A long time ago it was decided by people much smarter than I am that only one language should be the language of aviation. That language was to be English, regardless of a pilot’s nation of origin.
Those same people decided that a specific lexicon should be created within English to reduce any confusion spawned by regional accents. So along came the aviation alphabet and quirky customs, like pronouncing 5 and 9 as “fife” and “niner.” The hope was that by adopting one official language and creating a lexicon of aviation-specific terminology, miscommunication would be greatly reduced.
The thing about language and lexicons is that they’re like tools of the trade. And all tools of the trade are only as good as the operator handling them.
One ground controller got sloppy with his phraseology and turned a simple case of miscommunication into an on-frequency brouhaha. That forced one pilot to file a report with the Aviation Safety Reporting System, often called a NASA report.
“I was holding short of Runway 12R at KCPS trying to receive an IFR ATC clearance to KPOF. Received a clearance in the usual format with a void time. At the end of the clearance, the controller said to ‘follow the standard departure procedure.’”
The pilot interpreted “follow the standard departure procedure” to mean that he was being assigned a Standard Instrument Departure and asked which SID of the seven listed for KCPS he should use.
The pilot further attempted to help by offering the names of the seven SID options. Instead of helping, it only inflamed the emotions of the controller. He accused the pilot of not having appropriate charts for the airport. Doing so on an open frequency is serious. The controller essentially accused the pilot of violating CFR 91.103, Pre-Flight Action, and also possibly CFR 91.169, IFR Flight Plan, Information Required.
Fortunately, the controller’s supervisor came on the frequency and clarified matters quickly. He pointed out that the procedure being requested was an Obstacle Departure Procedure, not a Standard Instrument Departure.
We’re all taught to aviate, navigate, then communicate. That’s appropriate in the air, but I would argue on the ground, the opposite holds true. Proper communication sets up correct navigation, which leads to good aviation.
This pilot correctly applied his 91.3 PIC authority by refusing to depart before fully understanding his clearance. Misinterpretation could have led to a violation, or worse.
Sometimes the problem arises from mistaking a common, local practice for an established, standard procedure. Trouble arose when a flight crew unfamiliar with common practice at Honolulu International Airport chose, correctly, to apply Standard Instrument Departure procedure to the Molokai Four (MKK4) Departure off Runway 8R as assigned by ATC.
“The Standard Instrument Departure routing text reads: “Turn right/left to heading assigned by Tower…. Must complete right turn to assigned heading within 2 nm of departure end of runway.” On this SID, the reference navaid is the HNL VOR at 3.6 nm according to that VOR’s distance measuring equipment (DME).
Their issued Pre-Departure Clearance also showed filed departure and routing, plus “cleared to destination airport right heading 140, comply with SID altitude restrictions.”
“We departed straight out and started a right turn at 2.5 miles.” ATC then put the crew through an S-turn, highly unusual for an IFR departure. The flight crew became confused. They had flown the MKK4 SID consistent with written instructions. What they hadn’t done was fly it consistent with local practice.
“I rarely fly out of HNL,” continued the pilot. “I believe both the SID and the PDC should clearly state, ‘immediate right turn after departure’ or ‘on departure, turn right to heading.’ That is much different than ‘must complete right turn within 2 nm of departure end of runway (HNL 3.6 DME).’ ”
The pilot speculated in his report that ATC might have expected an immediate right turn after takeoff to avoid the beach area. It is my experience flying in and out of upscale communities that an official, written noise abatement procedure is communicated to all pilots. It appears that local procedure for pilots and ATC familiar with MKK4 is to adjust that SID to avoid bothering beachgoers.
The great thing about local procedure is that it creates a type of shorthand. The bad thing is that unless you know the shorthand, it’s all just gobbledygook.
One CFI wrote in this NASA report: “I am writing this report in the hopes that we can learn from this experience to improve aviation safety.”
His misadventure occurred not from incorrect interpretation of instructions, but from the failure to admit he didn’t understand the instructions.
The CFI was on an IFR training mission with two students. After he successfully flew an instrument approach to a landing, he wrote: “It was only my second time at the airport, so I was not very familiar with the airport taxiways and runways. We landed and exited on Taxiway Golf. Immediately after exiting the runway on Taxiway Golf, I was instructed by Tower to turn left on Taxiway Golf, cross Runway XX Left, no delay, traffic on short final for XX Left.”
After reading back the instructions, the same controller added, “Expedite, aircraft on short final.”
Being unfamiliar with the airport, as well as being told to “expedite,” the pilot said he immediately began taxiing without first referencing his airport diagram.
“I failed to realize, first of all, that I was already taxiing on Taxiway Golf. I mistook Runway XX Left for Taxiway Golf, so upon approaching Runway XX Left from Golf I turned left thinking it was the correct taxiway.”
The CFI then turned left onto the active runway, thinking he was complying with the instructions given. Only when Tower advised the pilot of his situation did he see a yellow aircraft on short final at his 12 o’clock. The yellow aircraft was instructed to go around.
All in all, this CFI made a royal mess of things. That’s why I’m glad he wrote his report. His experience offers ample opportunity to learn. How so?
He failed to admit that he had not understood the instructions Tower had given. He demonstrated to his students that it was okay to arrive at an unfamiliar airport without the airport chart out and without being briefed. He also indicated to his students that it was okay to risk an incident or injury by blundering about without asking for help.
By doing so, the CFI missed an opportunity to model good behavior to his students. He missed the chance to use either one of two standard aviation phrases to gain situational awareness. Those phrases are “Unfamiliar, request progressive instructions.” Or more simply, “Unable to comply.”
The first phrase would have shown his students that he needed help, and moreover, that he was willing to ask for it. The second phrase would have conveyed to his students that he recognized a bad situation in the making. It would also have shown them how to take command of the situation and make everyone on frequency stop, pause and reassess.
If announcing either would have caused the controller to call “go around” to the yellow plane on short final, so be it. The CFI’s snafu caused the same result, but more dangerously.
Instead the CFI’s rush-to-comply behavior potentially conveyed to his students that it was okay to forfeit PIC authority to a local controller and it was okay to be unprepared for the next phase of flight — in this case, taxiing.
The takeaway from these NASA reports is that miscommunication is easy. Communication is simple, but not easy. It requires discipline, attention, and practice.
In that regard, it is no different from flying. And that means it is 100% worth the effort.