When In O’Hare…
Chicago O’Hare airport can be an absolute pressure cooker at the best of times. It’s one of the busiest airports in the world and has claimed that distinction for many years. Newark and La Guardia are both close seconds but toss in a line of nasty mid-west summer thunderstorms and things at O’Hare can quickly go off the rails. Luckily, on this day we were not trying to land—we were trying to leave, and found ourselves number ninety-six (96) for take-off in an A-320 while a line of thunderstorms roared past overhead. But instead of having us all putz along in a huge conga line, snaking around the airport in the rain and burning up precious fuel, the ATC pros running the show just pushed us back more or less on time and then taxied us out somewhere to a huge vacant ramp area somewhere in the airport’s back forty. They said it looked like a serious delay, told us to shut down our engines if desired and that they’d be sure to call us back a few minutes before our turn was coming up after the storm passed and the train started to roll again. In those days, cell phone use was prohibited when the doors were closed. So after parking and shutting down both engines, with our trusty APU keeping the lights on and the airplane nice and cool inside, I turned the belt sign off, directed the girls to open one fore and one aft main cabin doors and announced that passengers were “free to use their cell phones and move about the airplane.” Now they could phone whoever they had to phone about their delay and not bust the rules of the day. They were happy--using their phones or the lav or stretching their legs, and I was happy—the fuel gauges weren’t moving south and we were safe on the ground while lightning flashed and the heavens emptied barrels of rain on us.
The ATC troops at O’Hare are definitely major league. But given the experience and performance (and stress) levels of O’Hare ATC, the flight crews were expected to conform and comply with any and all procedures and instructions with both speed and precision. Failure to do so invited the scornful wrath and hurled verbal lightning bolts from the harried and impatient gods in the tower. Pilot indiscretions could be rewarded with a trip to the Penalty Box. (no, really) O’Hare has a clearly charted holding area called the “Penalty Box” where they send offending miscreants to sit and wait in embarrassment until they are called back to play nice with the others. And since it is VHF radio communications, everybody on the frequency hears the sentencing being handed down;
“Air France seven nine three heavy, O’Hare ground, I said left on Alpha, not right--taxi instructions cancelled. Penalty Box. Turn right on Charlie, proceed to the box and park north side facing east until further advised.” Just like two minutes for tripping!
You just knew that flight decks all over the airport were chuckling and giggling and pointing their fingers while the red faced crew of Air France went to sit in the corner.
To actually leave O’Hare, you had to contact (if memory serves) about five frequencies before you even got to tower frequency to clear you for take-off! First, you contacted Ramp Control to report that you were ready to push. Then they sent you over to Clearance Delivery to get your IFR clearance (aka airways) Then they sent you back to ramp for push back clearance, start up and taxi. Then they sent you over to “Metering” who would then clear you to taxi to a hold point on the ramp just short of the busy highways that would take you to your departure runway. These busy highways were the protected domain of “O’Hare Ground Control”. You were to taxi to this hold point as instructed where metering then switched you over to O’Hare Ground. and then you were to listen out and wait for further taxi instructions that took you to your assigned runway. YOU WERE NOT to call ground control for taxi instructions no matter how long it seemed to take (as if they’d forgotten about you—and sometimes the wait time would give that impression) for ANY reason except perhaps if you were on fire. Well, on this day, a keen young F/O at Air Canada hadn’t read that memo and his Captain may have missed it too. This is doubtful, so the Captain must’ve had a great layover and was in a rather cavalier mood because evidently, he was going to let events play out . They were holding as instructed, the ground controller sounding like a cattle ranch auctioneer who breathed through his ears, but this keen and impatient F/O started jumping in calling for taxi instructions;
“O’Hare ground, Air Canada 748, taxi.” No response.
“O’Hare ground, Air Canada 748 at the hold point. Request taxi instructions”. No response.
“O’Hare ground, Air Canada 748 holding for taxi instructions” No response.
The Captain must’ve been turning his head away and biting his lip off. Finally, after four or five attempts to butt into the frazzled and frantic world of an O’Hare ground controller, with a strong south-side Chicago accent, he erupted and flung his lightning bolt;
“AIR CANADA! YA KILLIN’ ME HERE! TURN RIGHT DIRECT THE PENALTY BOX! I”LL CALL YA BACK IN FORTY-FIVE MINUTES!”