Aviation In Canada

Sunday, February 20, 2005


Communication is an art. So many people ask the wrong question. "Are you gonna eat all of that?" rather than, "May I have some of that?" Or, "Honey, can you take the garbage out?" rather than, "Honey, would you take the garbage out?" Of course I can take the garbage out. Oh, you want me to? Sure.

How does that relate to aviation? Here's an example.

A few years ago, a seasoned veteran controller was working an aircraft north of CYCL at FL240, cruising at 240 knots. The pilot radioed, and I quote with the exception of the callsign, "Moncton, N123A, I've had an engine failure and need to descend." The controller issued a descent to 10,000 and was told to standby when he asked if he could provide any assistance. I was near our supervisor's desk and overheard him telling his dataman that someone had an engine failure. Out of morbid curiousity, I walked over to see what was up. I quietly asked who had the engine failure and he calmly told me this particular aircraft reported an engine failure and the pilot seemed pretty calm about it. After looking at the flight plan, I told him that the aircraft only had one engine. Turns out, the aircraft was a newer type of single-engine turboprop that he was unfamiliar with. The calm transmission from the pilot combined with the words he had chosen led the controller to believe everything was being handled and nothing terribly serious had developed just yet. We understand that in an unusual situation like an engine failure, the pilots are busy and we try not to bother them when they may be otherwise occupied. So he was calmly waiting for the pilot to provide more information, assuming he was running through checklists and such. The aircraft eventually made an emergency landing, after being provided with weather details and finding a suitable airport.

Had the pilot said, "I've lost my engine" as opposed to "an engine," the very statement could have communicated the gravity of the situation. Also, while some maintain that communications should be clear, concise and spoken in even tones at all times, there are occasions where an elevated tone can convey more than just the words speaking for themselves. Tone of voice can underscore their importance so that even if the words are obscured by static, someone can still understand that a serious situation is afoot. My thunderstorm story from a few days ago was an example. The elevated tones and stress evident in the pilot's voice made me very aware early on that things weren't progressing in a very good direction -- even before he started the uncontrolled descent. Rest assured that if you hear me speaking in an elevated tone, it's serious.