by Rick Domingo, FAA Flight Standards Service Executive Director
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
— George Bernard Shaw
We all know the frustration of a failure to communicate. It’s tough for both sides. If you are the sender of a message, you know perfectly well what you want to convey and it’s obvious, so why on earth does the receiver look so confused? Being on the receiving end can be just as tough if, notwithstanding your best efforts to comprehend, the sender seems to be speaking some rare Klingon dialect.
Communication can be challenging even when you are — at least theoretically — speaking the same language to someone standing in front of you. The aviation environment adds the complexities of technical jargon, congested frequencies, and occasional static, to name just a few. Human ego is yet another complicating factor. Nobody wants to sound uninformed on the party-line radio frequency, so the temptation to pretend complete understanding can be powerful. Put it all together, and it’s easy to see how the operating environment for aviation is prime ground for the situation described in the George Bernard Shaw quote.
It’s also easy to see how dangerous that illusion can be. If you are engaged in a face-to-face conversation when both sender and receiver are on terra firma, misunderstandings can be annoying but rarely (if ever) life-threatening. Not so in aviation. Accident history is full of incidents in which the illusion of successful communication led to tragedy. It happens to aviation professionals and so, regardless of training and experience levels, it seems that no one is immune.
Because the stakes are so high, the May/June 2020 issue of FAA Safety Briefing offers a refresher on the basics needed for real (not illusory) communication. Scroll down to open each magazine article and read on. A few opening tips:
As with any technical specialty, aviation has its own idioms. There are also “dialects,” given that the words and concepts you hear in airworthiness — my own specialty area — are necessarily different from those used on the operations (pilot) side. For successful communication to occur, you need to become fluent in the language of your own aviation specialty or specialties. Aviation is not the place for linguistic freelancing, so you also need to use well-established and well-understood vocabulary. One of the best tools available to pilots for this purpose is the Pilot/Controller Glossary. It’s free and it’s readily available online, so use it!
It’s no accident that the language of aviation is precise and concise. The underlying rationale is to pack precision into specific words. These concepts existed long before the Twitter bluebird ushered in the era of the micro-blog. If you are into social media, just remember to think Twitter, not blog, when you transmit. It’s also important to listen before you transmit, to avoid “stepping on” a fellow aviator’s attempt to communicate. Listening is also a way to learn both the language and the “grammar” of aviation. You don’t need an aviation radio either — a wide range of apps will allow you to listen anytime, anywhere, to virtually any frequency.
Clarity is critical. Never, ever pretend that you understand a transmission, or make assumptions about what the sender “must have” been trying to say. If you don’t understand something, ask the sender to “say again.” There is no shame in seeking complete clarity in communications; your fellow aviators will be glad you did — and so will you.
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Editor’s note: Production schedule lead times required closing this issue before COVID-19 became a pandemic. We encourage readers to follow CDC guidelines to stay healthy during these challenging times. You can also check FAA.gov/coronavirus.