As an aviation geek, I love listening to air traffic control audio, and always enjoy the VASAviation YouTube channel, which does a great job covering interesting air traffic control interactions. The latest video from the channel involves an air traffic controller and a Qatar Airways pilot…
In this post:
Qatar Airways pilot struggles to keep up with SFO ATC
VASAviation has the air traffic control audio plus a visual of a recent interaction between an air traffic controller and a Qatar Airways pilot in the cockpit of an Airbus A350-1000 flying from San Francisco (SFO) to Doha (DOH).
As you’d expect, it’s very important for pilots to accurately read back the instructions they’re given by air traffic controllers. That’s especially true on the ground, which is where the most things can go wrong, and it’s also where we’ve recently seen the most close calls. There’s simply no margin for getting things wrong,
While air traffic controllers sometimes talk fast and have a lot of instructions, this is something that pilots are supposed to be prepared for. After all, they’re expected to study airport charts prior to their flight, to be sure they’re familiar with the standard operating procedures at an airport.
In this case, a Qatar Airways jet was taxiing out to runway 28R at SFO for departure, but communication became a bit of an issue, to put it mildly. What makes this so bad isn’t any individual mistake, but rather how many consecutive errors there are:
- The Qatar Airways pilots are supposed to be on the San Francisco tower frequency (since the plane is crossing active runways) but aren’t, and it takes quite some time for them to correct that
- At this point the controller is already a little impatient, saying “third time we’re trying to call you, you gotta be on frequency if we’re gonna move you”
- Then the Qatar Airways pilots are given taxi instructions for getting to the departure runway, which the pilot reads back incorrectly multiple times — first he forgets about crossing runway 1L, then he forgets about holding short of runway 28L
- At this point the controller says “that’s like three readback errors in a row, you need to listen more carefully”
- The controller then tells the pilots of an American Airlines flight that they should contact NorCal departures (which you do after takeoff), yet the Qatar Airways pilot reads that back, saying he’ll contact NorCal departures
- At this point the controller says “no, why would you contact NorCal? I’m still working you. I have multiple airplanes on frequency. Listen for the callsign!”
I can see how all of these mistakes can happen individually. However, what’s most shocking and concerning is how the pilot reads back to contact NorCal departures before even being takeoff clearance. I mean, that’s something even a brand new private pilot would know not to do. It shows the pilot really wasn’t thinking, and that’s giving him the benefit of the doubt.
You can listen to the audio from this situation for yourself below.
The differing perspectives on this interaction
It’s always interesting to see the different perceptions people have on these situations. VASAviation gets a good mix of pilots and general enthusiasts commenting on these situations.
There are a couple of things most people can agree on:
- Pilots at Qatar Airways (and other Gulf carriers) deal with an incredible amount of fatigue, and San Francisco is one of the carrier’s longest routes, so one has to wonder if exhaustion factored into this on some level
- It sounds like English isn’t this guy’s first language, but that’s not an excuse to get details wrong; if you say 28L vs. 28R, for example, that can’t be blamed on a language barrier
Looking at the comments, you have one person who claims to be one of the pilots in the aircraft immediately behind the Qatar Airways jet, and he says the following:
I was there holding short #2 of 01R heading to Boston and the captain and I nearly died of laughing, especially the contact NorCal departure…that was painful to hear. Gosh I was wondering the entire time, the captain seemed to never cue up and made me wonder was it the entire crew’s first time in SFO or what.
Meanwhile someone who claims to be one of the pilots in the aircraft immediately behind the above aircraft had a similar reaction:
I was the Skywest right behind you and we were also dying! Both our jaws were on the floor.
Others give the pilot the benefit of the doubt, assuming he was probably a very junior first officer who was stressed out, and having a controller talk fast in a foreign language didn’t make the situation easier:
All the controller had to do is wait and not ride this poor guy a**. You’re 25, a newly minted F/O with 250 hours, seating in the right seat doing comms while the captain has the tiller. It’s your first time in SFO. The controller is talking really fast, almost yelling at you in a foreign language, you have the wrong mental image of the runways (expecting reference to the 19s instead of the 01s), and now the captain is grumpy because you missed a couple of calls. Holy cow, guys… show some restraint! Everyone can have a first or a bad day.
If that’s the case, my one question is why the captain didn’t briefly take over communications when it was clear there was such a struggle? Keep in mind that flights of this length have four pilots…
An interaction between SFO ATC and a Qatar Airways A350 pilot is getting a bit of attention, after the pilot made repeated mistakes. Errors happen, but perhaps most bizarre of all is that he incorrectly stated to contact NorCal departures, which isn’t a mistake any pilot should make when they haven’t even been given takeoff clearance.
What do you make of this SFO ATC and Qatar Airways A350 pilot interaction?