Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Now, to the mayonnaise...

Yesterday I talked about proper radio terminology and phraseology, and today I would like to talk about putting these theories into practice.

The AIM instructs on Radio Technique

a. Listen before you transmit. [...] Except for a few situations where some frequency overlap occurs, if you hear someone else talking, the keying of your transmitter will be futile and you will probably jam their receivers causing them to repeat their call. If you have just changed frequencies, pause, listen, and make sure the frequency is clear.

b. Think before keying your transmitter. Know what you want to say and if it is lengthy [...] jot it down.

c. The microphone should be very close to your lips and after pressing the mike button, a slight pause may be necessary to be sure the first word is transmitted. Speak in a normal, conversational tone.

"Speak in a normal, conversational tone." That means none of that lowering your voice to do the "Uh, CleveLAND Center. [Pause] This is ...uh, SUuuuPer Jet ONE eight Zeero, with you at uh... FLIGHT level four one OH." Hopefully you can imagine this swarthy, Clark Gable-esque transmission. Just as likely to cause some other crewmembers on frequency to cringe is a cutesy little squeak, "Um, hee-hee, Sunshine Jet Two Two One, at, hee, hee, three eight zero." Occasionally this can result in a controller of the opposite sex (hopefully the pilot was female in this scenario) to get all flustered and respond with his most "attractive" voice.

All that said, I'd rather hear these inflections then frustration and confusion on the radio which can result from non-standard phraseology. Earlier I posted about a time that a controller had asked me to acknowledge an acknowledgement by angrily transmitting, "readback correct, OVER!" Stunned, I ...uh... thanked him? There has been a lot of coverage in the news about making things easier for pilots, who do up to fourteen hour duty days with only ten hours of "rest" in between to close up/prepare the airplane, get to/from the hotel, grab something to eat, sleep, etc. Well, the job of an Air Traffic Controller, also known by many to be a stressful one is regulated as well, especially since "a hiring emergency in the United States has led to some locations having Air Traffic Controllers work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week (mandatory)." Working in a tower affords a controller some scenery to enjoy, but many work in buildings with no windows, staring at screens (the view at left shows much more detail than most photos that show near darkness).

According to The ILO commissioned a manual on Occupational stress and stress prevention in air traffic control by Professor Giovanni Costa (CONDI/T/WP.6/1995), Air traffic controllers are widely recognized as an occupational group which has to cope with a highly demanding job that involves a complex series of tasks, requiring high levels of knowledge and expertise, combined with high levels of responsibility, not only with regard to risking lives, but also the high economic costs of aeronautical activities. (Not too much different than the description for a pilot, no? -ed.)

Sources and consequences of stress in air traffic control

Surveys show that the main sources of stress reported by air traffic controllers are related both to the operative aspects of their job and to organizational structures. In the former case, the most important factors are peaks of traffic load, time pressure, resolving conflicts in the application of rules, and the limitations and reliability of equipment. The factors relating to organizational structure mainly concern shift schedules (and particularly night work), role conflicts, unfavourable working conditions and the lack of control over work.

Analysis has emphasized the complexity of the work of air traffic controllers. For example, the cognitive/sensory capacities required for high performance at radar workstations include spatial scanning, movement detection, image and pattern recognition, prioritizing, visual and verbal filtering, coding and decoding, inductive and deductive reasoning, short- and long-term memory, and mathematical and probabilistic reasoning. Air traffic controllers are also among the groups of workers who are most exposed to critical accidents which cause unusually strong emotional reactions, such as air accidents with loss of life or serious injury, near collisions or loss of control due to overload.

