Its Not Just Aviation Talk

Once you mastered the phonetic alphabet, you knew everything you need to know about communicating, right? Not necessarily.


Communication is something we all take for granted; we talk, somebody else listens, somebody else talks, we listen, so whats so complicated about that? Actually, more than you might think. What, for example, if youre speaking French to someone who doesnt understand French? Or maybe someone who speaks your language misinterprets something you said, or doesnt understand something you were talking about. You were certainly speaking clearly enough.

Aiviation Communication


If we understand that communication takes several different forms, we are better equipped both to communicate more effectively and to listen more effectively. As it is, communicating with ATC-and sometimes across the cockpit-comes with enough built-in challenges, including the “party-line” technology, noisy cockpits, uneven quality in radios and microphones, and our own imprecision. Recognizing and compensating for those challenges will help us get our message across and facilitate us hearing what the other side of the conversation is trying to impart. In the end, communication can be as much about the communicator and the receiver as anything else.


An ancient Zen question asks, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” The modern day equivalent might be, “If you are talking on the radio and no one can hear you, are you communicating?” If you said, “Of course not, dummy,” youd be right, at least according to behavioral scientists, who say that you must have a receiver of the communication for it to actually qualify as such.

So then, you ask, what if you say something and the person you are talking to misunderstands you? We now have a “miscommunication,” and that is what everyone in aviation should want to avoid. What has happened, as a natural consequence, is that different specialties developed all the words, terms, abbreviations, etc., unique to that specialty. All careers have a specialized language, a shorthand developed to make communication more effective. Medicine, for example, has many terms developed from its Greek and Latin roots. Tell your doctor your symptoms and hell nod knowingly, translate your symptoms into medical hieroglyphics and tell you your skin rash is dermatitis (an inflammation of the skin). Law enforcement 10-codes are another example: If a cop reports he is 10-7 at the Krispy Kreme it means hes eating donuts, not that the place got robbed.


Aviation, however, gets the Oscar when it comes to abbreviating language. Take a simple flight to another airport: As PIC you call the FSS to file an IFR flight plan and get a weather briefing. You ask about Metars and TAFs, along with Pireps. You know your MEA may be different from the MSA and that you are flying Victor airways. Approaching your destination, CAE (Columbia, SC), you check the ATIS, and are given vectors to the ILS Rwy 29 approach, finally told by Approach you are two miles from Ledas, the IAF, and cleared for the approach which takes you over Murry (the LOM), the MM, followed by the IM, and finally, the TDZ. Whew.

The bottom line is, of course, if you want to do this right you must learn, understand and use the language of aviation. Throwing these terms around at a party of your non-pilot friends can be really impressive if done right, but most of these abbreviations have absolutely no meaning or use outside of aviation.


Although learning, speaking and understanding this language of aviation is an imperative, the language itself is not enough for effective communication.

Lets look at some of the factors that complicate otherwise simple communication. First, we have something called “non-verbal” communication, a form of which is referred to popularly as “body language.” What is interesting about non-verbal communication is the fact that when people are given two conflicting messages, one verbally, the other non-verbally, they will almost invariably believe, or pay attention to, the non-verbal message. “All well and good,” you might say, “but nobody can see me talking on the radio when Im flying.”

True, but there is a sub-set of verbal communication called para-verbal communication. We communicate by inflections given to words, the “tone” of our voice, pauses, emphasis on particular words, etc. We can tell when people are annoyed, irritated, impatient, hesitant, even admiring, simply by their para-verbal behavior. We can easily sense stress in a pilots voice as he becomes disoriented in IMC, even if he doesnt actually say he is stressed.


We now come to what is an equally problematic issue in the understanding of communication, the receiver of the communication. Although the FAA has attempted to minimize miscommunication through a precise vocabulary and standardized phrasing, it is not completely possible to eliminate “perception” from the communication process. How the receiver interprets a communication is based on the receivers past experience and his interpretation of the communicator and the communication.

