Why Is A Cactus Pushing From The Gate? : Airport Radio Jargon

Web: www.thetravelstrategist.com — E-Mail: fish@flyingwithfish.com

30/12/2008 – Why Is A Cactus Pushing From The Gate? : Airport Radio Jargon

Late last week I received an e-mail from a reader of Flying With Fish trying to understand what they were listening to on United Airlines‘ Channel 9.   Passengers who fly United Airlines can listen to the in-flight entertainment from gate-to-gate, and one of these options is “From The Flight Deck” on Channel 9.   Channel 9 is the live radio conversations the flight deck crew is having with the tower, and anyone else on the radio.

I personally enjoy listening to Channel 9 when I fly United, but then again I am known to sit in front of my laptop and listen to live ‘tower’ feeds from certain airports.   It is nice to know others enjoy United’s Channel 9 as well.

…anyway, the question I was asked reader John Butscher, a photo enthusiast who was on his way home from San Francisco, was — “Can you explain what it means when the radio chatter includes a cactus pushing into an alley and a redwood is holding short of bravo?  Why would a plane be identified as heavy, aren’t all airliners heavy?”

What John was listening to as he ‘pushed’ from the gates at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) was the radio calls signs, which are nicknames, for two airlines; a plane moving into the space between the gates; a plane being stopped on the taxi way and a wide-body jet.

Let me break this down a bit

“Cactus” is the radio call sign for US Airways flights.   Cactus was formerly the call sign for America West, however when America West and US Airways merged, the unique radio call sign of “Cactus” was retained for both airlines

“Redwood” is the radio call sign for Virgin America.

The “Alley” is the space between terminal piers at airports. You find alleys less and less with modern airports, because alleyways are not very efficient. An aircraft stopped in an alley can interrupt the flow of traffic for all aircraft seeking to enter or exit the alley.

“Holding short of Bravo” is simply an aircraft being told to stay on the taxiway they are moving along, but stop before an intersection.   Taxiways at airports are named for the ‘alpha-tag’ of the letter they represents, such as Alpha = A, Bravo = B, Charlie = C, Delta = D, Echo = E, Foxtrot = F , etc etc, etc.

“Heavy” is a common term at some airports, such as SFO, and a term you’ll never hear at other airports.  A “Heavy” is ‘usually’ any wide-body jet such as a Boeing 767/777/747, Airbus A310/330/340/380 or McDonnell DC-10/MD-10/MD-11.   The only narrow body jet you’re likely to hear identified as a “heavy” is the Boeing 757-300 (the very common 757-200 is generally not identified as a “heavy.”)

…so what was the conversation John was hearing in plain English?

A US Airways aircraft was being pushed back from the jetway into the shared-space between the terminal piers at Terminal 1. Somewhere else at the airport a Virgin America flight was taxing and asked to stop before it reached the intersection at taxiway Bravo, and somewhere else a wide-body jet was being spoken to by the tower.

The following area few of my favourite, somewhat odd, airline radio call signs
Aer Lingus (Irish national carrier) – Shamrock
Air One (Italian airline, soon to be merged with Alitalia) – Heron
American Eagle (American Airlines regional carrier) – Eagle Flight

AirTran – Citrus
Atlas Air (global cargo carrier)- Giant
BMI (UK based international airline) – Midland
BMI Baby (BMI’s low cost carrier) – Baby
British Airways (UK national flag carrier) – Speedbird

China Airlines – Dynasty
Freedom Airlines (US regional carrier you may fly without knowing it) – Liberty
Kalitta Air (US based international cargo carrier) –  Connie
Mesa Airlines (US regional carrier you may fly without knowing it) – Air Shuttle
Midwest Airlines (US airline based in the Midwest)- Midex
Middle East Airlines/MEA (Lebanon based airline) – Cedar Jet

TNT Airways (Belgian cargo carrier) – Quality
Trans States Airlines (US regional carrier you may fly without knowing it) – Waterski
V Australia (Virgin Blue‘s international airline)- VeeOz

I hope that explains why a cactus was pushing from a gate…

Happy Flying!


  1. Thanks for the info. I also enjoy Channel 9. The chatter is actually kind of relaxing once you get into the tempo of it. It helps me sleep, which probably means I should never, ever become an air traffic controller. 🙂

  2. Bill,

    Like you, I also find listening to Channel 9 on United flights relaxing. The only time it was not relaxing was on an evening departure from Dulles (IAD) when I heard a lot of very loud rapid talking and the Captain cut of Channel 9 for 15 minutes after the tower announced that all aircraft movements needed to stop immediately.

