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Roger That

Andrew Freedman @ 8:10 AM

I've tried many things to relax: Exercising, meditating, yoga (only tried that once with embarrassing results), progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing and xanax, for example.

But nothing has come close to the state of awareness and calm I snap into when listening to air traffic control communications.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Forecast Confidence: HighToday: Cloudy, with occasional rain. High 55. Tonight: Rain tapering around midnight, remaining cloudy. Lows in the mid to upper 40s. Tomorrow: Remaining overcast, with a bit of patchy light rain or drizzle possible. Highs in the mid 50s.

Check back tomorrow for Jason's week-ahead forecast.

A budding meteorologist and pilot, I grew up listening to air traffic control in my attic bedroom in Swampscott, Mass. I forced my father to buy me an expensive Radio Shack Uniden police/aviation/weather scanner at age 12 and got hooked on the reassuring voices of pilots and controllers at nearby Logan International Airport. By age 14 I had memorized the Logan runway layout and preferred routes. I reveled in how weather dictates flying conditions: the fact that a twenty degree wind shift meant a change in runways and routes, or that a snowstorm sometimes forced United airlines planes to divert to Washington Dulles rather than run out of fuel in a holding pattern near Cape Cod (Dulles is a United hub).

I took pride in being able to look out the window and spot the plane whose pilot I could hear on the radio as he slowed his MD80 down to 170 knots on approach to runway 22 Left.

Other teenagers my age listened to Nirvana and U2. I had my ATC.

Listening to air traffic control gave me a vertical conception of the atmosphere necessary for successfully forecasting the weather. I quickly learned, for example, that a snowstorm in Boston often features strong southerly winds down to about 5,000 feet, creating nasty wind shear when aircraft transition between this moisture-laden flow and the low level, cold northeasterly winds that are the hallmark of celebrated Nor'easters. I knew exactly when the early spring sea breeze was about to kick in and cool off a nice afternoon when the airport switched its landing runway from 22 Left to 4 Right.

Cranking up the scanner when severe weather approached was often better than heading for the nearest window. I knew exactly how high the cumulonimbus clouds were building, what direction they were moving, how smooth the air was at 25,000 feet and what the winds were doing in Providence, in Boston, in Beverly. I could translate what the pilots were hearing into impending conditions at ground level. By listening just now, for example, I learned that the cloud deck covering the city of Chicago where I currently live is extremely thin, with the tops at 5,100 feet and the bases at 4,100 feet as reported by a Southwest Airlines 737 approaching Midway from the southeast. These clouds should burn off quickly tomorrow morning as the low level inversion mixes out.

There's a rhythm to ATC that calms my nerves. Call, respond. Call, respond. Request, respond. Call, respond. Quick and decisive words that are to the point. There are no "ums" or "aahs" or hemming and hawing. ATC is a world of certainty in an age of uncertainty.

You can try out my relaxation elixir by logging onto an air traffic control broadcast web site. Baltimore-Washington International Airport is on the list in the D.C. area, but I don't see National or Dulles. When listening, you can match the aircraft call signs with aircraft type and origin/destination on Some airports, including Boston, JFK and LAX allow you to view air traffic on a radar-like display in real time via Airport Monitor. Some information is restricted in real time for security reasons, but it can give you a good sense of the layout aloft.

Also, if you fly United Airlines, turn your in seat radio to Channel 9. Most of their aircraft broadcast air traffic control on this channel to allow passengers to follow their flight's progress. If the channel is turned to music rather than ATC, let a flight attendant know and oftentimes the pilot will turn it on for you.

A couple additional notes (from Jason Samenow):
  • Check out this snowfall map of the 1987 Veteran's Day Snowstorm, courtesy of Justin Berk/WeatherTalkRadio.
  • Speaking of WeatherTalkRadio,'s own Matt Ross will be a guest today, discussing our winter outlook. (WCBM, AM 680, 3:05pm)

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