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11.13.6 Human Factor Considerations


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Communication can be defines as a process where:

Information, thoughts and feelings are exchanged in a readily and clearly understood manner.

Communication is essential in the modern day transport aircraft in order to maintain Situational Awareness.

Effective Communication

Why should we communicate effectively? Consider the words below:

  • Captain: Take-off power.
  • Engineer: Responds by pulling the power back on all four engines. Good thing it was at the take-off point.

On the flight deck the pilots need to communicate ideas, concerns and information effectively. How effectively this is done depends not only on the sender but the receptiveness of the receiver. Do not assume that everything you say is clearly and immediately understood. The opposite is often true. Hearing is not synonymous with understanding and without understanding there is no effective communication.

Effective communication is vital for the safe conduct of flight operations, but, what is effective communication? How can we define it?

Consider other words beginning with the same 6 letters, ie., community, communism, communion, communal etc, all imply sharing. Communication could be defined as the sharing of information. We are concerned, however, with effective communication. Is the sharing of information, therefore, enough for us to have communicated effectively?

Any message starts with a sender. It is eventually received by the receiver. To be effective this message must be sent and received with the minimum of change to its meaning.

The Cost of Effectiveness

All communications have a price. To ensure that the message has been correctly received a check of understanding must be carried out.

Results of Poor Communication

Look at the Company angle rather than the flight deck, what are the results of poor communication?

  • Low Production: By poor rostering you fail to fly an economic number of hours for the company. Such as missing a flight to Inverness because the company failed to ring you.
  • Apathy: "Well they didn't tell me about the 0630 Inverness shuttle last week, who knows if they will bother this week".
  • Mistakes Occur: "I thought I was on the 0730 to Heathrow".
  • Non-Cooperation: "Well if they can't be bothered to tell me anything, then they can get stuffed".
  • Grapevine Abounds: "I hear Captain Bloggs is for the chop for missing the 0630 to Inverness".

We have all experienced something similar in life at some stage.

The key to good communication is whether the sender is a good transmitter and the message is sent to a good receiver.

The good transmitter:

  • Passes clear and easy to understand instructions.
  • Has a clear voice.
  • Transmits when the receiver is ready.
  • Ensures that the message is understood and that a feedback system is in operation.

The good receiver:

  • Pays attention to the whole message.
  • Tells the transmitter if they are not ready.
  • Acknowledges the receipt and understanding of a message.
Types of Communication

Communication comes in many forms: verbal, written, pictorial etc. Each type of communication needs to be looked at separately to discover the positive and negative aspects.

Written Communication Written communication is provided to the pilot in many forms such as; checklists; CASA OPS; Ops Manuals; letters; memo's etc. The advantages of written communication is obvious; letters and memos can be distributed quickly; checklists and publications can be amended quickly if mistakes occur. Negative aspects are that the communication is impersonal; it is one-way and subject, therefore, to ambiguity and misinterpretation; no check of understanding can be carried out; is the document up to date? Written communications have to be well structured and simple to use to be effective.

Think of an insurance policy and all the small print. The length of sentence and the legalese used may mean that you have forgotten what you first read before you get to the end of the sentence. Survey has shown how the number of words in a sentence affect understanding:

The number of words in a sentence and the % of people who understood what they read after the first reading:

  • 27 words = 4 people
  • 15 words = 70 people
  • 12 words = 86 people
  • 8 words = 94 people

Shortening the sentence does not mean that the sentence is any easier to understand. Think of the double meaning of both the sentences below:

If you find any of our goods unsatisfactory you should see our Manager!

The Area Manager has passed all water used in our batteries.

Visual and Pictorial Ambiguity: Pictures tell a thousand words. Yet in the chapter on visual illusion we can see how easy it is to become confused.

In 1979, an Air New Zealand DC10 flew inexplicably (seemingly) into the side of a 13 000 ft active volcano in Antarctica. The weather in the area was declared VMC; the aircraft was in controlled flight; there was no alarm expressed by the crew recorded on the cockpit voice recorder, so why did the DC10 crash? Visual ambiguity in true whiteout conditions was a major causal factor.

