Communication Key in the Cockpit
January 7, 2013
- This story and more are available in the January edition of Knowledge Magazine - the Official Safety Magazine of the U.S. Army.
WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. - We watch television, send and receive emails and text messages and make telephone calls daily. You'd think we'd be pretty adept at communicating, right? Not always. Let me share a personal example.
It was just a standard night vision goggle air traffic management flight during winter in Connecticut. One of the pilots in command from my unit was going to take me on a round-robin flight across the state, giving me some more NVG time while working the local airspace. Typically, I wouldn't be concerned about a simple flight like this, but my past experiences with this particular PC weren't very good. Nonetheless, we carried on, preflighted the CH-47 and conducted our aircrew briefing. Once complete, we started the aircraft, conducted our hover checks and were on our way.
The first 35 minutes of the flight were uneventful as we flew toward a small airport in Bridgeport. When we made our initial call to the tower, they answered, "Nomad 78, I have you at eight miles northeast of the airport, report three miles and enter the downwind to land runway 29." I responded, "Roger, will call three miles for the downwind to 29."
Since our flight heading was 200, I figured runway 29 would be on the right ahead. The problem was I couldn't for the life of me see the runway, which was just this side of Bridgeport. When we were roughly four miles out, I told the PC about the problem. He responded, "Continue on in."
I obliged and continued inbound, following the needle toward the airport. We made our call at three miles, and I was getting uncomfortable. There were three small fixed-wing aircraft in the pattern, and I still couldn't see the runway. I wanted to tell my PC I couldn't see the runway, but decided not to since he'd already told me to continue inbound.
Finally, when we were about a mile out, I told him, "You have the flight controls," adding that I still didn't have the runway in sight. He didn't respond, so I repeated myself. Still, there was no response. It turned out he was having the same problem I was, I just didn't know it.
In the midst of the confusion, he told me to turn left and I did. This only compounded the situation, putting us on the final approach course to runway 29, right in the path of another aircraft. Fortunately, the other aircraft broke off his approach in time to avoid us.
I couldn't believe what had happened. Something like this just doesn't happen on a simple ATM flight - but somehow it did. Tower gave us instructions to avoid the aircraft and we headed north to get clear of the airspace. The rest of the flight was rather quiet and uneventful. When we debriefed back at the airport, the PC told me I should have let him know earlier that I couldn't see the runway.
The lesson from this story is we were both wrong. Should I have been more explicit concerning my lack of situational awareness at the time? Yes, absolutely. Should my PC have let me know he was in the same precarious situation I was in? No doubt about it. We should have been talking, helping each other and working together.
This flight was a lesson on why we get an annual aircrew coordination class. Had we exercised open and clear communication, we'd have had much less drama on the mission that night. Fortunately, this turned out to an opportunity for some lessons learned and not a catastrophic event.
John Donne famously said, "No man is an island," and that is particularly true for the members of an aircrew. If you want to make sure your number of landings and takeoffs match, then remember communication is the key.