Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Stuck Mic

A couple of weeks ago news broke about two pilots who were talking with a stuck mic. You probably remember. They were discussing the sexual orientation of their male flight attendants and the apparent ugliness of their female flight attendants. If you want to hear it, you can click here, but I don't recommend it. It's pretty disgusting. 

Anyway, their conversation went out over the airwaves and was recorded by FAA recorders and somehow it made its way into the news media. How does this happen?

Unintended radio transmissions can go out via a “stuck mic.” (“Mic” is short for microphone and is pronounced like “mike.”) Transmit buttons can get sticky. Dirt accumulates in them. Spilled liquid can short them. Or they just get too worn to function properly and they remain depressed after you release your thumb or finger after transmitting. The problem arises when you don't realize that the button is stuck in the transmit position. 

So after you have made your call to the tower, radar center or whatever, your mic remains “hot” and you don't know it. You turn to the other pilot and begin to chat. Everyone on the frequency hears it. Furthermore, because reception is inhibited during transmission, no one can call you to tell you that you have a stuck mic. It just stays stuck until you figure it out, usually by realizing that no one is calling you.

Thus the question begs, what do airline pilots talk about in the cockpit when the workload permits small talk? (This question will shed most readers now, but I'll go on.)

Ask a hundred pilots and you'll get a hundred differed answers, but I submit that the subject of the conversation is basically whatever the captain wants to talk about. He/she sets the tone. If he talks trash, then the conversation becomes trashy, or one-sided. If he is mostly silent, the first officer will probably clam up too.

Stuck mics happen every day, many times, but those guys picked a bad day to talk smack. The whole nation heard them fiercely disparage, with highly vulgar language, flight attendants, gays and women. The captain's (I presume) sex life was laid bare for all to hear.

In my experience I attest that the stuff you heard, if you
linked to that conversation, is extremely rare. Most of the gab I have heard, as both a working pilot and a jump-seater, is about ordinary stuff. Here's a rough hierarchy of common topics:

Politics are a sticky subject―rarely broached unless you can guess with a good degree of confidence which way the other guy leans. Got to remember, we're couped up with each other for three or four days and we don't need heated debates. That would erode crew coordination. So, if you determine he leans your way you can opine on political subjects, but otherwise, it's best to leave it alone.

There you have it. That duffus who let loose his foul opinions for all to hear is among the few.

Now tell me, if you had a stuck mic in your office, workplace, or home what would the world hear?

It's a big ocean. Follow that guy.


Capt. Schmoe said...

Our units are equipped very similar to airliners in that we have multiple radios linked with a headset equipped intercom, two PTTs and mics placed in a position where they could be easily activated.

Our conversations run the gamut from the mundane to the shocking, depending on the crew and the context.

As the radios were located in front of my face, I always made sure that the transmitting light was not on when discussing the more controversial topics.

My communications, like yours, is monitored by many people who have radio scanners equipped with digital recording devices. Any embarrassing transmissions, whether inadvertent or intentional,will soon be posted on You-Tube and possibly the media.

These instances are quite rare, most "open mic" conversations that I have heard have been quite benign, though the crews involved are still embarrassed that the condition occurred.

Fortunately, it has never happened to me. Partly due to my vigilance partly to luck.

Thanks for the post and don't forget to look at the transmitting light on the com display.

TgardnerH said...

I worked as an EMT for a while, and open mikes were funny from time to time, but I worked with one guy who would UNPLUG the mic if he was gonna talk serious smack, because we all liked our jobs...

kmc said...

In television, we use an RTS system that has 32 talk/listen keys per workstation. Some of the talk keys are programmed to latch, some aren't. It took one mistake 13 years ago to learn very quickly that if I'm not intending to talk to some one, to turn on the mute. Also, when walking into the main production room where mic's are hot all the time, I make sure they're muted if I'm going to be talking about anything sensitive.