Verbal Communication

Verbal communication is face to face and with body language aids the interpretation of a message. Most verbal communication is two-way, allowing questions to be asked to achieve clarity. Verbal communication can be ambiguous and because there is no written record may be difficult to refer to.

Social Skills

Social skills refers to the basic behavioural mechanisms that we use between each other. One of the main areas is body language.

Body Language

There has been a lot written on the term body language. Below are listed some of the general principles that help to maintain good relations on the flight deck.

In the diagram below the way that we carry out normal communication is shown in a piegraph. Note how little attention is paid to the words and how much is paid to the body language.

The main methods by which we communicate using body language are:

  • Eye Contact: Do you believe someone who constantly looks away from you while you are talking to them? Not only does it show a lack of interest in the conversation but is rude. Staring on the other hand can be used as a form of aggression.
  • Facial Expression: We all show happiness, sadness, content etc with our facial expression. On the flight deck it is easy to show contempt, disgust etc.
  • Touch: Touch is an important means of communication. In the Arab states the handshake is a long protracted affair which if not carried out shows lack of interest. In the UK, the handshake is little more than a grasp of hands. It is easy to forget the importance of touch to some cultures.
  • Body Orientation and Posture: The way that you sit, the way that you place your body in respect to others communicates your feelings towards them. Crossed arms, crossed legs all give different messages.
  • Physical Separation: There is an approximate 50 cm space around the body that is sacrosanct. Any invasion in this space is usually countered by a movement away.
Verbal Behaviour

The way in which words are said holds nearly as much importance as body language. The emotions are easily betrayed by the speed, pitch and tone of the voice. Suffice to say that the words themselves mean little in a general conversation.

As soon as the crew are on a flight deck then there is a block to the normal communication state. As soon as the flight crew enter high workload areas of flight then the communications are forced and the body language takes on a much lesser importance.

It is at the high workload times that most communications errors that cause accidents are made. It is important that the pilot realises that:

  • There is a change in the preferred means of communication.
  • 75% of accidents occur in the take-off/landing phase of any flight (high workload).
  • The words and the way they are used are critical at this stage of flight.

40% of our day is spent listening and is a most vital area of communication. We all think that we are good listeners but do we listen or do we hear? All too often the "noise" does not penetrate into the brain and accuracy and meaning are lost. Problems in effective listening are:

  • We speak at approximately 125 words per minute, maximum 180 words per minute.
  • We have the capacity to listen at 500 words per minute.

The person uses the excess brain capacity for:

  • Planning: Preoccupation with formulating a response and not listening to what the sender is saying.
  • Wandering: Waiting for a key word and when it comes up, taking the conversation into another area of interest.
  • Debating: Taking the opposite point of view.
  • Turning Off: The receiver does not listen because it is felt that the message is not important.

Listening is a skill. How many times have you been accused of hearing only those things that you wish to hear?

"I know you thought you understood what I said; but what bothers me is that what you heard is not what I meant".

The reasons behind poor listening lie in the Human Information Processing system itself. The only way that we can converse quickly is by our perception process playing a guessing game as we will see below. The brain attempts to guess what the other person is about to say, in order that an answer can be prepared.

The two processes below are often confused:

  • Hearing: The physical comprehension of a sound.
  • Listening: The process of interpreting physical, emotional and intellectual inputs.

Look at the diagram below.

This is a simple representation of an everyday conversation. Person 1 is speaking, Person 2 initially listens but soon wishes to become the centre of attention. As soon as the evaluation starts the level of attention drops and no notice is paid to the conversation. Evaluation is being carried out on the small portion of the conversation heard. Eventually Person 2 has his reply formed and they interrupt to have their say.

To be a good listener then active listening needs to be practised. The process of active listening can be split into 4 stages:

Stage 1

  • Awareness of the sound.
  • Making sense of the sound.
  • The ability to distinguish words.

