The human factors in aviation accidents is fascinating.Looking at this from a communications perspective, one of the events that sticks out in my mind, probably because it happens frequently to all of us, is the air traffic controller made a statement to the Captain.The Captain, unsure he heard it correctly, repeated it to the co-pilot, in the form of a question.The co-pilot heard it as a statement.
This accident occurred in 1980.ATC gave a Dan Air pilot clearance to descend with no delay.Very quickly after that communication, the controller gave a holding command.This was not standard, and was unclear.The Captain immediately acknowledged the command and accepted the hold by repeating what he thought he heard.
The Captain, not wanting to appear rude [culturally incorrect to ask to have the command repeated after it has been acknowledged], repeated it to the first officer in the form of a question.The Captain’s personality was fairly non-communicative, and the first officer took his question as a statement.The first officer, reluctant to admit that he was unsure, responded with “Yeah”.
The Captain then mentioned his own doubts, as did the first officer.A lengthy dialogue ensued, trying to clear up the command confusion.The communication between the two never became clear.All too soon the Ground Proximity Warning System [GPWS] sounded. After the captain turned the aircraft, the sound went off, giving the Captain and first officer a false sense of security.
Less than ten minutes after the original clearance, the plane crashed below the summit of Pico de Cinguel.There were no survivors.
It wasn’t what ATC said, it’s what the Captain thought he heard … then questioned himself.