U.S. Department
of Transportation

Federal Aviation

St. Louis
Flight Standards District Office

10801 Pear Tree Lane
Suite 200
St. Ann, Missouri 63074


June 2001 




Thought for the month.....
All communication between human beings has the potential for
misunderstanding no matter how simple the communication is.

HIGH PHRASEOLOGY.... If it occurs to you the next time you are speaking with someone, try to determine how much of the message you are receiving from the words the person is using, and how much of it is being transmitted through other means. We pick up a considerable amount of information from body language, facial expressions, as well as the tone and volume of the verbal conversation. My youngest daughter has what we call "the look". She can let us know what's on her mind without saying a single word.

Now think about how we communicate in aviation. No visual contact, no body language cues, no ability to see a raised eyebrow to give us a hint about the seriousness of a situation, only words transmitted through a radio that is subject to squelch, static, and blockage. Add to that the fact that the information we need to pass is unique, using terms and meanings not present in normal day to day communication and we have a set-up for potential serious problems.

Even if we hear the words clearly there is no guarantee that we will understand what we have heard. I recently listened to a speaker talk about some interesting things that happened to her while learning to fly. She was not born in the U.S. so American English is a second language for her. However, she is fluent in it along with three other languages and is a linguist who has taught in foreign countries preparing people to come to live and work in America. She is a communications expert, but the language of aviation even tricked her.

She was proudly taking a long cross-country flight which brought her to a busy airport in Class B airspace. Everything went well until she contacted the tower and the controller attempted to sequence her for landing. He wanted her to enter behind the commuter on final so he told her to, "follow the Jetstream". The instructions made no sense to her. She knew that the jetstream exists at high altitudes and could see no connection between it and her landing at this airport. Fortunately, she had her husband along who was an experienced pilot and he pointed out the aircraft on final and told her it was called a Jetstream.

In this case, it turned out to be a humorous story that many of us can relate to. But, what if there had been two aircraft on final and the Jetstream was the second one? Air carrier pilots flying in and out everyday would immediately know the difference between an ATR and a Jetstream, but what about a pilot unfamiliar with the airport? Would they assume the first aircraft they see on final is a Jetstream and try to enter behind it? Would they be too intimidated to ask if they weren't sure?

The NASA Aviation Safety Reporting Program monitors reports of air safety infringement incidents. Their records indicate that three out of four reports involve some form of flawed pilot/controller communications. Many happen when individuals are operating in high stress environments such as hard IFR conditions or night flying. Since a lot of what we talk about on the radio involves numerical data - frequency changes, headings, altitudes, airspeeds, and aircraft numbers - there are numerous opportunities for errors. Transposing or mistaking a few digits has the potential for disaster.

Poor radio technique is like bad breath; even our best friends won't tell us we have it. Air traffic controllers get their radio technique evaluated from time to time, but pilots almost never do. Until we hear a recording of our transmissions, we may not be aware of how casual, uncertain, or undisciplined we sound. Pilots who are fortunate to participate in Line Oriented Flight Training (LOFT) in simulators, get to experience first hand how they sound on the radio. Many experienced airmen have come away humbled by the their own words.

Talking on a radio is not a skill we are born with. We all have to learn it from scratch, and if ever there was a task where primacy is a factor, it's in our ability to use a radio. If it is taught correctly from the beginning, and demanded throughout our formative flight training, it will become second nature and we'll use it the rest or our lives. We can also relearn it properly, but this takes a bit more effort. It's always tougher to unlearn something than it is to learn it properly the first time.

Buying a receiver and listening to radio transmissions is a good way to get a feel for how the system works locally, but not necessarily the best way to learn. It would be very similar to setting-up a microphone in a little village in southern Germany and learning to speak the language by listening to what we hear. We'd learn the local dialect, but we would have trouble communicating in other parts of the country. "High German" is what is taught in school and everyone understands it even where the dialects are different. We need to learn and use "High Phraseology" as presented in our English to Radio dictionary - the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM).

Upcoming Events

June 7th
Required DPE training
St. Louis FSDO
8AM to 3PM

August 23rd
91/135 Operator Safety Seminar
St. Louis FSDO
8AM to 3PM

September 13th
AOPA Air Safety Foundation
Fuel Awareness
Florissant Valley College
Multi-purpose Room

September 15th
St. Louis Soaring Association
Open House and Safety Day
Highland Airport
Highland IL

Operations Safety Program Manager
1-800-322-8876 extension 4835