Stage 2

  • Understanding begins.
  • The listener starts to concentrate.

Stage 3

  • The distinguishing of fact from fantasy.
  • True analysis of information.
  • Dependence on knowledge and past experience

Stage 4

  • Stage 3 plus the added dimension of empathy

Non-verbal Response

  • Face the speaker, smile, look relaxed.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Encourage the other to speak.
Verbal Response

Use questions to check the understanding:

  • Restrict the range of possible responses.
  • Useful in getting specific information quickly.
  • Improper use can make a person feel like they are being interrogated.

Questions are asked for many reasons such as:

  • To obtain information.
  • To obtain information or views.
  • To show interest.
  • To check understanding.

To help the above consider the following four question types:

Two are acceptable in an aviation environment, two are not.

Closed Question: A question that invites a simple yes or no answer. This question is good for:

  • Obtaining information.
  • Giving information.
  • Checking understanding.

"What is the capital of France?"

Open Question: A question that allows another person to give their views.

"What do you think about the approach into Heathrow?"

Leading Question: Where the question gives the answer.

"I think Luton's our best diversion, don't you?"

Limiting Question: Similar to the above yet gives a limit to the answers.

"Where shall we divert, Luton or Coventry?"


Once a question has been asked then there must be a degree of understanding. Remember, that compliance is the norm in the human. Compliance is the psychological term which describes a person's tendency to prefer to agree rather than disagree. The answer to our question will invariably be yes, even if there is no understanding of the subject.

By use of the first two questions above there is the chance that effective communications can be maintained. Remember the following that Rudyard Kipling wrote:

I have six faithful serving men
They taught me all I know
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Use them to phrase your question and you are part of the way there.

Active listening is:

  • The genuine desire to understand another person's perception.
  • Listening and expressing understanding of what another person has said.
  • Sensitivity to another's thoughts and feelings.

Active listening is not:

  • Passive.
  • Giving agreement or disagreement.
  • Judgmental.
  • Argumentative.

Being an effective listener takes practice and a sincere effort on behalf of the listener.

The effective listener is:

  • Trustworthy and caring.
  • Accepting.
  • Allows others to talk.
  • Focuses on thoughts and feelings.
  • Is constructive.
  • An active listener.


Status on the flight deck usually depends on two variables:

  • Who is the captain.
  • Who is the first officer.

The relationship between the two can be defined as leadership/followership. In status, the captain has no difficulty in questioning the first officer; can the same be said about the transfer of information the other way? The problem can be exacerbated when the captain is a training captain and the first officer is just starting his career.

When crew are of an equal status, such as two Captains flying together or two Flying Instructors, even two students. Those of equal status are reluctant to question the ability of the other; there is a reluctance to appear to be taking over.


The role of a pilot changes continually dependent on whether he is the handling or non-handling pilot. Pilots are reluctant to take control in situations that appear to be dangerous because they do not wish to show a lack of faith in the other.


We consider other pilots by our judgement of their ability. The Captain may well be a good commander, but if we consider him a poor pilot then our relationship with him will be coloured.


A good flight deck is one that has the right atmosphere created by both crewmembers. This leads to effective 2-way communications. The atmosphere is created by:

  • Correct attitudes for the Leadership/Teamwork job.
  • Interest is shown in the opinions of other crewmembers as much as the completion of the task.
  • Open and frank discussion is encouraged.
  • Active listening is used and consideration given to an answer before the reply is made.
  • Empathy is given to other crewmembers.
  • An explanation of answers and decisions is given to encourage an open cockpit.

To be an effective communicator the sender or receiver must be:

  • An active listener.
  • A good questioner.
  • A clear and concise orator.

Leadership is a term which applies to the whole flight deck. For there to be a leader there must also be a follower. True leadership and command must not be confused; command is normally assigned where as leadership is an acquired art. All flight crew must recognise their own leadership responsibility in the decision making process.

