive the travel downturn. The result now is that renting a car has become so difficult that some have resorted to renting U-Haul trucks.

Hotels are also filling up. I was trying to arrange for some out-of-town travel recently to New England, and the first four or five hotels I looked at were sold out. The rooms that were left were noticeably more expensive than even a few months ago.

What does all of this mean for pilots and wannabe pilots? In a word: recovery. Or hiring. Take your pick. Americans are setting on a pile of hoarded cash, and Americans have never seen a dollar that they can’t spend. Travel demand has soared as families look to make up for lost vacations and visits with family members they were forced to isolate from while waiting for a vaccine.

This has meant a mad scramble for the airlines. Thousands of parked airplanes have to be brought out storage and brought up to (safety) snuff. Network schedule plans have to be rewritten, and tens of thousands of pilots have to be re-trained, or re- re-trained. This is all taking place at a furious pace, and at the lower end of the list, it means pilots are being hired much sooner than we had dared hope.

As I write this, Europe is in the process of updating its travel restrictions and guidance for vaccinated and tested passengers, and it will undoubtedly mean a flood of people buying tickets and travel plans at a rapid pace. As delightful as this is for the carriers, it will lead to a long game of playing catch-up. For aspiring pilots, it will be a grand opportunity to move into the ranks and start your careers. While the regional marketplace has undergone some seismic shifts of late, it still represents the best avenue to get your foot in the door and begin navigating the industry.

The more new hires there are, the better the news and the bigger the plans. Because replacement pilots must be in place first, more new hires mean airlines plan to bring more planes back into service and resume more service than they had announced. A lower volume of hiring generally means a more cautious approach.

If you’ve been waiting to get in the flight deck, this is the time to stop waiting and get started. The economic recovery is likely to be fairly robust, if unpredictable and a bit rocky. But now is the time to give the aviation gig a go.—Chip Wright 

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Getting ready for class

When you get the call for a new hire class, it’s quite a thrill. But it can also leave you scrambling to get ready to check out of the real world for six to eight weeks.

Getting ready for class is similar to getting ready for your interview. The first thing you need to do is a document check. Your new carrier will  want you to have a current passport with an expiration date at least six months away. You may have to pay for expedited handling, but if you’re close to that window, just get it done.

Next up is your medical. Just about every airline requires all pilots, including first officers, to maintain a first class medical. If yours is going to expire in the next two-three months, consider biting the bullet and getting it renewed early, especially if you don’t want to have to run the risk of getting an appointment with a new doctor in a new city right away. If you decide to wait, be prepared to buy a ticket to get home to your regular doctor if the training schedule gets fouled up.

Your CFI certificate. If you’re coming up on a renewal for your CFI, try to knock that out of the way as well. Even if you have no intention of teaching again, think about how hard you worked to get your flight instructor certificate. You may end up wanting to teach just to work with some favorite clientele, or you may want to pick up some pocket change. And, heaven forbid, if you should have a problem with training and need to go back to teaching, you’ll need it. Additionally, you don’t want to rule out going into the training department at an airline, which is totally different than what you’re used to. Finally, doing a FIRC is time-consuming, and once you are finished with training, the last thing you’ll want to do is sit in front of your computer and bang out all those hours of clicking “next.”

Your driver’s license and pilot certificate. This sounds so simple, but you’re required to notify the FAA when you change addresses, and if your driver’s license is close to expiration, you want to get that renewed as well, especially if there is any chance you’ll be renting a car. If you’ve been bouncing around from one place to another looking for a place to live, you’ll need a mailing address for your new company. And, because you’re going into training, you may well have an event or a ride observed by the FAA. Matching addresses on your certificate, medical, and driver’s license saves some potential embarrassment.

Doctor’s appointments. These may be dictated by your current insurance situation, but you’ll want to use whatever time you can to knock out a basic physical, a trip to the dentist,  and your optometrist if you wear glasses. Once class starts, you will be too busy to be bothered, and a cavity or some other unexpected malady is not something you want to mess with in a new-to-you city.

Packing. You’ll want to have clothes enough to wear for at least a week to 10 days between loads of laundry. The company may or may not require you to have certain equipment at certain points in the training (such as headsets), and you’ll want to take stack of blank flashcards, a notebook, laptop, and spare phone chargers. If you’re driving to class, take a printer. Yes, a printer. It’s amazing how convenient it is when you can print something in your hotel room when you least expect to need to do so. If you’re flying to training, skip the printer, but find out what is involved in using the one in the hotel business center. You may need it for everything from printing out benefits information to getting a hard copy of the fuel system diagrams.

