Communication And Knowledge - Keys to CRM

  • Published
  • By Anonymous
  • Air Force Safety Center
Sometimes people learn the hard way; sometimes people scare themselves enough to learn their lesson without paying a price. The lucky ones learn from the latter. No matter where or from whom you learn, certain lessons are essential in a cockpit, and among aircrew members. The two most important elements that have worked in my favor are communication and knowledge. Together, these two facets of CRM can help a crew get through the most arduous situations with success. 

In a crew airplane, communication is the glue that holds you together in difficult situations. No matter what the makeup of a crew, the aircraft commander must establish criteria for communicating in the most precarious of situations. In the MC-130 variant aircraft, it is essential. Every crewmember plays an equally vital role in the successful accomplishment of a mission. Therefore, aircraft commanders must empower the rest of their crew. For example, during the crew brief, a superior aircraft commander will tell his or her crew to speak up if they are uncomfortable with what's going on. Words like "time out," "knock it off," or simply "what is going on?" can be enough to knock some sense into us. Sometimes the crewmember not directly involved in a situation can take a step back and look at the bigger picture, often finding some clue that everyone else had missed. There have been many times when a person without a seat upfront has saved an entire crew. I nearly paid the price ... if not for the remarkable help of my crew. 

We were flying in the mountains on a planned NVG low-level, with some self-contained approaches to round out the evening. Everyone was anxious to get this flight over. There were four checkrides occurring on the airplane, and we had cancelled for maintenance three times trying to accomplish the same events. The evening started just fine with normal checklists, and even a few planned airdrops that made it perfectly onto the drop zone. 

I got into the seat, and almost immediately felt like I was behind the airplane. I kept waiting to hear things from the navigator, but there appeared to be a communications breakdown. He probably thought I was not listening to his inputs, and I thought he wasn't giving me enough information. At a certain point he reminded me that we needed to start climbing for the steep mountains along our flight path. I acknowledged, and asked when we should begin our climb. I didn't hear a reply. Eventually, one of the evaluators could no longer hold his tongue and pointed out that I needed to climb in order to avoid the big, mean mountains straight ahead of us. I was surprised because I had planned to go through a valley a few degrees off course. 

Obviously, when I heard the evaluator speak up, I thought my day was over. This definitely did not help the communication on the flight deck. For a while it was nearly silent up front. Needless to say, silence is hazardous to one's health when flying at 500 feet. I recall asking the navigator where he would like me to steer the aircraft a little while later. His response of "do whatever you want" did not make me happy in the least.


That is what I should have said. We should have climbed up and discussed our frustrations and expectations and fixed the problems at 5,000 feet rather than 500. Moreover, we should have discussed our expectations of each other before we ever left the ground. I should have told the navigator how much direction to give and the pace of communication. Then the rest of the crewmembers would have known what to expect, and subsequently would be alert if there was a breakdown. Unfortunately, I did not have the courage to speak up in front of the evaluators--one of which was the squadron commander. Having not stopped the numerous factors building against us, I kept going in hopes of my luck changing.

15 degrees nose-up and 35 degrees of left-bank 
This is how I (abruptly) maneuvered the aircraft to get us through a mountain pass. Again, I had not established enough of a positive rapport among the crewmembers for them to simply knock some sense into us (me and the Nav) and bring us back into the fold. I think there was some instruction going on behind me at this point, trying to get everyone on the same sheet of music. Things finally started to work out at the end of the low-level. I was still hopeful that I would survive the debrief with my head still screwed on tight. Usually, the evening would end with a few approaches, orchestrated by the navigator, followed by a few assault landings to end the evening with a "flare." 

Everything appeared to have recovered to a status quo. We briefed up our approach, to minimums of 100 feet. Things were starting to gel as we commenced the approach. At this point the navigator took a final altitude calibration. That was all I knew at the time. Everything appeared copasetic as I intercepted the glideslope down to minimums. I was meticulously counting down my altitude and trying not to cheat by looking outside. The electronic warfare officer spoke up and called out AGL altitudes (we are usually looking for MSL altitudes). I would discover the reason later. As we were approaching the minimums, the pilot from the right seat aggressively input power and simultaneously called "go around!" Startled, I look up to see very little space between our airplane and the ground--with the runway over a half a mile away. I pulled the plane up and luckily climbed away from the ground without any additional incidents. We all caught our breath and pressed on for the rest of the evening. With our collective hearts beating in our chests, the rest of the night was nowhere near as exciting.

Know Everyone Else's Job 
Before this encounter, I did not have a full grasp the intricacies of each crew member's role during these self-contained approaches. The "self-contained" portion means that the navigator is responsible for determining our altitude. I didn't realize it at the time, but we were in a degraded mode of operation. A simple altitude check and calibration will not suffice, as it can induce significant altimeter errors. I didn't realize this, and my ignorance nearly put us on a collision course with the ground. The electronic warfare officer realized that something was not right and was calling out AGL altitudes. It was his awareness that clued in the other pilot. The EWO was ready to call the go-around himself a moment later. By not knowing the responsibilities of others, I put the entire crew in danger.

Lessons Learned 
My flight that day was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I realized I needed to change the way I do business. First, as previously mentioned, communication is indispensable. Other people judge every aspect of your actions and reactions, especially as the pilot in command. They wait to see how one reacts to problems, which inevitably arise. Setting a good example and treating others with respect will yield dividends. Effective communication is at the core of interpersonal interactions. Antipathy, rudeness, and barking commands will lead to crew breakdown. Planning and flexibility are the methods for avoiding tension in the air. Being able to anticipate your crewmembers' next move or reaction leads to a synergistic effect. 

However, the only way to anticipate is to know the procedures of the other crew positions. Obviously, it provides backup to one another as well. Knowing others' jobs enables us to correct mistakes before they become tragedies. This applies to all crew positions, all ranks, and all aircraft types. A loadmaster, or boom operator, might notice that a crew failed to complete a checklist. By giving him the environment where he knows he can speak up, he can save the day by just asking a question or two. As a pilot, I should have known what types of erroneous readings were possible. Moreover, I should have known exactly what the navigator was doing and how we were communicating to one another. 

All these problems fall under CRM. We must be confident in our own capabilities before we can foster effective communication among the crew. We can't allow any person to be a "single point of failure." If one member forgets an item or gives the wrong input, there should be at least two others to correct him. An effective cockpit working relationship interwoven with job knowledge is the glue that ensures our safety.