Leadership is a way of focussing and motivating a group in order to achieve the task. On the flight deck the commander, as the designated leader, has the authority and responsibility for the flight. In modern public transport operations the pilot flying can be termed a functional leader; one who carries out a specialised task on a temporary basis.

Leadership Qualities

A leader should be able to:

  • Provide continuity and motivation.
  • Remain flexible at all times.

Normally a leader should be one step ahead of his team; too far ahead and the team can be lost.

The effective leader has to use the ideas and actions in such a way that they influence the thoughts and behaviours of the team. The leader is the pivot through which change and influence are implemented.

Leadership Skills

Leadership skills begin developing as soon as a pilot sits on a flight deck for the first time. These skills are determined by certain factors which can be good or bad depending upon the formative years on the flight deck.

Most leaders perform 4 primary functions:

Regulation of the flow of Information: The leader must be able to regulate the flow of information, ideas and suggestions. The leader can either be the commander or the pilot flying in this case.

  • Communication of flight information.
  • Asking for opinions, suggestions.
  • Giving opinions, suggestions.
  • Clarifying communication.
  • Providing feedback.
  • Regulating participation.

Directing and Coordination of Crew Activities: The commander usually processes the information below:

  • Direction and coordination of crew activities.
  • Monitoring and assessing of the crew performance as a whole. This may include self criticism.
  • Providing planning and orientation.
  • Setting of priorities, whether task or people orientated.

Motivation of Crewmembers: A positive climate generated by the reasoning below helps in keeping performance standards high:

  • Creation of a happy working environment.
  • Maintenance of an "open" cockpit atmosphere.
  • Good conflict resolution through assertive actions.
  • Maintenance of positive relations.
  • Providing non-punitive critique and feedback at all times. Accepting critique and feedback from other crewmembers.

Decision Making:

  • The leader is ultimately responsible for decisions.
  • Assuming responsibility for Decision Making.
  • Gathering and evaluating information from all sources.
  • Formulating decisions.
  • Implementing decisions and relating why the particular action has been chosen.
  • Gathering feedback on all actions.
The Person Goal Leader Model (P/G)

One way of depicting interaction is to construct a model where the dimensions are people-orientation (P) and goal-orientation (G).

In this model we are looking at the balance between the concern for achieving the goal (G) and the concern for people (P).

P+G- Democratic Leader

The friendly leader who has little concern for the task. Conflict resolution is kept to a minimum where others are left to have their own way. The types of word that describe the democrat are:

  • Reactive
  • Understanding
  • Sensitive
  • Nice
  • Protective

All are commendable but in extreme can lead to a dysfunctional flight deck.

P-G- Timeserver

Other names applied to this type of leader are laissez-faire or autonomous leader. This type of leader cares little for the job or for the people in it. This style of leadership generates the poorest team performance because of the willingness to accept poor leadership styles by:

  • Rule bending.
  • Failure to achieve or trying to achieve objectives.
  • Low morale within the team.

The negative traits shown are:

  • Indifference
  • Apathy
  • Passiveness
P-G+ Autocratic Leader

The aggressive leader. Task orientated to the extent that the feelings of others are ignored. The over-bearing nature of this type of leader ensures that the experience of others is ignored. In extreme cases those in the team become disinclined to offer any help at all. The autocrat gives directions, expects unquestioning obedience from juniors and is abrasive and demeaning. The unacceptable traits shown are:

  • Overbearing
  • Autocratic
  • Dictatorial
  • Tyrannical
  • Ruthless
P+G+ Ideal Leader

By definition this person must be assertive. Concerned for both the goal and the person this leader will earn the respect and commitment of the team. The atmosphere enables all to contribute ideas which are recognised and considered. Traits observed are:

  • Constructive
  • Straightforward
  • Direct
  • Expressive
  • Assertive
Leadership - The Leader

Wherever a group of people are found certain expectations exist of the person in charge of that group. What makes an effective leader? The old saying:

Leaders are born, not made!