Getting the call for class is both exciting and stressful. But with a little bit of foresight, you can maximize the excitement and minimize the stress. It’s a long slog through the grind of indoc, systems, and the sim, let alone your first flights on the line, but it’s worth it. Don’t make plans to spend time with friends or family or a love interest. You’ll be pretty consumed, and you owe it to yourself, your employer, and your future passengers to totally devote yourself to training. There will be plenty of time to play hard later.—Chip Wright

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Behind the scenes

Like any other industry, aviation has a lot of stuff that happens “behind the scenes” that the average Joe isn’t aware of.

In fact, often people within that industry may not be aware of some of it either. After all, how often do you go to a restaurant and think about all the stuff that goes on in the kitchen before you get your food? Someone has to know how much of what to order, and someone has to determine how much of each food to make ahead of time based on demand and popularity.

The airlines work the same way. As you read this, the calendar will be indicating summer. And not just any summer, either, but the first summer after the strangest summer any of us can remember, along with a weird winter that didn’t seem to want to end. Many airlines already have a small team of people working on next winter’s operations. Deicing fluid needs to be ordered well in advance, with supplies adjusted based on expected fleet plans at each airport/hub, training manuals for all affected work groups need to be updated and harmonized, and equipment needs to be maintained, replaced, and repaired. Just getting the manuals updated is time consuming, because at some airports the work is contracted out to a company that handles multiple airlines, so everything has to be written as simply as possible.

Deicing equipment only gets used a few times a year, so functionality checks start early in order to find issues that result from leaving stuff sitting around for months on end. The folks who train the trainers also need to be brought up to speed early so that the training pipeline gets started, staffing can be adjusted, and schedules accommodated.

Another big behind-the-scenes area is the long-term scheduling of flights. Every airline calls it something different, but it’s basically the same: where will we be going, and with which airplanes, in 12 to 24 months. The three big seasonal peaks are Thanksgiving, which is easy (in the relative scheme) to plan on; spring break; and summer vacation, specifically the month of July.

My airline is constantly putting out communications about the next one or two summers, because those busy months drive the training schedule for pilots, and to a lesser degree, flight attendants. Big events factor in as well. For instance, last year, the Olympics were supposed to be a major focus point. COVID changed that, and this year the Games may be held with no crowds. Next year, the World Cup is on the docket, but it’s too soon to say how COVID may or may not affect that event, and that doesn’t take into account which teams may or may not qualify.

Maintenance is another never-ending cycle of planning and contingencies. Airplanes are subjected to some form of light maintenance every day or so, but they also need to be scheduled for “heavy” inspections based on the manufacturer recommendations. These checks pull the airplanes out of service for a few months at a time, and they are scheduled a year or more in advance. A majority of these events take place outside the United States, especially for wide-bodies. That is yet another variable that needs to be accounted for.

There are also unexpected events, like the grounding of the 737 MAX, which was down for two years, got released to fly, and then was partially grounded again. Airlines can accommodate some of these curveballs, but too often the only resort is to cancel flights and issue refunds.

Just like a restaurant that has to plan for a big social event, the airlines have to constantly tweak their plans, and often there are a lot of partners involved and a lot of unexpected ripples that have to be dealt with in the process. It’s part of what makes aviation such a dynamic, exciting industry: There is never a dull or a still moment. But there is always something that needs to be done.—Chip Wright

Sports charters

As we move into spring and summer, the airlines are heading into some of the busiest charter work that they do: basketball tournaments and Major League Baseball. Charters are not the money-makers that they used to be, but they still turn a guaranteed profit for the airlines, and they are an important part of the business model.

College basketball can be among the most challenging, because it is so unpredictable. Nobody knows when a team is going to be eliminated or move on to the next round, so the schedule has to take that into account. Usually, when traveling by charter, the schedule is built to take in the best possible option, which is that the team in question will make the next round. If they lose, then they usually have to sit around for a day or two or three in order to return home on schedule.