    Turned out an aircraft was lined up to land at IAD and they could not verify that their landing gear was down. Once the aircraft did a fly-by and the landing gear could be verified, Channel 9 was flipped back on. The Captain did explain why he shut off Channel 9 and why everyone on the right side of the plane got a great view of lots of crash-rescue trucks racing to the edge of the runway.

    …and please don’t become an air traffic controller.

    Happy Flying!


  3. I just came here after I heard the numerous references to cactus 1549 as the cockpit recordings were just released today and was wondering what on earth cactus meant. Thanks for this posting, I learned a lot. I too am a fan of Channel 9 – always interesting when landing at DCA – so much air traffic and the restrictions related to the Potomac corridor to boot…as a frequent Aeroflot traveler I looked up Aeroflot’s moniker – which is unfortunately just aeroflot…why not vodka? or redstar? :^)

  4. Thanks for the info on the explanation of cactus. Where did America west got cactus from? was this a previous airline call sign, or is it because the headquarters of america west was based in phoenix arizona.


  5. John,

    America West adopted the call-sign of ‘Cactus’ party due to its home location in Arizona, but primarily due to the potential radio confusion between “American Airlines” and “America West Airlines.” Once US Airways and America West Airlines merged, and began to fly on a single operating certificate, the airline adopted the official name of “US Airways” but retained the legacy call sign of “Cactus.”

    Most airline call signs are an easy two syllable word, or two single syllable words. This usage of a call sign cuts down on confusion of distinguishing individual airlines, and also creates clearly understood names, which can easily be pronounced when when flying to foreign countries which do not use the ‘international language of the air’ (English) as their primary language.

    …also for further fun trivia, British Airways used the call sign of “Speedbird” long before it began flying the Concorde. The call sign Speedbird comes from the old logo used by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) which was the predecessor to British Airways.

    Happy Flying!

  6. Ben,

    Yup, Aeroflot’s call sign is simply ‘Aeroflot.”

    You can however have fun with China Airline’s call sign of ‘Dynasty’ as a reference to China’s long long long long history. Of course the call sign of ‘Dynasty’ has political ramifications, as China Airlines is based in Taiwan/Republic of China (ROC), and Taiwan has a long on going dispute with the The Peoples Republic of China (PRC).

    I’ll skip the history and politics of this call sign, I just think is a very fitting call sign for the airline’s name.

    Happy Flying!


  7. do you know which, i believe cargo airline is call sign redwood into and out of jfk

  8. thank you thats been driving me crazy,im must be losing it thats the first one in a long time i couldnt figure out over the scanner should have gotten my butt over to jfk… i knew it had something to do with ca but couldnt get it together didnt know they flew to jfk they havent spent much onadvretising

  9. oh one more for your list i believe you left ouy citrus for air tran,and remember the best of all clipper

  10. hey i have another one for you lately ive been hearing aa and ual flights with call signs aa121a or ual131c any idea what that stands for

  11. Pretty sure “heady” is common terminology for jumbos. I’ve been monitoring Baltimore-Washington and have heard it quite often.

  12. Living just E. of Eagle Airport, CO (serves Vail, Avon, etc.) and NE of Aspen, I too often hear Cactus and Redwood. Now I know. Two difficult approach airports. Amazing the care and direction Denver Center gives pilots especially in bad weather.

  13. ‘Heavy’ refers to aircraft having a gross takeoff weight of 300,000+ lbs. it notates slower, heavier aircraft at takeoff/landing for wake turbulence avoidance for arriving and departing aircraft operating in proximity to the ‘heavy’. Big heavy haul aircraft operate mostly at international airports so that’s why you won’t hear smaller aircraft using the notation at smaller airports.

  14. I’m delighted to know I’m not the only one who listens in. As I work at my desk, I listen in on a frequency used for Washington’s air traffic control of aircraft at high altitudes, heading to or from far away places. Cactus and Citrus are often in the mix, as is an odd word “foobar”
    What does foobar mean? It can’t possibly mean what the military term FUBAR would suggest.

  15. Just a small correction, The Airbus A380 (three-eighty) is not “Heavy”. It’s “Super” (even Heavier!)

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