Talking with a spouse, friend or other person we know, particularly when we are face-to-face, is easier because we can pay attention to non-verbal cues, including micro-expressions, those flashes of expression that are a fleeting response before they are replaced by a more socially acceptable expression. We also know much more about the persons background and can better anticipate their response. Unfortunately, we dont have that luxury when talking to faceless, nameless controllers as we fly along.


We do, however, have some clues about how our communication may be received. We also have the ability to listen better to what we are hearing. Pay attention to what the controller is telling you, as when writing down an IFR clearance, but just as important, listen to what the controller is saying (or not saying) by listening to those para-verbal cues.

Is the controller very busy? If so, how is he handling the workload? Does he sound stressed and impatient, or does he seem competent and effective as he handles aircraft after aircraft? What did his slight hesitation (with a keyed mic) mean? What was he thinking about in that tiny pause? Knowing (or even guessing) at the answers to such questions may change how you deal with this controller and how you deal with him (or her) can affect the kind and quality of the service you receive.


Lets say youre a 9000-hour Airline Transport pilot flying left seat for a major airline. You have your own well-equipped Cessna 152 for weekend flying and decide to take a buddy up and show him the world of big league aviation by taking him into Charlotte/Douglas International (CLT).

Several miles out, you call the Charlotte Tracon with the current ATIS and your intentions. The controller gives you a squawk code and asks you to ident. You do, and the next thing you hear is an obviously irritated controller saying “unable” and requesting that you stay out of his airspace. Youve flown your airliner into CLT numerous times and your communication was totally appropriate, but now you are embarrassed and red-faced in front of your buddy. What went wrong?

The answer goes beyond verbal communication, and into both non-verbal communication and “perception” Perception is what the listener brings to the table. In other words, the way we interpret a communication is based on our own personal history of what that communication has actually meant in the past.

In this case, we have the pilots verbal communication, but added to that was non-verbal information. When the pilot pushed the Ident button on his transponder, the controller saw a blip on his screen light up. The blip, meandering along at 90 knots, triggered a memory of previous slow-moving blips and the perception this one was like all those previous blips-a student, sightseer or other marginally qualified pilot-and triggered a response of “go away and stop bothering me.” This, in spite of a completely appropriate verbal communication.


Lets say your verbal communication skills exceed your rusty flying skills as you S-turn down the localizer on a practice ILS approach under the hood. As you bob up and down on the glideslope like a cork in the water your actions are telling the controller more than you ever wanted him to know. He is probably shaking his head in dismay or snickering under his breath. If you listen to the para-verbals in his (or her) communications, you may hear him coax you along as if you were a student pilot; or maybe he seems irritated about the fact youre delaying the real pilots stacked up behind you.


It goes without saying it is vitally important that we maintain spatial orientation when flying. Even VFR, we want to know what airport is off our wing, or what Interstate we just crossed. It is equally important to remain oriented to the communication environment. Dont just listen to the words, but listen to the context in which the words are spoken.

Keep in mind your perception of what you heard may not be what was said, and what you said may be not what the controller perceived. A few years ago, a friend flying cross-country called controllers at a major airport requesting permission to overfly the airport. The busy controller said, “hold on,” which my friend interpreted as meaning to “hold on” to the frequency. He kept on flying and when he entered the airspace he received a blistering chewing out and barely missed being written up. The controller apparently meant for him to “do nothing” and just park his airplane in space until the busy controller had time to deal with him.


Keep in mind that even your little blip meandering across an anonymous radar screen is a form of communication and the controller watching that screen adds his perception of that blip to the mix. Although you have no control over the controllers perceptions and only limited control over the blip itself, just be aware that these factors have an effect on how you, the pilot, are perceived and ultimately treated.

Frank Dougherty served as a back-seater aboard F-101s and F-106Bs. Instrument-rated, he has some 600 hours and lives in Chapin, S.C.


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