PICKN, GRNIN and HEHAW!
(Flying Landmark Jones)
From the Truth-Is-Stranger-Than-Fiction Dept.
To arrive in Nashville, it takes PICKN and GRNIN and often a pass through HEHAW. It's the same for guitar players - and pilots.
PICKN, GRNIN and HEHAW are fixed points in the sky that pilots use when they are flying into Nashville International Airport in Tennessee. Throughout the world, aviation authorities establish set routes to guide planes. They label key navigational points with unique identifiers, usually five-letter codes, called fixes. In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration has chosen to mark the skies with a sense of humor.
Airplanes approaching Newark International Airport in New Jersey toward the northeast will cross either HOWYA or DOOIN. Louisiana has RYTHM, Kentucky has BRBON and Massachusetts has BOSOX. Kansas City, Mo., has SPICY, BARBQ and RIBBS.
To pilots, Montpelier, Vt., is known for its HAMMM, BURGR and FRYYS. Andrews Air Force Base near Washington has a Republican bent these days, with an approach from the south that goes from FORRD to RREGN and one from the north that moves from DUBYA to BUUSH.
And if you fly the approach to runway 16 in Portsmouth, N.H., you might think you're in a Sylvester and Tweety Bird cartoon. The route takes you from ITAWT to ITAWA to PUDYE to TTATT. If a pilot can't land, he is told to hold by way of IDEED. ("I thought I saw a pussy cat. . . . I did!")
It's not all Looney Tunes. The FAA says it creates memorable fixes to improve safety by making it easier for pilots to remember instructions and avoid flying the wrong route. Who's going to forget HOLDM near Las Vegas?
The FAA long assigned meaningless combinations of letters, some based on Morse code, to fixes, but began using five-letter pronounceable names in 1976. By international aviation standards, they have to be five letters.
"We try to select something that will be easily recognizable," says Nancy Kalinowski, the FAA's director of airspace and aeronautical information management, whose department oversees the identifier name game. "Anytime you create uncertainty in the aviation world, there could be trouble."
Indeed, mix-ups can be tragic. In 1995, an American Airlines Boeing 757 crashed near Cali, Colombia, killing 160 people, after the pilots mistakenly told the plane's autopilot to fly to a navigational beacon named ROZO when they meant to enter a fix called ROMEO, investigators found. The computer began turning the plane around in a narrow valley, and the plane hit a mountaintop.
Pilots primarily navigate by using special radios that tune in to signals emitted by transmitters, or beacons, on the ground. They then fly from one beacon to the next. To pinpoint their position, they determine the compass reading, or "radial," from two different beacons. Fixes are points in the sky at the intersection of two radials from two beacons. They act as landmarks -- much like the intersection of two city streets -- only airborne. HEHAW, for example, is the point when the Nashville navigation beacon is at a radial of 156 degrees on the compass and the Bowling Green beacon is at 247 degrees. There's only one spot where those two radials intersect.
In the mid-1990s, the military released satellite-based navigation for commercial use, enabling the FAA to create additional fixes anywhere in the sky. Now, the FAA can mark a spot with simple longitude and latitude coordinates, and then give it a name. Airplanes can identify it with Global Positioning Satellite computers, which receive signals directly from space.
Satellite navigation lets the FAA create better routes, such as more-precise approaches at small airports or safer passages through mountainous areas. As a result, scores of new fixes have been dreamed up in the past 10 years.
The "Tweety Bird" approach in Portsmouth, N.H. -- one of the first satellite-based airport approaches in the U.S. -- is credited with unleashing the burst of creativity at the FAA. When Brad Rush of the FAA's national flight-procedures office in Oklahoma City designed the Portsmouth approach, he decided to do something clever to draw pilots' attention to the benefits of the new world of satellite-navigation approaches, the FAA said.
Typically, names are proposed by local FAA offices and approved by Ms. Kalinowski's office in Washington. They are screened for bad taste, she says, though she and her colleagues can't recall ever rejecting a proposed name. On one of the arrival routings to Cincinnati, pilots are likely to be instructed to "cross DRESR at 18,000 feet." The FAA also allowed BUXOM, which is in Oregon, and JUGGS, which is in Idaho.
But that's about as racy as it gets. In Martinsburg, W.Va., pilots call the tower when they are five miles from landing and report they are in HEVEN. There's a fix called SWEET in New Jersey that is above a candy factory. And in the air above the veterinary college at Iowa State University, planes fly to EIEIO.
Some are rather predictable, like the BOENG fix near Seattle, the COKEM fix near Atlanta and the ALAMO fix near San Antonio. Orlando, Fla., has MICKI, MINEE and GOOFY.
Besides PICKN and GRNIN, Nashville goes to lengths to honor its country stars. The approach to one runway at Nashville's main airport sends planes from LRETA to JCKSN to GRRTH, in honor of Loretta Lynn, Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks.
Sports themes are popular. St. Louis pays homage to the game of pool with a series of fixes called the QBALL SIX arrival, which moves from SCRCH to BREAK to FATSS to QBALL. The city also honors Cardinals baseball great Stan Musial with fixes STAAN and MUZUL on the approach to St. Louis International Airport.
In Phoenix, one arrival route to the airport moves from SLAMN to DUNKK to BBALL to SUNSS to HOOPS. Football-crazed Houston has an arrival with the following fixes: GOALL, PPUNT, DRPPD, FTBAL, COACH, QTRBK, TAKKL, RECVR, FMBLE and, seven miles west of Hobby Airport, TCHDN.
Throughout the country, there are several spellings of ORVLL and WILBR, of course. The Clintons' cat was honored with a SOCKS fix near President Clinton's hometown of Hot Springs, Ark. (There's also MEEOW nearby.) When actor and pilot Kurt Russell approaches Brackett Field near La Verne, Calif., he passes GOLDI and HAWNN, which honor his longtime partner.
Not all fixes make sense. Ms. Kalinowski says she can't explain why the BRONX is located 80 miles southeast of Barrow, Alaska.
(Originally written by Scott McCartney for The Wall Street Journal)