How to Listen to Air Traffic Control, Even on Your Phone
"Speedbird 6 Heavy taxi via Foxtrot, turn left Echo Echo, cross one four left, Golf," the ground controller commands.
Then, a slight pause.
"Taxi Foxtrot, left Echo Echo, cross one four left, Golf, Speedbird 6 Heavy," the English-accented pilot repeats.
It's all in the language of pilots and Air Traffic Control (ATC), and fascinating for the aviation enthusiast. If you've got nothing better to do on one night, visit LiveATC.net, where anyone with a computer or smartphone and a passing interest in aviation can listen to control towers live, worldwide, and in full action. Student pilots use it to listen to their local airport to get accustomed to the myriad radio calls required.
LiveATC was launched in 2002 by pilot Dave Pascoe. It runs primarily on user donations and commercial work setting up private ATC streaming.
"I started it when I was working on my instrument rating. I couldn’t hear Boston Approach from my home in central Massachusetts so I placed some receivers near Boston Logan, where those transmissions originate," Pascoe said. "From that point forward it’s been the result of a large amount of crowd-sourcing and other activities that have enabled the network to grow."
How does it work?
LiveATC is a digital feed of local receivers tuned to aircraft communications around the world. Perhaps surprisingly, volunteers who live within radio range of airports (generally 15 miles) use spare radio and computer equipment to relay "airband" transmissions into the LiveATC.net audio network. You can bring up the feeds via a Flash player or MP3, and there's even a series of apps for smartphones.
Worldwide ATC feeds, live
For example, tune in now to JFK's Tower (scroll down the page). At the time of writing there were no less than 17 aviation enthusiasts tuned in, listening to the comings and goings of planes with call signs like Speedbird (British Airways) and Shamrock (Aer Lingus) on approach or departure. It's a rapid clip of controllers and pilots working together in an orderly symphony.
Here are the top 50 feeds worldwide, with JFK and Tokyo - Haneda (HND) top of the list. The coverage extends across North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific and South America. Your local airfield might also be listed if there's a volunteer nearby.
What about LHR?
Unfortunately, UK law puts a stick in the spokes to listening to the ATC at Heathrow, the busiest airport in Europe and an AvGeek delight, with dozens of airlines from all over the world. Pascoe said the UK prohibits listening to ATC, let alone rebroadcasting it. "They hide behind old laws that have no real applicability in a modern information society," he said. This is unfortunate, given that Heathrow connects the airlines of the world more so than any other.
Sully and Cactus 1459 from the LGA tower
LiveATC has an archive of every tower communication, and it also has a page dedicated to interesting ATC recordings. There are tail strikes, bird strikes, hail storms and everything under the sun. It's fascinating.
For example, here is a composite recording of the entire flight of Cactus 1549, the US Airways Airbus A320 that Chesley Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles landed in the Hudson River. Just listen to that incredible instance of professionals at work, maintaining concise and calm communication in the most challenging of circumstances.
Tune in anywhere in the world, and you'll hear the professionals at work for yourself.
Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand, and a private pilot.