However, the consequences of these stressors on the performance of individual air traffic controllers may differ widely in relation to factors such as age, life style, work experience, personality traits, attitude, motivation and physical and mental health. Indeed, many studies on the consequences of stress on air traffic controllers have reported apparently contradictory findings. Nevertheless, a number of studies indicate that the demanding work of air traffic controllers may well be a risk factor in the long term in the development of stress-related symptoms, including headaches, chronic fatigue, heartburn, indigestion and chest pain, as well as such serious illnesses as hypertension, coronary heart disease, diabetes, peptic ulcers and psychoneurotic disorders.
They don't put that into the job description when seeking ATC School applicants! So, since there are stresses on both sides, extreme caution should be used so that, as I mentioned yesterday, "Radio communications are a critical link in the ATC system. The link can be a strong bond between pilot and controller or it can be broken with surprising speed and disastrous results."

Clear and concise transmissions are key for the ATC system to work as advertised. One of the methods that we use to ensure not just Pilot/Controller communication, but also comprehension, is the use of the words, confirm, verify or "say again" if a pilot or controller is unsure of a a transmission or directive given. For example, pilots can taxi on to the runway with either a "position and hold" clearance, or a "cleared for takeoff" clearance. In the middle of running checklists, looking for traffic, flipping switches, etc., one or both members of the flight crew can forget the actual clearance. Any pilot can, should, and better, confirm whether takeoff clearance has been issued if there is any question about what they were authorized to do. No pilot wants to hear, "Uh, you weren't cleared for takeoff" as they're pulling up the gear. Same with landing clearance. Pilots get violated if they land at an airport without clearance (or worse, swap paint with another aircraft).

So often, if a pilot asks her co-pilot, "Have we been cleared to land?" because only the other pilot remembers getting the clearance, cockpit procedure dictates that the controller is queried that aircraft does have clearance to land. Just in case. Unfortunately, a pilot requesting a confirmation occasionally gets an irritated response from the controller, I suppose because she remembers giving the clearance. Yes, the frequency is congested and having to repeat a clearance is annoying, but it is also critical to safety. On the other hand, there have been several times where I was told to go "direct to" a fix, and a few minutes later, told by the same controller to go direct to the same fix. Some pilots would say, "Yeah, you told us already." But I believe in professionalism (and not trying to make anyone look stupid), and so I will just read back the clearance as given. What neither pilot or controller group wants to do is make it so someone is hesitant to confirm a clearance for fear they will be chastised on the radio. However, the results of not getting confirmation to the pilot could be fatal.

So in researching the entry for yesterday's post, which led from the extraneous modifier "with you" being used when checking into a new frequency, I searched for "pilot phraseology avoided" regarding the "with you" comment and found this article: Proper Radio Phraseology and Technique A Review and Tutorial It is a very interesting insight into the perspective of an Air Traffic Controller and is worth the read, if you can get past the supercilious tone. (Perhaps the author used the tone of a parent talking to an errant four year old to to reinforce his instruction so that no one could forget who's in charge here!) For example:

Here, in no particular order, is our list of the dumbest things we hear on the radio.
“With you at 8,000 feet.” It sounds so special to be “with” someone but it conveys no useful information. If you use it, stop.
“Roger, standing by.” In street talk, stand by means “shut up, I’ll get back to you in a minute.”
“Cherokee nine six alpha taking the active” Taking it where? And is “active” stenciled on the runway somewhere? Wouldn’t it be better to specify the runway – “departing runway two six” – and be done with it in one call? Ditto “clear of the active.”
“We’ll do the best we can.” [...] Trouble is, if your best isn’t good enough, smoking metal will be the payoff. Either you can or you can’t. It’s “unable” or “wilco.”
“Whatever works best for you.” Helpful pilots sometimes get the impression that their purpose in life is to fly around and give controllers something to do. Remember, ATC is a service and pilots are the customers. [I'm not sure what he means with this statement - ed.]
“Climb and maintain 8,000” in a readback. If you’re on the ground, how else are you going to get to 8,000 except climb? Lose the verbiage.
I have heard all of these examples above, so I am not denying they don't happen.

