What Was and Wasn’t Said — Miscommunication and Mayhem

By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091

This story first appeared in the February 2020 issue of EAA Sport Aviation.

Communication plays a vital role in aviation safety, so it’s no
surprise that we focus on communication throughout our aviation careers and
training. We learn the proper phraseology and terminology to communicate
effectively and efficiently with air traffic control and other aircraft. After
a while, communication becomes second nature as we anticipate radio calls,
clearances, and other instructions. However, even with the standard phraseology
and terminology, we can easily find ourselves in a situation where poor
communication paints us into an ugly corner.

We’ve all experienced situations where pilots misreport their
position. A pilot reports 5 miles east of the field when they were really 5
miles west (heading east). We scan the sky in an effort to see the conflicting
traffic, only to have them pop out the blue in an entirely unexpected location.
Other forms of confusion cause pilots to report erroneously, creating confusion
in the pattern. Sometimes the miscommunication is just an annoyance, but all
too often it creates a serious hazard.

A few years ago, I was flying in a Piper Archer back to my home
airport with another pilot on board. Conditions were IFR with a 600-foot
ceiling and good visibility below. ATC provided vectors for the localizer
approach, and everything was looking fine as we intercepted the final approach
course for the LOC 07 approach. With the needles centered and prelanding check
complete, it seemed like everything was fine. That’s when ATC asked me to
“report established” on the approach. I thought that was strange but also knew
that radar coverage was sketchy at lower altitudes, so I wasn’t too concerned.
Maybe we had disappeared from the controller’s radar screen, and this was
simply an attempt to check in on us. I reported that we were established. In
short order, ATC called again to see if I was established, and again I replied
with the affirmative. I figured it was either a new controller or my earlier
transmission had been stepped on.

Two minutes later, we broke out of the overcast and, to my
amazement, we were easily a quarter-mile north of the final approach course. A
glance at the localizer needle showed we were dead on course — with no flags to
indicate the instrument wasn’t operating correctly. Fortunately, there were no
obstacles close by, and I easily maneuvered to the runway for a safe landing.
That’s when it struck me why the controller was asking if I was established.
Obviously, my navigation receiver was having issues and I had been off course,
but the poor communication could have ended up in a fatal situation. The
controller could have told me something like, “I show you north of course,” and
I, just as clearly, could have asked what was up when I received the odd
request. But I had made some assumptions that normalized in my mind the
miscommunication that was occurring.

It isn’t just miscommunication with ATC that can foul us up.
Several years ago, I was instructing a pilot in a light twin when
miscommunication put us in a dicey situation. The aircraft was known for easily
accumulating carb ice. This particular day was prime for such conditions. After
completing a series of training maneuvers involving simulated engine failures,
I was looking out my side window and saw that the right engine was slowing to a
stop. Noting that one of the engines was about to quit, I told the pilot,
“Looks like we’re losing one.” At the same time, he was peeking out the side of
his Foggles and saw that the left engine (referred to as “number one”) was
coming to a stop and agreed with my assessment. Of course, we were each referring
to different engines, and were both surprised to find ourselves flying in a
twin-engine glider a moment later. Fortunately, we had plenty of altitude to
perform a restart, but it was disconcerting for a minute as we eyeballed an
off-airport landing area and performed the restart procedure.

Had I been more precise with my communication, we might have
resolved the problem before losing both engines. I should have said we were
“losing the right engine” rather than “losing one” (which, strictly speaking, implied
losing the left engine), at which time the pilot would have realized the even
greater significance of seeing the left engine winding down to a stop.

Instructors sometimes withhold communication from students
intentionally to provide a more vivid learning experience. Most of the time,
this works pretty well, but we should never underestimate the power of
distraction. One time we were practicing instrument procedures and the student
had missed an item on the checklist — switching the fuel selector to the
fullest tank. I wanted to see if the student would correct the mistake and made
a mental note to recheck the selector position before crossing the final
approach fix. Before that happened, business started picking up for ATC, which
meant I was busy looking for other traffic and listening for calls while
checking on the student’s progress preparing for the upcoming approach.
Distracted by the traffic and communications, I completely missed the recheck
of the fuel selector.

We were well inside the final approach fix when the engine
suddenly sputtered and coughed. The student, immediately aware of the mistake,
cursed and muttered under her breath as she reset the fuel selector. Sometimes
it can take up to 30 seconds for a restart, which isn’t that long. You can hold
your breath for 30 seconds. But 30 seconds can seem like an eternity at low
altitude. The engine surged as the fuel reached the cylinders, and we climbed
out on a missed approach.

Another mistake we make is anticipating an instruction or
clearance that we commonly receive, such as taxi instructions or a clearance
for a commonly flown route of flight. We become so accustomed to the routine
that we only half listen and don’t really hear. That’s when our flight can go
off the rails.

One way we avoid communication problems is to read back or repeat
what we thought we heard to ensure the proper message was received. While that
generally works well for things like clearances and ATC instructions, it won’t
cure all our communication ills. Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw once
said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has
taken place.” In aviation, it just might be the most dangerous problem in
communication. Even when we hear someone, or they hear us, there is no guarantee
that the intended message was sent or received. However, if we focus on what we
say and what we hear, read back clearances, and do what we can to be explicit,
we have a much better chance of avoiding the mayhem than can come with

Robert N. Rossier, EAA
472091, has been flying for more than 30 years and has worked as a flight
instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman. For
more from Robert, read his Stick and Rudder column every month in EAA Sport Aviation.

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