During the basic course of primary instruction, we learn about the use of the emergency radio frequency of 121.5. We’re generally taught that 121.5, also known as guard, is the frequency we use during an emergency or when we need to get immediate hold of ATC and don’t know what other frequency to use. And…this is all true.
But one other angle to guard is that we should be making a better habit of monitoring the frequency on the number 2 radio. Just as we can use the frequency to reach ATC, ATC uses the frequency to find pilots who have either lost contact or have potentially put themselves into a violation. One thing I’ve learned in a two-decade-plus airline career is how often ATC needs to call flights on guard. Most of the time, they are looking for an airline flight that has missed a frequency change, but a few times a week, I hear them trying to call a 172 or a Bonanza or such that has either missed a frequency change or is encroaching on restricted or prohibited area.
As an instructor, I admit that I wasn’t too diligent about monitoring guard, which, unfortunately, means that my students missed the learning opportunity as well. I knew about it, and I told them about it, but only as an emergency use frequency.
Nowadays, in the post-9/11 world in which the slightest deviation from a known flight plan makes everyone jumpy, there is really no excuse to not monitor 121.5. Even if you’re not the target of ATC, it’s possible in a local area that you will recognize the call sign of the airplane, and you can reach them on a CTAF or unicom frequency, or call the local flight school where the airplane is based and let them know that ATC is looking for them.
Whether or not you’re thinking of getting into professional or airline flying, you should make it a habit of monitoring guard. You may be the first to hear an ELT going off (report it to ATC, and if you’re not getting flight following or flying IFR, make a note of your position when you first heard it, and any trends in the signal strength). You may also hear an airplane in distress and be able to help the pilot.
However, one troubling trend the last few years that has gotten worse is the number of pilots who inappropriately use guard. Invariably what happens is someone inadvertently transmits on guard, and those monitoring can’t refrain from a series of catcalls and jokes. A simple, “You’re on guard,” or “Check your frequency” transmission is all that is needed. The never-ending jokes and silly comments have gotten the attention of the FAA, because controllers are monitoring guard, which means that they too are trying to handle at least two frequencies, and pilots acting like children just makes their jobs harder.
If you’re not in the habit of monitoring 121.5, try to get into the habit , and watch the temptation to jump on the bandwagon of idiots who use it inappropriately.—Chip Wright