What’s in a Name? By Owen Zupp.
Across the decades, aviation has continually sought to reduce risk. When technology was the culprit, improvements were implemented and when the human element was seen as the weakness, new processes were created. Human factors became a specialty in its own right and the study of crew resource management (CRM) became the norm. And just as we have sought to improve the physical interface between pilot and machine, so too have we sought to streamline procedures and eradicate ambiguity from the cockpit – but we may possibly still have a way to go.
A key component of crew co-ordination is the use of standard operating procedures, or SOPs. These involve pilots employing both common language and methodology to ensure that their processes are concise and complementary, while also highlighting any deviation in procedures or behaviour. SOPs allow two pilots within a company, who have never before met, to operate together on the flight deck with confidence. Their shared ‘mental model’ of how the aircraft is to be operated is not limited to physical actions and a pre-determined order of events, but is drilled down to the precise words used in their operational language.
For pilots utilising SOPs, it is simply accepted as the way it is done and to intentionally deviate without good reason borders on rogue behaviour. That being said, the disclaimer is that no set of procedures can ultimately cover every unforeseen scenario. Even so, SOPs are generally able to manage effectively normal operations and even the vast majority of foreseeable ‘non-normal’ events. This has not always been the case. Once upon a time some first officers carried little notebooks that recorded the idiosyncrasies of particular captains and how they operated the aircraft. The next step saw these ‘cheat sheets’ fade away to a high degree as airlines established through published procedures the manner in which they required their pilots to operate their aeroplanes. Further on, those company procedures are again being progressively modified around the world to align with the way in which the manufacturer recommends that their aeroplane is operated. From individuals to airlines to the manufacturers, there has been a concerted effort to make standardisation a global methodology.
So what is the next step? Perhaps standardisation can go truly global and even beyond the various manufacturers’ definitions. Any pilot who has changed types from one aircraft manufacturer to another stable will share the lament of learning a new procedural language. The list of essential items and actions that share a very similar purpose, but a significantly different name seem limitless. Even worse, some possess a similar name. ‘Positive rate’ versus ‘positive climb’ after take-off for instance. As for components, one pilot’s start-lever is another’s engine master switch. The panel containing the bulk of autopilot functions may be a mode control panel (MCP) or a flight control unit (FCU) – but wait, FCU can also mean fuel control unit. Flaps can be ‘up’ or ‘retracted’ and when something is amiss it may call for a ‘non-normal’ or an ‘abnormal and emergency’ checklist. The flight management system can receive inputs through the flight management computer (FMC) or flight management guidance computer (FMGC), but most pilots still just call it ‘the box’.
This entire magazine could be filled with the contradictions and ambiguity that abound in aviation terminology and inevitably it will always exist to some point. Some are embedded in tradition and some are actually very appropriate. However, the use of different terminology across manufacturers seems as something that can be addressed. And while it may seem a somewhat minor issue, there is sound reasoning to pursue change. Most airlines operate mixed fleets composed of a range of aircraft from a range of manufacturers.
During a pilot’s career it is very likely that they may be called upon to transition across fleets a number of times. Each time they will be required to learn a new language and with even more difficulty, forget an embedded one. Getting the ‘language’ correct is imperative to maintaining SOPs and strengthening the mechanisms by which standard procedures can trap non-standard events. Making this happen takes up valuable brain-space for the candidate as they struggle to actually fly the aircraft, rather than merely learn how to ‘talk’ it around the sky. In a commercial sense, that can equate to additional training hours. More importantly, it has been proven that under pressure individuals can regress to their most learned behaviours.
Given the mix of terminology across aircraft types, in the heat of the moment newly- qualified pilots may just revert to the language of their previous, long-term aircraft. An emergency such as an engine failure just after lift-off is a situation that calls for prompt, concise and methodical action and standardised language assists greatly in making this happen. It is not the place for “you know what I mean”. Having all of the manufacturers coming on board and sharing this philosophy is never going to be a simple task.
Over the years ICAO’s attempts to standardise various procedures has met with varied success and today the Jeppesen manuals remain full of pages relating to regional peculiarities. Some are undoubtedly necessary and determined by local requirements, but when one is sitting at 36,000ft and has to change to metres for simply crossing an airspace boundary it does make you think. Such bipartisanship is rare in the commercial world, but the possibility to reduce yet another potential human factor would seem to be a worthy cause. Aviation has a proud heritage of leading other fields in such initiatives and maybe it is time to take the baton again. Such change would not be easy (and it would not happen quickly), but considered change never is.