If the team is lucky, the contract with the airline can include the flexibility to leave early if they lose, but this is entirely dependent on the airline and its ability to have a crew and an airplane in position, to say nothing of the catering that must be done according to the terms of the contract. Catering and food are a big part of these arrangements, so don’t underestimate their importance.

Baseball is much easier to predict, because the schedule is laid out in advance. That said, baseball charters can be demanding, difficult work because of the hours. Most charters (of any sport) include three total flights at a minimum: one to get the airplane into position, one to actually fly the team, and one to get the airplane back into the regular schedule. The fee charged covers all three, plus whatever crew-related expenses there will be. Most baseball (and football) teams negotiate with a single carrier, and they often use different-sized airplanes based on the trip, with long flights usually requiring a bigger airplane.

For the crew, the job begins with getting the airplane into position, usually by flying it empty to the pick-up point. This is the easy part, and also the most important. It’s also where the problems usually start, because if a game goes late—or really late—it messes up the schedule.

Let’s say a baseball game goes 12 or 13 innings—not common, but not unheard of. That can easily add an hour or more to the schedule. The standard post-game order of events doesn’t change: showers, press obligations, packing, et cetera. The team loads up on buses and heads to the airport. The airplane can be loaded fairly quickly, but being late is being late.

Since most games are played at night, the flight is usually a red-eye of sorts, so the big battle is fighting fatigue. But the job isn’t done. Dropping the team off is usually even quicker than loading them up. However, because charters usually start and stop at FBOs or company hangers, that means the airplane may have to be cleaned or fueled before it can go to the gate. Or, worse, it may have to be flown empty to another city to work a flight. As a pilot who has done these three-flights-in-a-night adventures, I’m here to tell you that the last ones aren’t a lot of fun.

More than once, I finished a basketball charter pulling into the gate as the crew working the first flight of the day was showing up. It was a mad dash to get the airplane ready to go as we slogged off to a hotel or grabbed a seat in the cabin to go home, another baseball team or university (hopefully) grateful to us for a job well done.—Chip Wright

Sterile cockpit

A headline of late was of a pilot in the San Jose, California, area going on a rant that was broadcast on the radio. This is not the first time this has happened, and it probably won’t be the last. The usual culprit is a stuck mic switch.

The FAA has announced an investigation into the incident, and it’s safe to say that if the guilty individual is found, there will be some kind of disciplinary action and/or a fine.

Aside from sounding unprofessional, the transmission apparently took place below 10,000 feet, when an airline crew is supposed to be honoring sterile cockpit procedures. The FAA says pilots are supposed to limit conversation only to flight-related discussion below 10,000 feet. Considering that a number of accidents have been attributed to violation of sterile cockpit—to say nothing of other incidents—the FAA is going to wield its power.

Most modern transport-category radios have an auto-shutoff feature that will shut down transmissions after a certain amount of time. This incident is the reason why—not so much because of what was said, but because a stuck mic can create a safety issue if other pilots or controllers can’t transmit and receive over the stuck mic.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of this, because the other pilot will be in the crosshairs as well for what appears to be a lack of effort to bring the conversation back to the appropriate topics.

It would be naïve to say that sterile cockpit violations don’t happen every day. They do, but that doesn’t excuse it. We all need to be aware of where we are and what we are saying, and anytime we are using a radio panel, we need to make sure that what is meant to stay in the cockpit actually does. It’s easy to miss it when your mic continues to stay hot, but a subtle indicator is the change in your own voice in your ear when you’re using the radio versus the intercom. But that’s the problem: It’s a subtle change, and all too easy to miss. Some radios also have a transmission symbol or indicator, such as a “T” or a “TX” that appears on the screen. Some … but not all.

This incident needs to be a reminder of the need to honor the sterile cockpit. It’s easy to get complacent, but it certainly isn’t impossible to comply. In fact, some pilots I’ve flown with have personally requested that anything below 18,000 feet be considered sterile, the rationale being that even the teens can have a lot of traffic and opportunities for missed radio calls. While that isn’t a necessary step, it’s not an unreasonable one either.

In general aviation, the rules are much more relaxed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with your own conditions that might be “sterile.” It could be an altitude or within so many miles of an airport, or some other definition that you feel will reduce the risk of an ATC mistake or error. Whatever you decided to use, just remember that whatever you say may not only be recorded, but broadcast live on the internet, and the FAA may want to discuss it.—Chip Wright

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