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Don’t Get Stuck by a Stuck Mic -- And Other Reasons Not To Be A Jerk

It happens every once and a while: You are flying, you hit the button to report something and your transmission doesn't end when you want it to...It happens every once in a while: You are flying, you hit the button to report something and your transmission doesn't end when you want it to... Whether your report is to Unicom, to warn other pilots of your approach to an airport, or to ATC, to tell them of your intentions or to request permission to go somewhere, you are at risk of having a stuck mic.

WHATS THE BIG DEAL?
A stuck mic has two important and immediate consequences:

  1. A stuck mic provides a dead carrier that blocks the frequency for other people who may need to send critical communications -- and the stronger your radio, the stronger the carrier.
    Translation: If you operate a strong radio and suffer a stuck mic, you will cause a virtual communication blackout for anyone operating on the same frequency, over a large geographic area.
  2. A stuck mic provides its own punishment. When the mic is stuck, everything you say can and will be held against you.
    Translation: A stuck mic is an open mic -- that immediately broadcasts whatever you happen to be saying, to everyone on the frequency. And that, my friend, can prove to be embarrassing.
REAL WORLD EXAMPLE:
While cleared inbound on an ILS approach into Chicago’s Midway Airport, another pilot who was VFR with flight following made a call to the Approach frequency. As soon as he stopped talking, I knew we both had a problem. I couldn’t hear Approach anymore. What I did hear was the continuous banter between the student pilot and his skilled and, unfortunately, critical-of-ATC instructor. It went something like this...

Yeah, those guys at ATC can be a real headache, but if you just keep talking to them, they’ll stay off your back...”

Then, as I neared the midpoint on the approach, I got to listen to some information about his personal life and what a good pilot he was. Finally, the stuck mic cleared, and Approach called the plane.

Unfortunately, Approach didn't say anything about the stuck mic. Instead of calling: “N12345, you had a stuck mic, do you read?” they just called the plane. That bought me another few minutes of the stuck mic -- along with listening to the instructor tell the student how stupid ATC was for calling them and not replying when they called back in.

STUCK MIC SELF-DEFENSE

  • Listen for the regular traffic on a frequency – if you don’t hear something for an extended period of time, there may be a problem.
  • Watch the indicator. Newer Nav/Comms on the market have a transmission indicator that illuminates when the radio is transmitting. Many also have an automatic timeout on transmissions. These systems will help you to diagnose problems quickly, but only if you look for them.
Remember: Older mics are more prone to sticking and, if you rent, chances are you're using one. If you notice your mic/Push To Talk (PTT) button is sticky, REPLACE IT, at the FIRST SIGN of trouble. (If you rent, point it out to the flight school immediately.) The price of a new mic or PTT button is quite reasonable and a small price to pay for your humility.

GETTING OUT FROM 'UNDER' A STUCK MIC
If you find yourself on approach to a busy airport when someone else's radio suddenly knocks out your ability to communicate, don’t panic. The closer you get to the receiver, the stronger your signal (and theirs) will be. Eventually, you will be able to get your message out.

Community Strategy: If you hear a stuck mic, remember to tell the other pilot at your FIRST opportunity. You may not get a second chance, so say it in your first call to the plane. “N2222Y, Be Advised - You had a stuck-mic on your last transmission that just cleared – check your mic!”
Survival Strategy: In a real pinch (for example, on approach to an airport) if you cannot raise approach, TRY THE TOWER. If you do, be sure to quickly explain why you broke the protocol for a hand-off from Approach, and you will not be penalized.

IF YOU DON'T HAVE ANYTHING NICE TO SAY...
Try not to say things in the cockpit that would embarrass you if you said them to someone’s face. Making statements that are critical of ATC or an airport -- no matter how well grounded in fact -- is hardly a way to instruct a student, or influence a passenger. It's also bad manners.

BOTTOM LINE: By keeping a civil tongue, while monitoring our communication equipment, we can avoid these little gaffes, and by doing so, continue to improve on the safety and professionalism of general aviation.

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