An unusual situation (listening + clarity practice)


I’m sure most of you, pilots, have already seen at least one video about this accident, if not this one. But my point here is not to bring you a new video, but to talk about some fundamental points to increase clarity in your communications.

The accident with US Air flight 1549 happened in New York City on January 15, 2009. All the people involved, pilots and controllers alike, were native speakers of English, but even so, the controllers found it hard to understand what the pilot was saying and had to rely on a relay from another aircraft to grasp the message he was trying to give them: “I think we’re going to end up in the Hudson!”

Watch the video and check the following points:

1) Both the pilot and the controller mistake the call sign (the flight is 1549)
2) Notice how the controller asks the pilot to repeat his intentions because he didn’t understand the first time (1min37seconds) and simply gives the pilot another option of runway when he doesn’t answer, unaware that he is already performing a ditching.
3) Nobody uses standard phraseology – they’re all using general English for aviation (which is exactly what ICAO and ANAC want you to be able to do – when strictly necessary).

So, what happened here? Isn’t the pilot a level 4? Isn’t the controller a level 4? What happened was human nature. Allow me to explain.

We human  beings are creatures of habits. Have you ever noticed how you always soap up in the same order when you shower? Believe me, you just do. Pilots and controllers are human beings, and are trained to follow specific procedures, sometimes repetitive. This makes it hard for us human beings (including pilots and controllers) to realize when something out of the ordinary has happened. Maybe not so much realize, but believe.

When the pilot said he had had a bird strike, the controller immediately reacted by acknowledging this fact, vectoring him back to the airport and halting traffic in the vicinity. Bird strikes happen, and this is what he is trained to do in such events. Immediately afterwards, controllers start discussing the options and offering the pilot some viable alternatives. Again, it can’t have been the first time this has happened.

Now, pay close attention when the pilot first says he may have to land on the Hudson River (42 seconds). Did the controller acknowledge? His next message to 1549 starts with ‘alright’, but it’s quite clear that he hasn’t really taken in the vital piece of information that he was given. The pilot then asks for other suggestions, and this message is clearly understood by the controller (1 min to 1 min 6 seconds). Well, everyone who works in that area is aware that there is a river there called Hudson and an airport called Teterboro; however, the controller didn’t seem to understand it when the pilot said ‘we may end up in the Hudson’, but immediately caught ‘Teterboro’. Isn’t it funny?

Go ahead to 1 min 27 seconds, when the controller offers the pilot runway 1 at Teterboro Airport. The pilot answers simply ‘we can’t do it’, and the controller then asks him to choose a runway at Teterboro. He still hasn’t gotten the idea. When the pilot says again that they will have to land in the Hudson River, the controller asks him to repeat and goes on giving him options until another pilot in another aircraft interferes and clarifies it for him.

Why did this happen? Because landing in the Hudson is not the first option when you have a technical problem after taking off from New York – well, it isn’t the second either. So although the pilot – a native speaker – was perfectly clear when he stated his intentions and the controller – another native speaker – was perfectly able to understand what he had said, it just didn’t make sense, so he simply didn’t process the information.

Let’s go straight to the lessons learnt from this accident:

1) Be as clear as possible when using radiotelephony (RT). Don’t assume that just because your English is good everyone will understand you. Repeat your messages as many times as necessary to be understood, changing the words if possible, so that you go around any occasional pronunciation or vocabulary issue.
2) Keep your ears open and really listen. Although something may sound impossible, it may be true, so trust your ears. And if you’re not sure, ask for clarification. What matters is to understand.

Let’s practice these abilities in class!

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Foi difícil entender o texto? Que tal marcar algumas aulas?

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