A pilot in command should be familiar with all aspects of her flight. According to the federal regulations: "Each pilot in command shall, before beginning a flight, become familiar with all available information concerning that flight." There are so many factors, like the ones we've been talking about, Pilot/Controller communication, that are contributing factors to pilots and their passengers arriving alive. I am very interested in the field of ATC, and have even visited a few facilities. You can too, as in the AIM: Pilots are encouraged to visit air traffic facilities (Towers, Centers and FSSs) and familiarize themselves with the ATC system. This helps to have an understanding of the person on the other end of that radio frequency. This goes both ways, since it was during a visit to Cleveland Center that a controller told me when a pilot hears, "I was offline; last aircraft say again," the controller was most likely screwing around at the time. (Caveat: Of course, this is not always true!) I have also been given a heading directly into the dark black maw of a thunderstorm, but had ATC not authorize me NOT to fly into it. Ok, if you can't let me fly left around it, let me fly to the right. Just don't expect me to fly into it because it's inconvenient. Teamwork...

So are we ever going to get to the mayonnaise?

“Hold the Mayonnaise!” says this author referenced above and continues with his advice to pilots to avoid the "pet peeves" of controllers.

One of the keys to effective radio communications is eliminating all unnecessary words from your transmissions. This can be accomplished simply by thinking for just a moment about what you want to say before you key the mike.
Let’s consider a transmission. Then let’s replace all the unnecessary words with the word “mayonnaise.” Then we’ll hold the mayonnaise and see how much it cleans up the call.
“And, SoCal Approach, this is, uh, Cessna eight zero one three eight with you.”
If we replace the unnecessary words with the word “mayonnaise” we get:
“Mayonnaise, SoCal Approach, mayonnaise, mayonnaise, Cessna eight zero one three eight mayonnaise.”
All the pilot really needed to say was:
“SoCal Approach, Cessna eight zero one three eight.”
His point is: "Listen to the way controllers talk; their language is highly standardized because they receive years of specialized training. Most pilots only know what their instructors taught them, and many instructors have never seriously studied this part of the AIM. Many pilots mimic the bad habits that they overhear, and this tends to perpetuate certain common mistakes." Like I said, this article if very condescending towards pilots and disregards the years of specialized training that pilots undertake, as well as neglecting the fact that pilots are also completing their own multitude of duties up there in the cockpit. Or, more importantly, it is a relatively new pilot learning the system, and positive reinforcement from a controller is more beneficial than a very public smackdown. If a controller makes a mistake, it potentially results in a loss of life. If a pilot does so, it has the same result with the additional consideration that the loss of life could be their own!

This pdf is 31 pages long and uses quizzes and other behavior modification techniques to cover things pilots can do to "successfully [prejudice] ATC in his favor." Later on he says, "Think about it: if you were a busy air traffic controller, whom would you like better (my italics) – the pilot who made the top transmission or the pilot who made the bottom transmission?"

TWEEEET!! [Whistle blows] "Now both sides go to your corners and come out when you are willing to act like professionals!"

In summary, the AIM says,

The single, most important thought in pilot-controller communications is understanding. [...] Brevity is important, and contacts should be kept as brief as possible, but controllers must know what you want to do before they can properly carry out their control duties. And you, the pilot, must know exactly what the controller wants you to do. Since concise phraseology may not always be adequate, use whatever words are necessary to get your message across.

Am I advocating the use of non-standard phraseology? Absolutely not. Here is a link to numerous studies and articles on the hazards of its use from the Flight Safety Foundation. But if you need to use a little mayonnaise, do it sparingly - don't slather it on. It's not good for you; cholesterol and all that. My point to this post is that all of us in the high speed, high stress world of aviation benefit from practicing professional, calm, and rational behavior. Accepting that others (pilots and controllers) make mistakes can decrease the time spent chastising someone for an incorrect transmission (just try to operate in the NY area and get a clearance wrong!), and it may also encourage confirmation rather than assumption ("well, I think we're cleared to land").

If you've gotten to this point, I thank you for the investment in your time. There is just always SO much to talk about! Later I would like to continue the talk of ATC and its current and future state. I encourage feedback from the controllers out there!

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