Communicating for Safety

Reviewing a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident report is never a particularly enjoyable exercise. Each report is a reminder of a damaged glider, an injured pilot or, in the worst case, the loss of a member of the soaring community. This unpleasant, but necessary, task is not without certain benefits however. Each report portrays a series of events that, under certain conditions, resulted in an accident. Being able to isolate events that contribute to an accident provides the researcher with valuable information concerning not only how the accident occurred but, more important, information which can be used to identify emerging accident trends within the soaring community. It is then possible to use the knowledge gained to develop future accident prevention strategies.

In recent years, information obtained from glider accident reports seem to indicate another trend emerging as a recurring causal factor in glider incidents and accidents. As evidenced by the NTSB summaries in this issue of Sailplane Safety, the lack of effective communication and crew coordination has been identified as a probable cause or contributing factor in a number of recent soaring accidents. Interestingly, this problem is not isolated to the soaring community. Research into general aviation and air carrier accidents reveal that errors in the transfer of information have been significant causal factors in a number of these events.

The Process of Communication

Communication can be defined as an effective transfer of information. The FAA Aviation Instructor's Handbook describes communication as a process that occurs when one person transmits a thought or idea to another person or to a group of people.  Communication may occur verbally, through spoken language, or nonverbally by use of signals which are assigned meaning. In soaring operations, for example, the Standard American Soaring Signals were adopted as a method of communicating safety of flight information when verbal communication may not be available or appropriate.

The communication process consists of three basic components: a source, a method of transmission or medium, and a receiver. Messages originate at the source and are transmitted through the medium to the receiver. The effectiveness of the communication process can then be measured by the similarity of the idea transmitted and that received. For communication to be effective, it must be conveyed in a manner that is clearly understood by the receiver. This requires both the sender and receiver to have a common level of understanding of the symbols being used. It is important to stress that each component of the communication process is related, and any factor that affects one will influence the other. For example, a message that is vague or transmitted through an unsuitable medium will result in the transfer of an erroneous thought or idea. It must be emphasized that communication succeeds only in relation to the reaction of the receiver. Effective communication has not occurred until the receiver responds appropriately to the message.  Consider for a moment that the soaring pilot depends on the use of human resources to conduct various ground and flight operations. Consequently, the pilot must be able to manage these resources properly to maintain safe and efficient operations. The foundation of this resource management is the ability to communicate effectively.

Barriers to Effective Communication

Any factor which inhibits the transfer of information may be considered a barrier to effective communication. While a number of these barriers exist, the most relevant to soaring is miscommunication resulting from improper or misunderstood visual signals. Factors which contribute to this lack of understanding may include use of an obscure or undefined signal or, more commonly, confusion over the meaning of the signal being used. As illustrated in the accident summaries, ineffective communication may be the difference between an incident and an accident. For example, the Soaring Safety Foundation adopted the use of a new visual signal in 1993 to warn the glider pilot on tow that the aircraft's dive brakes or spoilers were extended (Fig 3). This signal received widespread dissemination throughout the soaring community. Yet recurring accident reports reveal that glider pilots have misinterpreted this signal to indicate the need for an immediate release from the towing aircraft. In each case, the gliders were substantially damaged after the pilots released from tow at a low altitude and were unable to glide safely to a landable area.

In recent years, a number of takeoff accidents have also occurred as a result of a miscommunication of visual signals between glider pilots and towpilots. A common element in many of these accidents was the lack of an available wingrunner to assist in the launch procedure. In each case, movement of the glider's rudder was initiated, either intentionally or inadvertently, prior to the glider pilot being ready for takeoff. This rudder movement was interpreted by the towpilot as the visual signal to begin takeoff. This type of miscommunication has resulted in the takeoff being initiated before the glider pilot was ready and, in some cases, without the pilot onboard the aircraft. Another significant causal factor related to this type of accident has been the failure of the glider pilot to disconnect the towline once the decision was made to delay or cancel the takeoff. It is worth reemphasizing that the glider pilot should disconnect the towline from the glider if some subsequent problem delays or disrupts the takeoff procedure.

Accident Prevention Through Effective Communication

One of the most important concepts available in promoting effective communication is standardization of the medium being used. For glider pilots, this means the proper and timely use of the Standard American Soaring Signals. Inappropriate signal use, or confusion relating their meaning, leads to a deterioration of the communication process. This loss of standardization indicates that effective communication is no longer possible among members of the operational group. Standardization of visual signals can be maintained through safety meetings, flight reviews, and recurrent training. Additionally, briefings conducted by the safety officer or operations coordinator prior to the start of daily flight operations provides an appropriate time to review visual signals with towpilots and other members of the soaring organization.

In recent years, a number of accidents involving pilots flying together in multi-place gliders have resulted from confusion over which pilot was actually manipulating the controls of the aircraft. FAR 91.107 requires the pilot in command to brief each occupant on the use of safety belts and, if installed, the shoulder harness. If another pilot is occupying a seat of a multi-place glider, a determination should also be made relating to who will act as pilot in command of the flight, as well as who will be responsible for control the aircraft. Additionally, procedures for the positive transfer of aircraft control between pilots should also be established.

Finally, a proper briefing of the towpilot is essential. Items reviewed during this briefing should include desired tow speed, direction of tow, and normal and emergency procedures, including visual signals, and any special instructions. Additionally, any special procedures relating to operations conducted without the assistance of a wingrunner would also be appropriate.

In conclusion, communication is more than just an exchange of words or ideas. While effective communication can be a complex and demanding process, it is also a basic accident prevention resource. If you are not communicating for safety, you are not getting the message!