According to the resume with which I secured Thrillist’s Travel Writer position, I am a well-traveled person who knows things. The degree to which that resume is embellished is a matter between myself and God, but I will hereby admit it wasn’t until earlier this year that I learned air traffic control audio archives are publicly available, pretty much in real time.
You can listen to the tower clear planes for takeoff and landing. You can listen to the tower talk to your pilot about why your flight that you are on at this very moment is delayed. You can listen to blown tires, windshield cracks, engine failures, and planes hitting a whole-ass lot of birds. I picked one clip at random -- or, rather, because it had the words “mid air collision” [sic] in the title -- and within seconds was listening to an outrageously calm-sounding pilot report, “I’ve been involved in an accident, I’m missing my left gear.”
The best way to find these recordings is through LiveATC.net, a site where you can listen, as the URL suggests, to real-time air traffic control audio from around the world. You can do this on your computer (might need to download Flash first). Even simpler and easier, listen through the app, which you can download for iPhone or Android. It’s $3.99, which is at least $2.99 more than I had or had ever intended to pay for even the best travel apps. However, the magic of airports is that you can transcend such hesitations because airports are already lawless places where people line up for Domino’s pan pizzas at 7:30am before falling asleep on the floor.
Earlier this month I landed from a red-eye in LaGuardia and, after producing $43.05 to replace headphones I’d left behind (yes, just the regular Apple headphones, no, I could not just wait) had to go straight to an unrelated flight at JFK (don’t ask) where I paid $9.79 for an egg-and-cheese at an establishment that didn’t even have any hot sauce. When you’re sitting on your next plane, wondering why it’s delayed and how many birthdays will pass before it stops being delayed, you will not mind spending $3.99 on this app. LiveATC has not bribed me to promote this by comping the $3.99; I called them up of my own accord because I think this is a cool thing and more people should know about it.
Before we get started, I should warn you air traffic control audio is a little headache-y to listen to, in sort of the way Cloverfield is headache-y to watch. It’s a lot of mumbled feedback and static. Dave Pascoe, owner and founder of LiveATC, agrees that it takes most people some getting used to.
“It is very rapid-fire,” says Pascoe, who’s also a private pilot. “When I started listening, years ago, it was pretty daunting to understand what they were saying. So it does take time, but you can definitely pick it up.”