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Communication Breakdown - My Two Cents June 2015 Issue

Posted 7 years 325 days ago ago by Admin


The problem with communication is the perception that it’s been achieved.

—George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright


Boy, was ol’ George right. Communication is central to effective crew resource management. An ambiguous message, whether written or spoken, can lead to fatal consequences. With that thought in mind, one would think airline executives, when drafting memos to flight crews, would take great pains to avoid ambiguity at all cost. Apparently, they don’t. Consider the following 1996 memo distributed to pilots at British Airways in an effort to clarify new pilot role titles:

It appears some confusion exists over the new pilot role titles. This notice will hopefully clear up any misunderstandings.

The titles Pilot-in-command, Commander, First Officer, Pilot Flying, Pilot-not-flying, P1, P2 and Co-Pilot will now cease to have any meaning within the BA operations manuals. They are to be replaced by Handling Pilot, Non-Handling Pilot, Handling Landing Pilot, Non-Handling Landing Pilot, Handling Non-Landing Pilot, and Non-Handling Non-Landing Pilot.

The Landing Pilot is initially the Handling Pilot and will handle the take-off and landing, except in role reversal when he is the Non-Handling Pilot for taxi, until the Handling Non-Landing Pilot hands the Handling to the Landing Pilot at eighty knots.

The Non-Landing (Non-Handling, since the Landing Pilot is handling) Pilot reads the checklist to the Handling Pilot until after the Before Descent Checklist completion, when the Handling Landing Pilot hands the handling to the Non-Handling Non-Landing Pilot who then becomes the Handling Non-Landing Pilot.

The Landing Pilot is the Non-Handling Pilot until the "decision altitude" call, when the Handling Non-Landing Pilot hands the handling to the Non-Handling Landing Pilot, unless the latter calls "go-around", in which case the Handling Non-Landing Pilot, continues handling and the Non-Handling Landing Pilot continues non-handling until the next call of "land" or "go-around", as appropriate.

In view of the recent confusion over these rules, it was deemed necessary to restate them clearly.

In February 2003, the FAA added more confusion to the mix by issuing Advisory Circular 120-71A entitled “STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES FOR FLIGHT DECK CREWMEMBERS.” AC 120-71A was well crafted … to be totally confusing. Here’s an excerpt:

AC 120-71A revises and supersedes the earlier version, AC 120-71 (because) many minor changes have been made to improve clarity, accuracy, completeness, and consistency. Two significant changes are the conversion of the term pilot not flying (PNF) to pilot monitoring (PM) and the addition of a related Appendix addressing “Crew Monitoring and Cross-Checking.” It is increasingly acknowledged that it makes better sense to characterize pilots by what they are doing rather than by what they are not doing. Hence, pilot flying (PF) remains an appropriate term and is unchanged in this advisory circular. But the term pilot not flying misses the point. Studies of crew performance, accident data, and pilots’ own experiences all point to the vital role of the non-flying pilot as a monitor. Hence, the term pilot monitoring (PM) is now widely viewed as a better term to describe that pilot. The term PM is used liberally throughout this AC. In those instances where the older term PNF appears, it should be understood that pilot monitoring (PM) is the preferred meaning.

 In the 30-years I flew overseas in a two-crew helicopter cockpit, the terms “pilot” and “copilot” worked very well, both for me and for those whom I flew with, as VMC and IMC. I never had a question as to what my role was. I do understand the concept of pilot flying (PF) and pilot not flying (PNF). The thing is, whenever I haven’t been at the controls, you can bet I’ve been the pilot monitoring (PM) … without being told to do so. I kind of like to watch the other pilot closely to ensure he isn’t going to kill us.

From my point of view, those in aviation who issue directives and instructions should be poster children for unambiguous communication. Otherwise, lives can be put in harm’s way. With that thought in mind, consider the following instruction taken from an aircraft electronics manual:

The internal guidance system uses deviations to generate corrective commands to fly the aircraft from a position where it is, to a position where it isn’t. In the event that the position where it is now is not the same position where it originally wasn’t, the system will acquire a variation. Variations will not be discussed here as they are beyond the scope of this simple explanation.


Technology can reverse the roles, however. For example, when Abu Dhabi Aviation took delivery of a fleet of AB-139s, the most difficult part of the pilot transition was trying to figure out how to program the flight management system (FMS). Pilots didn’t trust it. Correctly configuring the FMS became the most difficult part of the transition. Pilots new to the aircraft acting as captain (PF) were worried the copilot (PNF/PM) would program the FMS incorrectly, so the captain (PF) felt he had to double-check the copilot’s inputs, thus taking on two roles: PM and PF. This “dual personality” was very schizophrenic and dangerous, because it meant both pilots had their heads down looking at the FMS … with no one looking out the window! This problem was acknowledged by pilots transitioning into the AB-139, until they became familiar with the FMS and began to trust the (PM/PNF) to enter the correct information into the flight computer, which meant that at least someone was looking out for air traffic.

Here’s a friendly message to the FAA: QUIT TRYING TO CLEAR THINGS UP! Everyone’s happy with the terms “pilot” and “copilot,” and understands the responsibilities of each. Anything else becomes confusing to the rest of us Handling Pilots, Non-Handling Pilots, Handling Landing Pilots, Non-Handling Landing Pilots, Handling Non-Landing Pilots, and Non-Handling Non-Landing Pilots, PICs, SICs, First Officers, Captains, Pilots Flying, Pilots-Not-Flying, Pilots Monitoring, P1s, P2s, and Copilots.

If you’re flying single pilot, it’s easy—you’re all of the above.

Safe Flying (whatever your title)!