Some people are born with the aptitude for leadership, but they are few in number. But how is leadership taught?

Qualities Approach

By examining the personal qualities (PQ's) of born-leaders it is possible to define the qualities that made them effective. The result is a list of those qualities that give both a positive and a negative relationship. Below is a table summarising the percentage of positive and negative relationships between personality traits and leadership. Adapted from Mann (1959)

From all the qualities seen there is no positive way of teaching which combinations are effective and those which are not.

Situations Approach

Following the failure of the PQ's theory, an alternative, the situations approach, was fielded. It stated that leaders were born for situations; people like Winston Churchill.

In all leadership programmes where a situations approach to leadership was adapted it was found that, where a person was appointed at random to be the leader, after a short period the others in the group started to behave as if the appointed leader was the natural leader. If, the leader is appointed such as on the flight deck then the foundations for leadership have been laid; the leader still needs to be effective.

Effective Leadership

The following characteristics are generally accepted as those recognised in an effective leader:

  • Competence: Professional competence is required by the leader on the flight deck. The technical skills shown along with the piloting skills should be good and inspire confidence in the rest of the crew.
  • Communication: Communication should be clear and concise interspersed with good listening skills so that interpretation and evaluation is possible. Personal emotion is kept out of transactions.
  • Decision Making: Decisions are based on the situation at that time. All information is used and a logical decision making sequence is used to form the solution (DECIDE).
  • Perseverance: A leader who sticks to the task in hand regardless of the difficulties encountered. The effective leader is always confident that a solution can and will be found.
  • Emotional Stability: Self control is maintained in the most trying conditions. Personal emotions never cloud decision making.
  • Enthusiasm: Where the leader is committed then the follower will usually give their best.
  • Ethics: The highest standard of professional conduct is expected at all times.
  • Recognition: Acknowledgement is given to the help of others.
  • Sensitivity: Stress and fatigue should be recognised in both self and others to ensure overload situations are not allowed to develop.
  • Flexibility: Adaptation of styles to the problem in hand must be possible. No two emergencies are the same.
  • Humour: One man's humour is another's sarcasm. Well directed humour is an effective tool in the management of the flight deck. Badly directed humour is hurtful and can destroy effective teamwork.
Attitudes to Leadership

The likes and dislikes of a human being that can destroy the effective team at any time. Most are formed from personal belief about situations or events. Most attitudes are from the subconscious and are apparent in the behaviour that we show.

Extremes of attitude are dangerous in the flight deck environment:

  • Anti Authority: The person who hates anybody telling them what to do. Where this person regards rules and regulations as stupid or unnecessary then an unsafe cockpit atmosphere can be engendered. All pilots have the prerogative to question authority if they think it necessary.
  • Impulsive: The flying "arms in the cockpit" type. The person who has to react to any problem immediately. The lack of thought can in extreme cases cause Confirmation Bias.
  • Invulnerable: The "it'll never happen to me" brigade. Accidents happen to others but not me. The pilot who has this attitude is more likely to take risks and chances that are unsafe.
  • Macho: Thought to be a male problem only but in fact females are just as susceptible. The type who has to prove that they are better than anyone else.
  • Resignation: The "Who cares" or "What's the use" pilot. The pilot who does not believe that they make any difference to the situation. This type will follow the more assertive pilot which may lead to the acceptance of unreasonable risks.
  • Complacency: With high levels of automation crews are beginning to accept what the computer does as the norm. Monitoring and checking is left because the "computer is always right".

Ineffective Leadership Ineffective leaders will tend to:

  • Over control all situations.
  • Focus on the task only and ignore the person.
  • Avoid conflict.
  • Distance themselves from the other crew.
  • Behave inconsistently.
  • Ignore inputs from other crewmembers, by either demeaning or totally ignoring them.
  • Be sarcastic or belittling.
  • Be devious or indirect.

Most captains do not use this style of leadership. Most will develop a very shallow cross flight deck gradient which encourages the assertiveness of others.