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You can find anecdotal mention of this phrase among pilots you may talk to as well as postings on various forums. The idea conveyed is that telling a controller to "mark the tape" means they will make take some action to note the current time for the audio recording of his seat, which can then be referred back to by someone. As many anecdotes you can find about this, you'll find just as many saying this phrase is essentially an old wives tale, and means absolutely nothing.

Given a situation with a controller that I'd like to bring to the attention of his superiors, or perhaps just with him over the phone, does using the phrase "mark the tape" do anything? If it does nothing, what is the proper procedure I should use to review something with a controller or their supervisor (e.g. noting time and frequency, asking for a phone number)?

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I don't know the answer, but if it does mean something I do know it's not necessary. If you know the time of the event that's all a manager needs to pull the tape. I have done this (when I wanted a clarification of a minor point that came up while I was flying). It took the manager about half an hour to find and listen to the tape and call me back. –  dvnrrs Apr 4 at 17:13
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@dvnrrs I feel the same way, this Q is partially asked to debunk that phrase and the need to use it. –  casey Apr 4 at 17:14

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

These days, with digital recording, it's likely that nothing special happens.

"Mark the tape" is a holdover from when ATC recordings were actually on tapes - you could ask a controller to "mark" a tape to hold it and prevent it being recycled for another recording while your request for a copy of the tape is being processed. (Anecdotally I've been told some facilities had tape rotations as short as 15 days, and a FOIA request letter could easily take longer than that to make it to the facility).

Today much (probably most) of what is said on the frequency is recorded digitally, direct to hard drives, and kept around "essentially forever" as one of our local controllers put it when this came up at a recent event. Basically the virtual "tapes" stick around for as long as the facility's recording machine has disk space to store them, and since audio files aren't that big facilities can store recordings a lot longer than they did in the days of tape.


All that's really needed to pull a record to review it with a controller/supervisor is the date, time, facility, and frequency (and your aircraft callsign would probably be helpful too) - e.g. "April 4, 2014 - JFK Local Control for Runway 04R (119.1) - United 123 Heavy".

"Mark the tape and give me a phone number" survives as non-standard phraseology that lets the controller know that you will likely have a bone to pick with someone when you get on the ground and gives them the opportunity to tell their supervisor that an annoyed pilot will be calling the facility in the near future (and hopefully give the supervisor time to listen to the tape).
The useful part is really getting the facility phone number so you know who to call when you land.

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As recently as 2009, when I last worked at ZME, they actually still recorded audio on high density magnetic tape. These tapes were kept in a secure vault that requires two persons to open, and this is only done under the rarest of occasions. The physical tape is not marked, as you said, but the tape is held. –  David Wilkins Jun 25 at 17:58

"Mark the tape" is a hold-over term from way back when the recorders were reel-to-reel tapes. In order to mark the tapes, the controller would place a flight strip in the reel at the time of the occurence. As previously stated, with almost everything being digital, it's unnecessary.

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