The Most Abused Frequency on Earth
Capt. W. Patrick Gordon, M.Sc.
Professional Pilot Magazine
The trip to Europe came up suddenly and there had been no time to leave word that I wouldn’t be around to have dinner that night with my pal. I knew, having been in the flying business for years, Clint would understand we would get together another time. He was landing in the Middle East on a Boeing 747 cargo flight from Europe. There was a crew change and he had the night off.
Our Falcon 900 was at FL390 flying from Turkish into Bulgarian airspace. As a result of the closed airspace over Yugoslavia and the opening of the airspace over the old Eastern European block of nations, our route had taken us up over Iran, into Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and into Austria.
It’s fun watching jets at cruising altitude appear through the windshield against the distant horizon as a small black blotch. It’s an unofficial, cockpit alertness test to determine who sees the traffic first. The blotch enlarges and lengthens into a black streak until the type of airplane becomes distinguishable as it flashes past at a closing speed of just a little more than one and a half times the speed of sound.
Because of the curvature of the earth it's difficult to initially tell whether the traffic is above or below one’s flight level. It’s comforting to know, however, that because of the cardinal altitude rule of flying, the fast-closing airplane is either 2,000 ft. above or below.
This particular black blotch in the sky was already huge when I first spotted it. It quickly grew and I could tell the aircraft was a heavy as we rapidly closed the distance between us. It streaked underneath and I recognized the airline’s distinctive markings. I quickly checked my watch and estimated the B747’s possible destination and flying time. I then figured it was worth a call to see if it was my pal’s cargo flight. “XYZ Airlines, would you please come up on 123.45,” I asked to clear the ATC frequency. “Sure,” came the reply. “Be right there.”
The dialogue on 123.45 went something like this:
Falcon 900: Are you on the frequency yet?
Boeing 747: That’s affirmative. What can we do for you?
F900: Is Clint on board today?
B747: Affirmative. He’s sitting right here beside me. Would youlike to speak to him?
F900: Yes, thanks a lot.
B747: My pleasure, sir. (Obviously a very well spoken and proper British Captain of the fleet. Also quite generous of him to let me speak briefly to a pal.)
F900: Hey Clint. This is Pat. Sorry I can’t join you for dinner tonight. I didn’t have time to leave a message for you.
B747: Yeah, hi Pat. I saw the Falcon and was wondering if it was one of yours. Where you off to?
F900: Just up to Europe for the night. Back tomorrow. Looks like we’ll have to do dinner on your next trip.
B747: Yeah. No sweat. Nice talking to you. Say hi to Emily for me.
F900: Roger, will do. Adios guy. Thanks a lot.
B747: You’re very welcome Falcon.
The two ships sped apart at supersonic speed. A load of cargo for the Far East in one-direction and VIP passengers bound for Europe in the other. The conversation between us was as old as mankind. It began with a hello across an abyss, evolved into semaphore signals, progressed to radio communications and God only knows where it will end.
History of 123.45
The frequency 123.45 is probably the most dubiously abused frequency in the world. It’s an easy to remember sequence of numbers that just about every pilot in the world recognizes immediately. It is often used by air crew to talk from one airplane to another while in route.
Its history as plane to plane communication dates back further than I imagined. One pilot I flew with remembers using it back in the mid 1960s. I was unable to find out the origin of this frequency’s use for plane-to-plane communications. It’s also interesting to hear from a pilot returning from North Atlantic MNPS training courses that they are being told that the pressure is on to stop this use, or abuse, of the frequency. On the other hand, in one particularly MNPS information sheet, it is recommended that 123.45 be used for this very function.
Pondering the past
That night at the hotel in Europe I was thinking of our brief conversation and remembered other in-flight conversations I’d listened to on 123.45
Years ago, flying over the Mediterranean Sea, I heard an airplane that belonged to an internationally known arms dealer, call another airplane and ask it to come up “on the numbers.” Recognizing the other airplane’s registration as well, I asked my copilot to listen to ATC while I tuned in 123.45. Okay, so I’m nosey. I’m sure every other plane in the area did the same thing. It’s like the telephone party line back in the old days of the Bell telephone system – not the 900 telephone party lines of today but the kind your Grandma had many years ago.
As I eavesdropped, a ruling monarch came on the radio and spoke briefly to the arms dealer. The conversation was all in Arabic and I only understood the typical prolonged greetings they conferred to one another. It was curiously fascinating to be listening to two men of influence and history in the riveting saga of the Middle East.
Another conversation I once listened to was absolutely stunning in its frankness. Two airline pilots discussed the love life of one of their companions – names and all. Thoughtless and rude, the conversation continued for many minutes. With friends like those two, who needs enemies?
Flying over the Nile Valley of Egypt at night has always had a magical affect on me. In route from London to Jeddah late one night at FL450, I heard an airline flight from Paris to Jeddah come on the ATC frequency.
It was a Lockheed TriStar at FL370, which was many miles behind, but much faster than my Gulfstream IIB. As I monitored ATC it quickly closed the gap between us and I thought of the flight attendant working on board the TriStar. We’d been dating for nearly two years and I was looking forward to seeing her on arrival in Jeddah.
It was a quiet night – only the two airplanes and ATC on the frequency with large chunks of real estate between reporting points. I asked the captain to join me on 123.45. There was a full moon directly overhead and in the sparkling clear, night desert air the moonlight reflected off the Nile River and the thousands of irrigation canals it nourishes. As the moonlight flashed along the river and canals it resembled a laser light show that was visible, in all its splendor, only from a fast moving airplane at altitude.
The lights of the city of Asyut, Egypt gleamed brilliantly ahead of us as the airline captain told me Emily was on the headset. Since she didn’t have a radio license he couldn’t let her speak to me personally but he would gladly rely the conversation.
We chatted briefly about our plans for the next day in Jeddah and then, as this monumental romantic fervor enveloped me, I asked Emily to marry me via the Arabic airline captain. After a brief period of stunned silence in both airplanes, he came back and said excitedly, “Captain, yes. She says yes, she will marry you.” Emily still swears, many years later, that it was the Arabic airline captain and not she who said yes. Since she showed up at the church I can only assume it was an implied acceptance at least.
Don’t take this as a proper way to conduct airborne communications. All I wish to convey is that it happens. In some parts of the world, Southern Europe for example, 123.45 is an important ATC communications frequency. It would be a serious offense to use it as a chat frequency.
I understand that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) cannot regulate but only recommend, and to my knowledge, ICAO has not recommended an international frequency for airplane-to-airplane communications. Obviously though, many parts of the world have done so on their own.
Perhaps ICAO cannot recommend 123.45 as an international plane-to-plane frequency but maybe it could recommend that 123.45 not be used for ATC. That suggestion might at first appear self-serving but it would be much easier to advise individual countries than to attempt a world-wide enforcement on thousands of pilots who have been using this frequency for plane-to-plane contact for decades. If it were a real estate issue one could almost say that flight crews have squatter’s rights on 123.45.
The question of its legality aside, on a quiet night in a distant part of the world, when one hears a voice on the radio asking if such and such aircraft can come up “on the numbers," one can probably listen in on 123.45 just like people used to listen in on an old telephone party line. Like my Grandma used to say, “Maybe it ain’t right. It just is.”