Posted by: johnocunningham | May 26, 2013

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

With millions of Americans traveling over the Memorial Day weekend, which kicks off the start of the summer travel season, I thought it would be fun to do a posting inspired by the often-repeated saga of failures to communicate between pilots and ground crews, who are responsible for maintaining aircraft.

If you are a fan of classic movies, you might recall the title of this post as a well-known line from the film, “Cool Hand Luke,” where Paul Newman plays the part of a prisoner who is repeatedly punished for failing to understand how the prison system operates and for not living within its Draconian rules. But this line could just as well apply to the way in which pilots and airplane mechanics communicate with each other through notes exchanged before and after flights and inspections.

Some of these stories may be somewhat apocryphal, but they serve to illustrate just how important it is to choose the right words with care and forethought to insure that different parts of one team understand each other well enough to achieve their common goal – in this case the safety of an airplane.

Here are just some of the excerpts of written communications via exchanges of notes in the cockpit between pilots (“P”) and mechanics (“M”) at one air transport company:

P: Something loose in cockpit.  M: Something tightened in cockpit.

P: Aircraft handles funny. M: Aircraft programmed to straighten up and fly right.

P: Number 3 engine missing. M: Number 3 engine found on right wing after visual search.

P: Left inside tire almost needs replacement. M: Left inside tire almost replaced.

In each instance illustrated above, the pilot was no doubt in a hurry, did not take the time to explain fully what he or she was experiencing in flight, and so left the mechanic to guess as to the pilot’s meaning. The flip responses provide in-kind demonstration of what the mechanics heard.

So if you want your team-mate to understand what it is you are trying to correct – with his/her assistance – take that little bit of extra care and time to choose the right words in an e-mail or note to let them know exactly what kind of assistance you need.

In the case of the mechanics, perhaps they would like to know what kind of sound the “loose” component in the cockpit made, where the sound was coming from, how loud it was and whether the sound occurred in response to certain switches or was constantly there. Or maybe they would like to know just how the airplane handled “funny,” whether that be because it shivered on banking, was slow to respond to throttle or stick, or was inconsistent in response to other controls. I am also assuming that when the pilot stated that “an engine was missing” he/she did not mean that literally, but what was the mechanic to think? Was an engine light just out on the dashboard, or was the engine not responsive to the throttle or autopilot controls?

Well, you get the idea. Everything moves smoother, safer and faster when we all take the time to communicate with the other person’s needs in mind !

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