Did I really hear that?

It was about 0715 or seven fifteen in the morning for those that need additional help. It was some time in 1989. I was in the galley of a 727 Pan Am Clipper at Berlin Tegel Airport. Of course, our staff of German flight attendants (both beautiful and efficient) had the coffee ready. We shared our guten tags (good mornings) and, with my coffee, I marched forward to the cockpit to peruse my company-supplied box breakfast.

As always, you never knew what was there in addition to the baby wurst and roll. Aha! There was yogurt with a banana to slice into it and a candy bar, some Knakebrot (dry, but good cracker) and, of course, butter to spread on it. Definitely a low carb, low fat diet. A hard boiled egg, condiments and a couple of other assorted goodies. The flight engineer stopped to say hi and wandered out into the cool morning air to do his preflight. Another wonderful day in the IGS (Internal German Service).

The Berlin base was different, quite different, compared to the rest of the airline. To digress, I was an air carrier inspector for the FAA for about seven years and was recalled to Pan Am after a short 16 year, 7 month, 10 day furlough.

During that time, I had the opportunity to evaluate pilots from numerous airlines. I soon learned that although each pilot had a personality, each airline gave their crew members the airline’s individual personality. Years later, when I flew at a carrier that had acquired numerous other carriers, most of the time you could tell which airline the other crew member originally came from, but that’s another story.

Berlin airport
Tegel Airport in Berlin was an eclectic mix of airplanes and accents.

It seems like the folks that ended up in Berlin were really different. They were like a family and a really close family at that. More importantly, they wanted everyone to know they were the best. They flew fast and when a fellow pilot got stuck somewhere in the maze of traffic schedules, they quickly changed and, even though they might be absent, another body took their place and everything seemed to work—the flight left on time. It wasn’t unusual for a flight engineer to pre-flight his neighbor’s plane or for a pilot to leave on an earlier trip for lack of a crew member. I guess you could say that we were known to be a little different throughout the system.

For those of you who don’t know the history of the walled city of Berlin, I will share a few pointers. The city was divided into four sectors: one on the other side of the wall which was the DDR (Deutsche Democratic Republic) and the other three sectors which were the US, French, and British. The latter three were the only ones that had carriers that were permitted to fly into West Berlin. So now you have a pretty good idea of the landscape.

Back to my story. In those days, Berlin was an island surrounded by the communist East Germany. To fly out of there, you had to fly the Berlin Corridor. There were three corridors that left the city and they went to either Hamburg, Frankfurt, or Munich, and then points beyond. So here we were waiting to depart with our clearance when I heard this friendly voice with a west Texas drawl.

“Tegel Ground, Clipper 702 with Bravo, IFR to Hamburg.” Realize that there were only parallel runways at Tegel. You know from the ATIS the runway you’re going to use and, after flying hundreds of times to these destinations, you probably know the clearance by heart.

Tower rapidly responds, “Clipper 702, cleared Hamburg Brekendorf two climb and maintain 6000.”

Silence for a short time and then a Texas drawl responds, “Tegel Ground, 702, say again.”

Ground control in his clipped, German, business-like accent responded once again with the clearance that you have heard over and over again.

The frequency once again went silent until Clipper 702 responded in that slow Texas drawl, “Tegel Ground, do you hear how fast I talk? Well, that’s how fast I listen, too, so say again.”

When the laughter subsided, I called for push back and for some reason I knew I would remember that conversation forever.

6 Comments

  • Did that myself at KHPN, White Plains. Clearance gave me a warp 5 clearance. In my best slow Alabama drawl, I used the same response in the article above. HPN Clearance chuckled and slowed down so I could write it down correctly.

    Always wanted to do that and finally got the chance to do it.

  • Reminds me of a rainy afternoon long ago in Newark – 1985: A preppy, machine gun Long Island voice in a sleek new Metroliner asked for an IFR clearance to “BeeWee”. Clearance didn’t understand him. The voice asked again for clearance to BeeWee. …it dragged on for four times… Finally, an aged, deep Appalachian voice came on to clear things up: “Clurnce, Aaheestern fahwer teanne… I thank Arrr Virgeenia whaunts ta go da Bawwlemer.” Silence, followed by a crying clearance man trying very hard to keep a professional voice as he gave Arrrr Virgeeenia a clearance to Bawwlemer.

  • Once while living in Flagstaff, AZ, the local FBO gave me and another pilot a chance to take an American Yankee back to the factory in Cleveland and bring two planes back. On the way east, the young new pilot with whom I shared the flight wanted to stop in Chicago, so we headed for the island airport that used to sit just offshore in the big lake. On the way in to a place completely unfamiliar to both of us, Chicago approach was rattling off instructions so fast that it seemed like he was speaking in Egyptian hieroglyphics. I finally called and said, “Approach, can you speak more slowly. I’m just a country boy and can’t understand anything you’re saying.”

    Silence for a second and then, “Uh, rojjjjjjjjerrrrrrr Yannnnnnkeeeeee, isssssss thisssss sloooowwwww eeeeeeeeenuffffffffff?”

  • I focused on a different part of this story, “was recalled to Pan Am after a short 16 year, 7 month, 10 day furlough.” That encapsulates all that is wrong with the airline industry and unions. Unions have evolved from being necessary bulwarks against the rapacious acts of early industrial capitalism to institutions protecting incompetence and seniority. However seniority doesn’t correlate with ability.

    Because one’s pay is based solely on seniority (thanks to unions) I recognize that business, during downturns in the business cycle, could lay off the most senior (and thus expensive) employees, which would result in protecting the most jobs, but the unions require that opposite be done – lay off the workers in a LIFO format, which results in the most jobs lost.

    And yet none of this rewards merit & productivity, which I believe should be the most important factor guiding salary. Take the author’s experience as an FAA air carrier inspector – he should have been Pan Ams Chief Check Pilot, yet could not fly with them for 16 years, due to his position on the seniority table.

    It is this rigidity that has destroyed most legacy airlines, our auto industry, caused new high tech employees to reject unions and institutionalized incompetency in public schools.

  • GREAT article. I remember when we lived in Torrance, CA, and I was employed at AirResearch for ~5 years, there was an aircraft taxiway at Los Angles airport very simular to what was shown in the photo at Tegal Airport in Berlin. In my 50+ years of being a pilot in the US Air Force, Mass. ANG, and owning and flying a Cessna 182; I recall many, MANY conversations and actions much like what is highlighted in the article, “Did I Really hear that?”. Finally, I would like to, and be honored to have ~5-minute telephone conversation, and/or email dialog with Hank Kamerman. So, PLEASE do help me do that! My telephone number is (206) 382-3643… or better yet provide me with contact info… and I WILL contact him. Finally, below is, “When Did You Know”… more information about me than you ever wanted; but now you have it! Cheers, and keep up the VERY fine you ALL do at AIR FACTS for the Aviation World, etc

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